Friday, November 25, 2011

On Languages, Both Dead and Deaf.

For the past few months, I have been teaching Stephen Latin and we've both been trying to learn some British Sign Language.

Somehow, Stephen managed to get a degree in Classics without any Latin learning so he thought it was about time he got some. I did three years of Latin at high school and loved it. I also enjoyed German and French, but you don't ever have to speak Latin. There were no spoken exams based on the premise that you're a tourist visiting ancient Pompeii, your friend has really annoyed you on the coach trip there and now you want to find the Coliseum so you can feed him to the lions. We sang Latin in the school choir but we knew that, whilst nobody can say for certain, it's unlikely that Italians from two thousand years ago pronounced things in much the same way as BBC presenters from the 1950s.

Our Latin books were also brilliantly designed and so when Stephen expressed his wish to get on an learn some Latin, I found a copy of part one of the Cambridge Latin Course on eBay. Most British people reading this who learnt Latin at school will have learnt with these books, starting with stories about Caecillius, a merchant who lives in Pompeii up until the point Versuvius erupts. These stories had such a strong influence on the those who studied them that the screenwriter James Moran wrote a Doctor Who episode The Fires of Pompeii in which the Doctor and Donna meet Caecillius, his wife Metella and son Quintus, as well as a daughter who wasn't there in the Latin books but is involved in some alien cult or other which brings about the eruption of Versuvius. It rocked.

But every bit of Latin you're given is part of the story. It starts off very basic - Caecillius is in the study, Caecillius is writing in the study etc. - but pretty soon you're learning about the affairs of slave girls, gladiators, what goes on at the baths and even werewolves. There's a lot of humour – the very first story, told in very simple sentences and entirely in the present tense is about a dog who creeps into the kitchen while the grumpy cook is asleep and startles him. The characters die very Roman deaths, and there's some gentle titillation, although not nearly so much as a classroom of eleven and twelve year old girls found in it when we read it in the first year of high school. The mere concept of public baths was enough to set us off giggling for a full half hour.

So when I say I've been teaching Stephen Latin, we've really been working through the book together and I've been trying to remember my vocab when he gets stuck.

Latin has a surprising amount in common with British Sign Language. This was something we both fancied doing, partly because we eventually want to be able to communicate in all the languages of the British Isles, but it also gives Stephen and I another means of communicating when talking or typing is difficult.

Both Latin and BSL do, in a sense, simplify language – there are less “words” (although in Latin, this is compensated for by many many more word-endings). There are also different word-order to English, something that surprised me about BSL - I think I'd seen people in movies speak and sign at the same time, which I realise now would be extremely tricky*. But it's funny how easy the rearranged sentence is to cope with; Stephen went to hospital school, where the only non-English language he learnt was that mysterious jagged script employed by doctors and whilst he learnt how to read and write beautifully, he learnt nothing about the formal mechanics of grammar. Yet he doesn't start talking like Yoda when the verb appears at the end of the sentence.

To English readers, meaning in both Latin and BSL implies itself in the same kind of way. In BSL, meaning obviously implies itself through the action - verbs often look like the action they refer to. The action for eating and drinking, for example, look like a mime for eating and drinking. In Latin, eats is consumit, like consume, and drinks is bibit, like imbibe. In fact, I reckon perhaps two thirds of Latin verbs have some English word or words derived from them, which can give us a clue as to what they mean; sedet (sits), dormit (sleeps), spectat (watches) clamat (shouts) and so on. To an English reader, reading Latin is a little like looking at strangers in our family photographs from 1920 and recognising the eyebrows, cheekbones and jaw-lines of people we know intimately.

Except, you know, Latin is a wee bit older. British Sign Language is also many hundreds of years old. Both of them are great languages, made relatively easy by being restricted to one medium (Latin is always written, BSL is always signed). Both of them teach us things about writing and speaking in English.

By the way, here I am this week over at the BBC Ouch!

*As an after-thought, it occurs to me that this might not apply to American Sign Language, but ASL is based on Langue des Signes Fran├žaise, so I have no idea. Any ASL-users about?


Penelope said...

ASL has different grammar from American English (or British English) including different word order. My guess is that it's closer to Latin and BSL.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Penelope. :-)

keth said...

speaking English and doing BSL at the same time *IS* incredibly difficult, if not impossible. you're right about that. What you've probably seen in the past is the American equivalent of SSE - this is something used by some deaf people (including me). Its Signed Support English - there are a number of these different inbetween systems in use, SEE being another one (Signed Exact English). the idea being, that if there's a continuum between BSL and English, the others fall somewhere in the middle. SSE is closer to BSL, SEE is closer to English. myself, I use SEE at the moment in seminars because my sign language isn't quite good enough to keep up with her in SSE, so she lipspeaks words and signs them as a backup. The other issue, of course, is the more technical nature of many of the seminars - for example, fingerspelling "historiography" is a major pain and there's no real sign for it, so we've made one up based on the sign for history.

Its actually quite an interesting process as its not only revitalising my knowledge of sign (I learned when i was at school, between the ages of 11 and 17, but I don't normally use it in every day life so it goes very rusty) but its changing the WAY I think as well. I find it very helpful, for example, if I'm struggling with something, e.g. an essay title, to actually rephrase it into sign language - that mental shift seems to clear something in my head and really aid in my understanding of it.

I'm actually hoping to learn Latin in my second year - I wanted to learn this year as an extra (the Uni offers evening classes in languages) but the timing of it meant I would've had to have waited for a whole hour at a deserted bus stop for the next bus - and I just wouldn't have felt safe doing that. But if I can learn in my second year that will be really useful as Latin is used a lot in primary source documents for the period i want to specialise in (medieval and early modern).

You've got me keen now to check out the Cambridge books - maybe I can learn at home over the summer!

keth said...

and i just realised I didn't explain who the "her" is in my seminars - my interpreter!! Silly me!

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Kethry, that's really interesting. I guess the closest thing to SSE I've seen is when my nephew was a bairn, my sister took him to "baby-signing" and he learnt to sign some of basic statements before he was able to ask for food or drink or express his need to pee. Obviously, the babies learn that partly by hearing the word at the same time as seeing the sign.

I think it's fascinating that signing can help frame your thoughts when you're struggling - I imagine the same is for many bilingual people, but being a physical action, it's possible that BSL may be a more powerful tool for this, perhaps using more diverse areas of the brain...

Wish I could do a study. ;-)

Ruth Madison said...

I studied ASL in college. A beautiful language! I love it.

It does have a significantly different word order and structure from English. Able to use space to convey more meaning than a word can, as I'm sure BSL msut do too.

I went to school in Rochester, NY, where ASL is studied by the linguistics department. :)

(That Dr. Who episodes is one of my favorites!)