British club members will know that certain odious recent prime ministers have been the products of the ‘public school’ system, ‘public’ in the British context actually meaning ‘private and very costly’.
‘State’ schools are for the hoi polloi, ‘public’ schools in the UK being reserved for the sort of elite who will be ‘first up against the wall’, as we used to say, back in the day.
Why the linguistic confusion? I heard it dates back to the very first schools of any description, which were aimed at the children of the rich (as ‘public’ schools now), rather than trainee monks and priests.
Education, until then, was either through the church or – if you were a king/queeen and needed your offspring to be well-educated so as to more efficiently conquer the French and oppress the peasants – via a bevy of private tutors.
‘Public’ schools came along to fill the gap in the market, so education for families that couldn’t afford royal-style private tutiton but weren’t keen to outsource the job of brainwashing their young to the clergy – if only because they’d eventually be needing the brats back, to run the family’s slave plantations, produce grandkids, and so on.
And what did the first ‘public’ schools teach, hundreds of years before the first ‘state’ schools and the beginnings of modern curricula?
Well, there weren’t a mass of options. Science was embryonic, maths was for the commercial classes, and modern foreign languages (such as Italian) were regarded as vulgar, not in the sense of cuss words and crudity, but because of their nature as degraded remnants of ‘pure’ Latin.
In any case, there weren’t any books, or very few, printing and publishing being only in their early days.
That hadn’t been a problem for monks, who copied out their own, from the classics in religious libraries, that is to say surviving Latin and Ancient Greek texts, and texts produced over the centuries since by scholars writing in those ‘dead’ (but still widely used) languages.
Hence the weight of ‘classical’ languages in traditional elite education. Not so much that learning Latin cases and translating Roman-era texts was so useful per se, just that the teachers had to keep the brats busy doing something while they smoked their pipes and looked out of the window (sport was big, too.)
Fortunately for me, and perhaps for you, the British State-school system, after flirting with the classics for a few decades, started to innovate, so just in time for a satchel-carrying young Daniel starting primary school, memorisation, coporal punishment, Latin, Ancient Greek and other tortures were dropped in favour of more useful things, such as Science, Geography, and learning about the new metric system of measures (which still hasn’t been fully adopted as I approach retirement…)
I never felt I missed out, and Boris Johnson doing his ‘public school’ thing on TV didn’t give me second thoughts.
However, Italians do things differently from Brits, for better or for worse. Interestingly enough, while the propoprtion of children and college-age young people in ‘private’ education here is significant, ‘state’ education is well-considered, and the professions, politics and so on tend to be stuffed with those from the better state ‘liceos’ and ‘universities’, rather than the ‘soft’ and less credible private alternatives.
The general approach to education in Italy remains (in my humble opinion) primitive, with loads of memorising, conjugating and testing standing in for the actual ‘learning’.
That said, at least Italian 13/14 year olds get to choose what type of high school to attend. The system is complicated, so I won’t go into details, but one of the options is ‘liceo classico’, where – joy of joys – teenagers get to study Latin and Ancient Greek. Though with no guarantee of a job to follow, unless as a Latin/Ancient Greek teacher in a ‘liceo classico’, or maybe as a British government minister.
Why would young people want to bother with dead languages, though? Italians justify it with the usual range of nonsense justifications for not changing, the least stupid of which is that – and I paraphrase – if you know the Latin/Greek origins of a word, “you’ll know what it means”.
For instance, the argument continues, ‘hyper’ basically means ‘very’, so now you know that a ‘hypermarket’ (a sort of European Walmart) is a very big ‘supermarket’. As if you couldn’t have worked that out by walking through one, and saved five years of ‘liceo classico’.
Detect a note of cynicism if you must, but I have an ebook to sell. Today’s Dagli antichi greci a noi (B1/2) is the first of two catch-ups for language nerds who missed out on an elite education. A similar volume on Latin will be published in a month or two.
But I’m learning Italian, you protest, not Greek!
Ah-hah, got you there! For Italian stems from Latin, cioè the Romans. And in turn, the Romans were huge fans of Ancient Greek culture, language, and pretty slave girls/boys.
Witness this from episode 8 of our first Summer Series (find the whole thing here)
Il poeta latino Orazio dice che “la Grecia, conquistata, conquistò a sua volta il feroce vincitore”. Ciò significa che Roma, il feroce vincitore, ha conquistato territorialmente la Grecia. Allo stesso tempo, però, Roma è stata conquistata dalla cultura greca.
Il prolungato contatto con l’incredibile civiltà greca lascia un grande segno a Roma. La cultura greca non è diffusa solo nella penisola balcanica (Atene, Tebe, Corinto…). Infatti sono di cultura greca anche il Sud Italia, che Roma ha conquistato (vedi episodio 5) e, in buona misura, i Regni Ellenistici di Macedonia, Egitto, Siria e Pergamo, che costituiscono ora la zona orientale dei territori romani (vedi episodio 7). Tra l’altro, i Romani conoscono da sempre i Greci, con cui hanno commerciato dall’inizio della loro storia. Perciò l’alfabeto latino deriva quello greco e il Pantheon degli dei greci e i miti su di essi, sono stati copiati piuttosto fedelmente dai Latini (di questo parleremo prossimamente).
L’influenza della cultura greca su quella romana è dunque più o meno costante. Quando le città greche vengono distrutte, la popolazione fatta schiava arriva a Roma. Tra loro ci sono intellettuali, come lo storico Polibio, che spesso diventano schiavi di potenti aristocratici latini e vengono usati come maestri per i loro figli. Questo tipo di schiavi viene trattato assai meglio dei normali schiavi domestici. I precettori vengono spesso liberati per ricompensare il loro lavoro. Un ex-schiavo liberato si chiama “liberto” e, solitamente rimane in buoni rapporti con la famiglia che lo ha liberato. A Roma ci sono molti liberti ricchissimi ma non possono rivestire cariche politiche pubbliche.
See? Maybe you should have done ‘liceo classico’ after all! Though reading our two ebooks will be a quicker and cheaper route to pub-quiz dominance… Details below.
An original easy Italian reader by Francesca Colombo
Thousands of Italian words derive from Ancient Greek, lots of them with meanings that are specific to medical, scientific or academic fields, but many others in day-to-day use (in English, too!)
This short but fascinating ebook offers a quick cultural/linguistic catch-up for students who didn’t attend an Italian ‘liceo classico’, as the author presumably did.
Here, important Ancient Greek words are grouped in eight topic areas, for example Chapter 5, which focuses on ‘Relazioni e sentimenti’. You’ll be familiar, of course, with Éros, Filía, Phóbos, and Páthos, but what of Gaméo?
“Il matrimonio era una delle istituzioni su cui si basava la società greca. Di solito le ragazze si sposavano a partire dai dodici anni, mentre i ragazzi qualche anno più tardi. Il verbo gaméo (γαμέω) significa “sposarsi”. Da questo derivano parole come “monogamia” e “poligamia”. Una persona monogama è sposata con un unico (mónos) individuo, mentre una poligama ha molti (polys) mariti o mogli.”
Motivating Italian reading and listening practice, memorable insights into Italian (and English) vocabulary, as well as a rich source of triva with which to quiz family, friends, or colleagues!
Check out the free sample chapter to verify whether this material is suitable for your current level in Italian.
- .pdf e-book (+ audio available free online)
- .mobi (Kindle-compatible) and .epub (other ebook readers) available on request at no extra charge – just add a note to the order form or email us
- 8 chapters to read and listen to
- At the end, some exercises to check what you’ve learnt!
- Suitable for students at intermediate level or above
- Download your Free Sample Chapter (.pdf)
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