Familiarity with ancient languages not irrelevant

[First version of this piece written in late 1993.]

ars adeo latet arte sua. miratur et haurit
pectore Pygmalion simulati corporis ignes.

So well does his skill hide his skill.  Pygmalion is amazed
and in his heart he quaffs flames of love for the body he’s faked.

Ovid Metamorphoses 10.252-253

Sometimes I am oddly struck by some specific reference in the larger culture of modern America to aspects of antiquity or the ancient Greek and Latin languages – allusions that problematize silly mantras about the uselessness and irrelevance of even some minimal familiarity with these major founts for our civilization.

I have collected a surprisingly large number of such citations.  Today I would like to display a few from sources that seem at first sight rather unlikely.

First, take a case of the Latin language, so putatively “dead.”  The Wall Street Journal calls attention (“The lawyerless: More people represent themselves in court, but is justice served?” 19 Aug 1993) to a child custody case involving a divorced woman with insufficient funds to hire a lawyer to fend off the child-custody demands of her husband, who did have a lawyer.  Although her case did not hinge on her knowing some Latin, she appears to have complicated her preparation and rattled herself unnecessarily by not recognizing that pro per, which she typed on a form, is meaningless Latin everywhere and worthless legalese in Hawaii, and that what was required was pro se – to indicate that she was arguing her own case (literally, “on her own behalf”).  Even a first-year Latin student without the slightest legal training would have know immediately that pro per was deeply suspect and required investigation, thus saving herself aggravation.

Next, in addressing the question of a relationship between violence on television and society’s blunting of affect, Herbert Stein makes the following observation:  (“Our Times,” TV Guide, ? August 1993)  “Talk about a failure to communicate:  the … [show’s creator and anonymous] – who, without seeing the show, urges a boycott of the sponsors of NYPD Blue – might as well be speaking Swahili and ancient Greek.”

Since if both were wrangling in Swahili or both arguing in ancient Greek they would presumably encounter no serious difficulty in sharing their irreconcilable differences, I infer the point here to be that one would be assumed to be speaking Swahili and the other ancient Greek.  The choice of languages interests me:  How about if one were speaking French and the other were holding forth in American English?  I sincerely believe that a French speaker ignorant of English would be as helpless to communicate with an American ignorant of French as a speaker of Swahili untutored in ancient Greek would be vis-à-vis the anachronistic speaker of ancient Greek sans schooling in Swahili.

Whence, then, my (and, no doubt, Mr. Stein’s) visceral conviction that the two would more profoundly not understand each other if they were using Swahili and ancient Greek rather than French and American English?  What tacit “coding” have we internalized about Swahili (a modern Bantu language that is used as a lingua franca throughout Eastern and Central Africa, and about which I know nothing) and ancient Greek (an Indo-European language used some 2000-3000 years ago as a lingua franca throughout the Mediterranean world, and about which I know quite a lot)?  What do you think?

Finally, in an article (“Model wars:  supermodels versus waifs”) in the September 1993 issue of Mademoiselle, an agent offers his view that the near-term trend in hot looks will be a hybridization of the “supermodel” (e.g., Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, et al.) and the “waif” (e.g., Emma Balfour, Kate Moss, et al.):  “I’m looking for girls symbolic of Greek and Roman statues.  The dead beautiful look.”

Hmmm.  “Girls” symbolic of Greek and Roman statues?  As opposed to what – that live ugly look?  I’m not sure just what to make of this … pour ainsi dire … necrophiliac allusiveness, but it is undeniable that the prognostication would seem to make cultural demands of a classical nature on the millions of readers of Mademoiselle.

I have no precise appreciation of what this reference conjures up for them, or their boyfriends or husbands, or, for that matter, today’s youthful aspirants to careers in modeling – but before my own inner eye float thanatoptic visions of boots, blouses and pale blushes bedecking callipygian Galateas as, with cool and vacant gaze, they languish unattainable and marmoreal for longing Pygmalions to fashion drowsy dreams of.

Can you afford not to study some classical languages, then,  when, it seems, they can enhance lawyering, can turn a trope, can even shape fantasies?

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