Wednesday, 9 November 2011

I fear the Greeks and can't cope with Latin

It took me years and years to realise that I wasn’t going to master Latin. An appalling language. For instance, the subject moves around the sentence and you have to track it down which means you have to recognise it. Since it has a different form in each of the six declensions, to say nothing of the sub-forms of the third, the task feels insuperable, at least to me. 

I’m not saying I didn’t get anywhere with it. In the eighteenth century, German or Nordic scientists, aware that no-one was ever going to learn to read their languages, used to write in Latin. In fact, at the time, not many could cope with English – Voltaire was exceptional in mastering it, since most of his compatriots couldn’t even be bothered to try, a tradition proudly kept alive by their descendants to this day. Even so, though English scientists also wrote Latin (viz Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica) they would occasionally stick to English (viz Newton’s Opticks with its interesting take on spelling).

It may have been that refusal of English-speakers to use an international language consistently that eventually forced the world to adopt ours. Helped a bit by the power of the US dollar, of course. And not a little by the power of the US bayonet.

Anyway, back in the eighteenth century, much scientific material was in Latin. So when I was working on eighteenth-century science I’d occasionally have to read Latin, which was always a curious experience. I could usually work out that the author was talking about planetary orbits, for instance, but couldn’t always tell whether he was saying that they were elliptical or that they weren’t. A little learning can sometimes be a frustrating thing.

Ultimately I’ve had to accept defeat. Now my knowledge of the language – until perhaps I get another chance to have a go in retirement (assuming I get to retire some day) – really comes down to a few half-remembered tags.

One of these is ‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’, which seems to be saying ‘I’m timid when confronted by Danes and iron women’ but I’m reliably assured actually means ‘I fear the Greeks when they come bearing gifts.’

Well, last week was when the rest of Europe tried to make a gift to the Greeks. Or was it perhaps the other way round?

First the Eurozone offered Greece a pile of money, but only on condition it spent a lot less. Sounds like one of those ‘good news, bad news’ things, doesn’t it? ‘Have all this lovely money, just don’t use it.’ Then the soon to be ex-Prime Minister said he’d have a referendum and ask his compatriots whether they’d like a tad more austerity, reduced pensions and a lot fewer jobs, because people usually say ‘yes’ when asked that.

My first reaction to the idea of holding a referendum was one of horror. For God’s sake, I wanted to scream, there isn’t any other offer on the table. What if the electorate says ‘no’? You think Merkel and Sarkozy are going to say ‘well, in that case, we’ll dip a bit further in our pockets and come up with some more?’

So the moment I heard he’d withdrawn the referendum promise – or threat – I was relieved. But then I began to wonder. I mean, what if the Greeks had said ‘no’? Maybe it’s time someone did.

In a sense, that’s what the ‘Occupy’ protests are all about. They’re not demanding anything in particular – more money spent on schools, less on the military, or whatever. They’re saying ‘the way we’re going isn’t right. Let’s check the direction of travel before we go any further.’

And they’re right. What’s being imposed on the Greeks is just more of the same, which of course means a lot less. Less public health. Less education. Less employment. While the elite who got Greece into this mess in the first place will contrive to look sorry while hanging on to their loot. In Britain, bonuses in the Finance sector fell from £14 billion in 2008 to £12 billion in 2009 – only to go back to £14 billion in 2010. The pay of Chief Executives of our biggest companies rose by 49% last year. Some people are doing just fine in this crisis, mostly the ones who got us into the mess and then demanded we pay for it.

Those people in the tents around St Paul’s are saying that there must be a better way.

I’d have feared it if the Greeks had brought us a gift consisting of a ‘no’ in a referendum. But perhaps it would have been no bad thing to face that fear and deal with it.

Virgil's Aeneid warned us about the Greeks. I think.

Postscript. It’s not all bad news at the moment, is it? It looks like Berlusconi’s on his way out. Of course, I won’t believe he’s gone till he’s actually been replaced – he has a way, like the monster in a horror film, of re-emerging again and again when you think the hero’s finally got him. But I guess we can at least start to hope that this is, finally, the beginning of the end.


Mark Reynolds said...

It's perhaps a sign of the onset of Stockholm syndrome, and a quibble not really germane to the bulk of your post, but I feel compelled to point out that for the most part, where bayonets were involved in the spread of English, they were held by British soldiers rather than American ones. After all, Americans barely speak English as it is.

David Beeson said...

An excellent couple of points - and of course you're specifically right that it was the British who brought the gift of the bayonet to the nations to which their civilising mission took them. With their tanks and their cruise missiles, I imagine that US armed forces would regard the bayonet as little more than an amusing reminder of bygone days.