Val’s Reading Journey: Word Games

Another instalment of my reading journey, in which I confess my affection for dictionaries and grammar books.

Forty years ago, I was a student at the University of Leeds, studying Latin and French. I was, then as now, rarely without a book in my hand and a spare in my bag: set texts and academic studies for my courses and novels for fun. With all that, it intrigues me that I have very clear memories of the reference books I used. I even feel affection for them.

The Parkinson Building

On most Saturday mornings back then, I would be found in the Brotherton Library. I used to climb the white stone steps into the Parkinson Building, cross the court to the library entrance with its creaky turnstiles, and walk into the main reading room. Turning sharp left, I went upstairs to the gallery, where Classics was shelved. The main undergraduate library was then the South Library, long renamed the Edward Boyle. But I always preferred the Brotherton, opened in 1936 and since 1950 peacefully hidden behind the Parkinson.

hic haec hoc
hunc hanc hoc
huius huius huius
huic huic huic
hoc hac hoc

I came to the Brotherton to work on my Latin prose. Every Friday we got a passage of English to turn into Latin – something philosophical, a political speech or maybe military history. Burke, Locke, Gibbon, Macaulay are the names that come to mind. I think there may also have been occasional old leaders from the Times. Writings by women never featured. Whoever the author was, I would in theory have done a rough draft at home on the Friday afternoon. Saturday morning in the Brotherton was for polishing, looking up words and phrases in Lewis and Short, and checking out, say, the optative subjunctive in Bradley’s Arnold or, if I was desperate, in the small print of Gildersleeve and Lodge. These are, respectively, a Latin dictionary and two grammar books. I have my copies still, shelved about six feet away from the sofa where I am typing this.

Written in 1867 by the grandly named Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1831-1924) and revised by him and Gonzalez Lodge (1863-1942) in 1895.

These books are always known not by their titles but by their authors. Our prose tutor never mentioned Bradley’s Arnold, quoting instead from Mountford. We were all mystified, and it was only by chance, halfway through the term, that we found out he meant Bradley’s Arnold all along. Theologian Thomas Kerchever Arnold (1800-1853) wrote it in 1839. Then, you see, George Granville Bradley (1821-1903), Master of Marlborough, later master of University College, Oxford and Dean of Westminster, revised it in 1885. Finally, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, Sir James Mountford (1897-1979), revised it again in 1938. Impressive chaps.  

Mountford’s Bradley’s Arnold

Ut, Ne, Introducing a Noun Clause: One of the main difficulties in translating English into Latin is to know when to represent the English infinitive by a Latin infinitive, and when to use  a subordinate clause containing a finite verb. (Bradley’s Arnold, para. 117, p.83)

As well as these august publications, I found that I still relied on my school books: Latin Sentence and Idiom (1948) and Mentor (1938) by schoolmaster R A Colebourn. Comfortingly familiar, they were a gift from my Latin teacher when I left school. ‘In memoria temporum beatissimorum cum benigna tua magistra’ (‘remembering the happiest of times with your kind teacher’), she wrote inside the cover. Why I don’t have Civis Romanus, the companion book to Mentor, I just don’t understand. (Mem to self: check Abebooks).

Two more books on my shelves are Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer (1888) and Meissner’s Latin Phrase Book. I never liked Kennedy much but it is the book perhaps most often associated with learning Latin. It turns out that it was not written by schoolmaster Benjamin Hall Kennedy (1804 – 1889) but by his daughters Marion and Julia and two of his former students. The Phrase Book is an English translation by H W Auden, a master at Fettes College, from the original German by Carl Meissner (1830-1900), and my battered copy dates from 1924. It helpfully runs from the philosophical to the practical.

Choice – Doubt – Scruple: unus mihi restat scrupulus (one thing still makes me hesitate) (p.83)

Victory – Triumph: victoria multo sanguine ac vulneribus stetit (the victory was very dearly bought) (p.269)

The king of all dictionaries was Lewis & Short, first published in 1879. I never knew until now that Short lived down to his name: he supplied only the letter A and Lewis did the other 25. At first I used one of the Brotherton’s copies but in 1981 I got my own. In a medieval Latin exam we were allowed to take in our dictionaries and, while the Latin of the Middle Ages is not difficult after you’ve done Cicero or Virgil, I carried in all 2.7 kg of my Lewis & Short, just for the pleasure of having it on the desk. ‘Really?’ said my Latin tutor, eyeing it up as we started. 

