Posted by Dennis » Add Comment »
About two and half years ago, while reading through old journals for notes on Latin pedagogy, I was delighted to read about an idea for facilitating a deeper understanding of Latin in the classroom, which had been proposed by Wren Jones Grinstead (who I believe is in the bottom left in this photograph). The method called for introducing students to two characters called Romanus and Barbarus, the one knowing only Latin, the other knowing no Latin at all.
The object of the method is for students to get at the thought behind a given statement (as distinct from the way that thought is uttered in either language) and to learn to put that thought into expression as suits each language best. Grinstead refers to the common classroom experience, just as many teachers do today, as ‘merely solving a puzzle,’ and sees the solution as lying in ‘the socialization’ of the student’s ‘own imagination.’
It occurred to me that I could expand on this idea by having students work their way into Roman society rather than by acting as a sort of translator for two fictional characters. Each student is already ‘Barbarus’ (or ‘Barbara’).
My favorite barbarian, Groo the Wanderer
The first thing is to have students explore the words barbarian, barbarism, and barbarous. What do those words mean to them? What images do they evoke? What do they think are the origins of the root? This should be a revealing activity, especially once students are directed to a dictionary or are otherwise informed of the word’s origins.
Ask about the word ‘babble’ and its origins. Someone may suggest the Tower of Babel (unconnected, but instructive).
Not the Tower of 'Babble'
Compare ‘gibberish’ and ‘jabber.’ If you have to, direct them toward ‘blah blah blah,’ and help them to see the imitative, onomatopoeic origin of each word: barbaros (Greek), babulus (Late Latin), and ‘blah blah’ (Mod. English) all evoke the sounds of unintelligible conversation.
If a Roman heard you talking he’d call you barbarus (vel sim.), just as you, in your relative ignorance, might describe his speech as ‘babbling.’ Students need to think of themselves as just as unintelligible as they initially find their textbooks (and at times, perhaps, their teacher).
Fumbling towards ROMANITAS
Once students have a sense of themselves as barbarians and see the importance of acquiring both cultural and linguistic facility (and in time fluency), you can begin to take steps to approach the Romans. The first step? Taking a name that a Roman might understand. (Later, when it fits well into your plans, your textbook, and your curriculum, you can introduce the TRIA NOMINA and expand on their names, but these students aren’t Roman citizens yet.)
Names from mythology and history are entirely appropriate for these new barbarians, and using them will open up opportunities for research and discussion. This can be modeled on the names of slaves, and the later transition will naturally follow that from slave to freedman, with the adoption of the master’s praenomen and nomen. (We’ll omit the overt reference to a master, such as M.l. for Marci libertus.)
What's in a name? Consider Pandora.
One need not go so far as to translate names (which could open an unwelcome can of worms). I would recommend using interesting names that contain echoes of students’ names, but most importantly names that will elicit genuine interest, conversation, and opportunities for learning.
To bring this to its greatest effect you may have to consciously ensure that you have a few Greek names, a few first declension masculine names, a few third declension names, and names representative of a wide range of Greek and Roman cultural items you’d like to refer to throughout the year. Students don’t need to know this, of course, but they’ll care more when their name factors in a myth or a story, or when they hear the exploits of their friend’s namesake.
Keep them aware of the promise and advantages of citizenship and the necessity of academic achievement to get there.
CIVITAS at last
When you deem it appropriate, which will most likely be when students have already had a sufficient grounding in Roman culture and history — and of course a certain degree of accomplishment in reading Latin — you can invent some sort of classroom-appropriate ceremony or perhaps even a project whose successful completion leads to the attainment of Roman citizenship. I like the idea of a project covering a different historical figure (e.g., Cornelia) or distinguished family (e.g., the Caecilii Metelli), whose name will be adopted (in conjunction with the original ‘slave name’).
Each student now becomes CIVIS ROMANUS (or ROMANA) and receives the TRIA NOMINA. (It’s enough to tell students that the women wouldn’t have the same consideration in Rome, but they should be given it here.)