bam bas bat bamis bantis bant
Not much to show for 2 years of Latin I know. A few other remnants lie scattered about my brain, sticking out at awkward angles like ancient fragments of masonry upon which I stumble on from time to time. Ancilla est in atrio. It’s all good stuff. Relevant like whoa.
Fifteen years later, and I am learning another dead language, although hopefully with more diligence than before. Well, I’m not really being fair on my childhood self. I genuinely enjoyed Latin in the first year; I got 97.5% on the final exam – that missing 2.5% was due to a spelling mistake in English, my Latin was flawless (the fact that I still remember this demonstrates how unforgivably unjust I felt this was at the time and moreover my prodigious capacity to bear grudges). My second year teacher, however, was a pure distillation of oh-so-many detestable characteristics, and became a vessel for my nascent hatred of busybody teachers. This feeling grew exponentially over time, overshadowing almost all other elements of my school life by the time I was sixteen. In the petty, misdirected vengeance in which I consider myself somewhat of a specialist, I decided to hate Latin. That’ll teach him.
Classical Japanese, I hope, will not just be a little case of (ancient) history repeating. My teacher, surely as ancient as the language itself, carries an aura of chalk and leather elbow patches on tweed jackets even though both are entirely absent; his constant anecdotes, theories, and musings on various elements of the language as he meanders through the course material is indicative of a life lived through his subject. Barely five minutes will pass before he leans back in his chair to tell us his theory of this particular verb construction in this instance, why Murasaki Shikibu might have used this clause in this passage of The Tale of Genji almost a thousand years ago. These are word puzzles he has returned to regularly over the last half century, and I receive the benefit of all those years of research and experience in an instant. A lifelong advocate of learning, he takes great pleasure in mentioning his former students who are now experts in their own right and continue to teach him new things.
I however, have some way to go before I can hold my own amongst my cohort, let alone be released into the field. In the introductory class, he confessed our study will consist of ‘drill, drill, drill’ – study the conjugation chart, repeat the conjugation chart, become ONE with the conjugation chart (a system of verb endings, prefixes and suffixes arranged in a system of his own devising). It all seems a bit like a grammatical version of the Karate Kid – one day these broken repetitions will flow naturally and then in a brilliant flash the codex will be unlocked (surely to be utilized in fighting unjust monopolistic organisations). For those of us who must study ancient languages for our professions or other nefarious purposes, these linguistic hardships are there to be endured. My field is by no means the most demanding, although I will be required to learn classical Japanese as well as literary Chinese during the course of my study, Byzantine scholars have it far worse. I won’t feel too sorry for them though (not because of the magnificent scope of their field that is revealed to them upon mastery of these languages, you understand, but because it’s not in my nature).
So what is it exactly that I am learning, I hear you squeal with childish impatience. I will give an example of a poem we recently worked through on the subject of lovers meeting in dreams. For people in the Heian period (794 to 1185), the world of dreaming was not necessarily considered to be less genuine than the ‘real’ world, and the attempt to keep them distinct was not always thought to be a worthwhile endeavour. In the rigidly codified court culture of the time men and women rarely came into direct contact with one another and though love affairs could and did take place in their waking lives, this wasn’t the only possibility. I will keep this discussion brief because a.) it is a subject I am interested in and hopefully will write something on in the future, and b.) because I am conscious that I am competing with the Edith Piaf loop that has probably begun playing in your head as you wait for the ‘kick’.
Utatane ni / koishiki hito wo /miteshi yori / yume cho mono wa / tanomisometeki
In a brief slumber / I caught sight of my beloved / and now I cling to / each passing dream
This poem is written by the medieval femme fatale Ono no Komachi, a legendary poet who left lovers in her wake left, right and centre, and certainly knew what she was talking about. Poems of this 5-7-5-7-7 syllable format, known as waka, are often vignettes on the theme of frustrated love. In fact they are so preoccupied with mooning around like an emo pre-teen moaning about how no one can possibly understand your inner turmoil that my Professor calls the construction of waka “An exercise in the finer grades of suffering”. As with classical literature from all regions, we can find reassurance that people of the past suffered the same emotional problems as we do. At least I think it’s reassuring. You could also see our collective lack of emotional development as very depressing. You should write a waka about it.
In my own meandering way I return to my Professor. Even though I am usually just guessing the answers to his questions, I look forward to his classes. No matter the subject, to hear someone speak of something they love is fantastic, and when you add his intelligence, wit, and self-depreciating humour, it is an engaging experience. The trouble is, I get caught up in his anecdotes, his manner of speaking, and when suddenly confronted with, ‘Our resident art historian will now inform us of the causative verb constructions and their forms in this passage’, I look down at my notes in dismay, my scrawl having all the legibility of shorthand written by a monkey in a dead language.
Which basically, is what it is.