The Brotherton Library naturally had a set of Loebs, those blessed books with the Latin or Greek text and the English translation side by side. Red covers for Latin and green for Greek. The translations were often pedestrian but so very useful when you got stuck. The older editions of the naughtier poets are said to have passages translated into French, rather than English, presumably on the grounds that if you understand French, you must be pretty immoral anyway. 

Unbound – and hard to keep in good condition

Being happiest with dead languages, I also studied Old French and Old English. In Old French, it’s really the texts I remember: unbound and uncut editions of the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes from the French publisher Champion. ‘The idea,’ said my supervisor, ‘is that you get them bound yourself.’ A pause. ‘I always have my own books bound in episcopal purple.’

Cil qui fist d’Erec et d’Enide,
Et les comandements d’Ovide
Et l’art d’amors an roman mist
Et le mors de l’espaule fist
Del roi Marc et d’Yseut la blonde
Et de la hupe et de l’aronde
Et del rossignol la muance,
Un novel conte rancomance
(Cligès by Chrétien de Troyes, ll. 1-8)[i]

(I did have to look up a couple of words in my Larousse Dictionnaire d’Ancien Français to translate this quotation just now.)

For Old English, it’s all about Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer and his Anglo-Saxon Reader. Henry Sweet (1845-1912) was a philologist said to have been an inspiration for Bernard Shaw’s Henry Higgins.

Ælfred kyning hateð gretan Wǣrferð biscep his wordum luflice ond freondlice; ond ðe cyðan hate ðǣt me com swiðe oft on gemynd, hwelce wiotan iu wǣron giond Angelcynn, ǣgðer ge godcundra hada ge woruldcundra… (King Alfred, On the State of Learning in England, Anglo-Saxon Reader, p. 4)[ii]

I also have a little book, An Outline of Old English Grammar (1976), especially written for Leeds’ English students. ‘Old English is a fairly fully inflected language,’ it starts. Quite.

Eth, thorn and ash – letters lost between the Anglo-Saxons and us

I don’t know if Sweet, Kennedy, Bradley’s Arnold and the rest are still standard texts. Perhaps they are somewhere. Dead languages don’t change. But the way of teaching them may well have. Mountford, Sweet and the rest are, well, a little dry and can seem almost as old as the texts they teach. The books I relied on may therefore by now have been carried down into the Brotherton’s stacks. Forty years ago, for me they unlocked epics, romances, speeches, philosophy and histories.

A few years ago, when I needed access to a university library, I travelled back to Leeds, to the Brotherton, to get a graduate library membership. I walked from the railway station, along Park Row, across the Headrow, past the Town Hall and the Central Library on the left, and up Woodhouse Lane to the university. Then up the Parkinson steps, across the court and into the reading room. I could see many differences. In my day, there was usually a porter on duty at the turnstiles, and now of course there were computer terminals everywhere, and they seemed to have moved the Classics books. But much was as I remembered: the huge circular room with wooden tables radiating outwards like spokes, the dome supported by green marble columns and, at the centre, wonderful Art Deco lighting known, I learn, as an electrolier. As I arranged my ticket, I mentioned to the librarian that I used to do my Latin prose in the Brotherton most Saturday mornings. ‘Welcome home,’ she said to me, as she handed me my new ticket.

Image by Cavie78, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike

[i] He who wrote of Erec and Enide, he who translated the commands of Ovid and the Art of Love, he who wrote of the shoulder bite. of King Mark and the fair Yseult and of the transformation of the hoopoe, the swallow and the nightingale, he is starting a new story…

[ii] King Alfred orders greetings to Bishop Waerferth with his words in love and friendship. I want you to know that very often I think what wise men there used to be throughout England, both in the church and out in the world…

2 thoughts on “Val’s Reading Journey: Word Games

  1. I enjoyed this scholarly and industrious journey a lot and the tour of classic dictionaries and primers – I certainly used both of Sweet’s excellent Anglo-Saxon books at York in the early eighties, and still have them (not sure I have used them recently – but you never know when you might need them). I also used Loeb’s very useful parallel Latin and Greek when indeed desperate (my few peers who did the classics seemed genuinely able to untie knotty grammar for themselves, but I don’t think I ever achieved much in that field). Still, a knowledge at least of Latin and Greek and Old English vocabulary has always stood me in good stead – Best, Chris

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