Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.72

John Taylor, Latin beyond GCSE.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2009.  Pp. xvi, 256.  ISBN 9781853997204.  £14.99 (pb).  



Reviewed by John Barsby, University of Otago (john.barsby@stonebow.otago.ac.nz)

This book, written by John Taylor, an experienced English schoolmaster and Head of Classics at Tonbridge School, is closely tied to the Latin syllabus prescribed by OCR, a leading examination board for the top two forms of English secondary schools. Its suitability for its purpose would be best assessed by a current teacher in the English system, but BMCR received no offers of review from this quarter. What is presented here is a more distant view, written by one who taught in an English school at this level for a decade forty years ago and has since been involved in the development of Latin language teaching at school and university level in New Zealand. One question which may interest BMCR readers is to what extent the teaching of Latin in the upper forms of English schools has changed over this period, and in particular how the predominance of reading-based introductory course books (following the example of the Cambridge Latin Course) has affected the rigor with which the subject (and particularly the grammar) is taught at the higher levels.

For those not familiar with the English system, GCSE is the General Certificate of Secondary Education, previously known as O Level; it is based on an examination taken at the end of the last year of general education, known variously as the Fifth Form or Year 11, in practice normally at age sixteen. This is followed by a more specialized two-year advanced course in a limited number of subjects; this course involves an examination at the end of the first year (Lower Sixth or Year 12), called AS or Advanced Subsidiary, and another at the end of the second (Upper Sixth or Year 13), called A2 or Advanced, which corresponds to what used to be known as A Level. OCR is one of the biggest English examination boards (the only one still offering a full set of public examinations in Latin and Greek), an expanded version of the old Oxford and Cambridge Board: its own website fails to explain the acronym, though a determined search reveals that the R stands for RSA (which would need an even more determined search to decode).

According to the first sentence of the Preface (p. viii), the book covers all the language requirements for the OCR AS-level in Latin, and the grammar for A2. It is important to note that it is concerned only with language requirements; the prescription at both AS and A2 level also includes the study of prose and verse set texts. What these language requirements are can be gleaned from the content of the book (or from the OCR website). The prescribed list of accidence and syntax is in fact the same at both levels, though A2 “requires understanding of more complex structures”. The A2 prescription also includes continuous prose composition as an option, which the book does not attempt to cover.

The first three chapters (pp. 1-54) cover the whole gamut of syntax, beginning with the use of cases and tenses and ending with conditional clauses in indirect speech. Each point is carefully explained and followed by five Latin sentences to be translated into English and five English sentences to be put into Latin (except at the very end, where remote/closed conditions in indirect statement are evidently judged too difficult for the latter exercise). The explanations are well thought out, thorough and comprehensive, with a series of bullet points in smaller type adding further observations.

Taylor tries conscientiously to explain both the terminology, which is not always easy (why is the supine so called?: p. 21), and the logic behind the various rules (why does dum take the present indicative in unlikely places?: p. 31).His language is largely the conventional language of grammatical description, but he does also make good use of more conversational language to make a point (an indirect command “need not be a bossy order”: p. 8). A rare flight of fancy is induced by the complexities of gerundival attraction (“a sort of conjuring trick”); the apparently unobjectionable ars epistulam scribendi “is like an unstable chemical compound or something a spell-check automatically corrects; the gerundive muscles in, changing it to ars epistulae scribendae” (p. 45).

Chapter 4 (pp. 55-85) is entitled “AS practice passages and sentences”. , Following the examination prescription, it falls into three parts: “Unseen translation passages for Section A” (15 passages); “Unseen translation from Cicero for Section B”, Cicero being the currently prescribed author for this section (15 passages); and English to Latin Sentences for Section B (20 sets of 5). The Section A passages, which are 10-15 lines in length, come from a variety of authors. Livy and Nepos predominate; the others are Cicero, Suetonius, Curtius and Gellius. The Section B (Cicero) passages, divided into (i) lightly adapted passages (5) and (ii) shorter unadapted extracts (10), have only 5-7 lines of Latin. An interesting feature here is that in the “lightly adapted” passages the Latin text is preceded by an English translation of the immediately previous lines to give students a clear idea of the context. Words not in the official OCR vocabulary list are glossed for all passages.

The English-Latin sentences, which are an alternative to the Cicero unseens, are of the type already met in the previous chapters. An interesting introduction (p. 81) urges “close attention to detail in getting the form and ending of every word correct” and recommends the looking up and rechecking of every word except the most common. It also gives some guidelines on Latin word order, which has so far been ignored in the book. Taylor is a firm believer in the value of English-Latin translation: “Translating into Latin may seem difficult at first, but it is the best way to get to know the language properly and to test your understanding of it. It is worth practising even if you do not plan to offer this option for examination. It is also a very satisfying intellectual exercise.”

Chapter 5 (pp. 86-135), entitled “A2 practice passages”, contains passages for unseen translation and comprehension (both in the same passage). There are four parts: Ovid elegiacs, Ovid hexameters, Caesar and Livy (the first and third of these are prescribed for this purpose in 2010-12 and the second and fourth in 2013-2015). The passages (5 in each part) are typically 18-20 lines long. The first ten or so lines of each are for translation (30 marks) ;the rest becomes the basis for comprehension questions on matters of content, style and tone; For the verse passages this includes two lines for scansion and for the prose passages a grammatical question, typically involving explanation of cases or moods (20 marks). Unfamiliar words are again glossed; since there is no official OCR vocabulary list for A2, the criterion now for glossing is that the word does not appear in the vocabulary list in the back of the book.

The verse section begins with instructions on how to scan hexameters and elegiacs and provides an additional vocabulary list of 250 words which are judged useful for verse unseens ; these again are not glossed in the excerpts. This is the one part of the book where the reviewer has reservations about the treatment. The advice given for scanning verse is basically to bracket all the elisions, mark any syllables you know to be long from the “two-consonant” rule and fill in the rest by applying the scheme of the particular meter as best you can. This is the old crossword-puzzle approach and can be made to work as a pencil-and-paper exercise: in addition students can be told to identify as short a vowel followed by another vowel in the same word and not forming a diphthong. But the goal must be for students to start at the beginning of the line and do the scansion (in their heads, eventually) as they proceed, which is entirely possible if they (i) know the scheme of the meter, (ii) are able to distinguish open and closed syllables and are aware that the latter are long, and (iii) can trust their pronunciation (most of the time) to identify vowels in open syllables as long or short. The book’s discussion of syllable division (which is the key to the “two-consonant” rule) is a little muddled: it is surely not true that pulchrum must divide pulch-rum rather than pul-chrum (p. 86). With regard to the pronunciation of vowels, it is interesting that the book does not contain a single macron, even though introductory text books now mark long vowels as a matter of course. It also seems a pity (though this is a criticism of the prescription rather than of the author) that students are asked to scan a couple of lines without commenting on some metrical effect that they have uncovered, such as a spondaic line or an effectively delayed main caesura.

Chapter 6 (pp. 136-60) is a series of five longer Readings, the longest amounting to 81 lines: Nepos on Alcibiades, Curtius on Alexander and Porus, Livy on Horatius and Scaevola (two separate shorter passages), Cicero”s Tusculans on the fear of death, and Tacitus on the fire of Rome. The purpose of these is presumably to provide extra reading for students in addition to the set books that they are studying. The passages are all well chosen for their interest, as are most of the other passages in the book; the difficulty of choosing passages (especially unseens) that combine interest with an appropriate level of linguistic difficulty should not be underestimated.

The six chapters are followed by a substantial reference section, which contains summaries of syntax, a reference grammar, seven useful brief appendices, an English to Latin vocabulary, a Latin to English vocabulary and an index . In addition the preliminary pages include a glossary of grammar terms (pp. x-xvi).

The book represents a considerable achievement. It offers a comprehensive survey of Latin grammar in a more engaging way than the traditional grammar book, and it provides plenty of exercises to reinforce the grammar that has been learned and give practice in applying it. It also offers a good selection of passages for unseen translation and comprehension. Taylor is clearly fascinated with Latin grammar and its various subtleties, and one might deduce that he is used to teaching bright classes who share his enthusiasm. In some of the detail the book must go well beyond the immediate needs of students at this level, but this is hardly a fault.

The book is well produced and attractively set out. The reviewer noticed only two typographical errors: quid respondam? on p. 9, which may mislead, and “sujunctive” on p. 167, which will not. Inevitably in a book of this coverage there are minor quibbles which could be raised. P. xi: Aspect is defined as “the expression of type of time”: it is, rather, an aspect of the action of the verb, unrelated to time. P. xii: Complement is defined as “another nominative word or phrase describing the subject”: this needs some reference to the verb “to be” and to the idea of completing. P. xii: Elision is defined as the “process by which the final vowel or syllable of a word is in effect knocked off”: in fact it is only the vowel which is knocked off (together with nasalizing m) leaving any preceding consonant intact. P. 41: Would the Romans really have said amo currere for “I like running”, given as an example of an infinitive as direct object? P. 163: “the ablative is ... a bit of a ragbag”: it might be helpful to point out that it is an amalgamation of three Indo-European cases.

If we return to the question posed at the beginning of this review, there is no evidence here of a decline in the thoroughness of the teaching of Latin grammar in English schools, rather the reverse. Students who work their way through this book will be very well equipped linguistically to go on to university study in the subject. If there is a decline, it is in the numbers of students who take Latin to this level, to the extent that even Oxford and Cambridge now offer beginners courses. But that is another story.

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