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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ancient Lands


Dr. Lester CN Simon

I knew I had entered a strange and enchanting place. I dressed differently. I was in uniform, with a cap and a tie. The boys played a fierce, dangerous game called corkings. I had a little grip. I had a desk all to myself. I was given a book of Latin grammar. It was in fair condition. Someone joked that it had been used by all the old boys. Some of their pictures adorned a wall in a big form that I would enter in years to come. There was a family likeness about this unfamiliar place.

It became more unfamiliar when we were instructed to learn the declension of mensa, the Latin for table. As if that wasn’t enough, we were given a preview of the forthcoming conjugation of verbs. Declension of nouns, conjugation of verbs? These were big words in a big school for big boys, like me.

It started to get clearer when we were told that in Latin, nouns have six cases. I knew it. I knew it. This school was so special, even the nouns were different. And I would become different too. I will have my own declension. After all, my first name could undergo the same declension as mensa, with a minor alteration of course. So, with that incentive and the flair I had for recitation at my village church, I embarked on the singular form of the first declension of Latin nouns:

Unlike, recitations at church and reciting the golden text to every, single visitor to my maternal grandmother’s house on Sunday evenings, Latin grammar demanded detailed explanation and I had to proceed from the familiar to the unfamiliar to get it right.

In the nominative case, the noun is the subject of the sentence: The table belongs to the school. In the accusative case, now called the objective case, the noun receives the verbal action: The boy broke the table. The genitive case is now called the possessive case: The table’s legs are uneven (The legs of the table are uneven). In the ablative case, there is an indication of the means by which the action is carried out. In English we use prepositions such as by, with, from, in and on for the ablative case: The boy is standing by (or on) the table.

So far so good. To understand the dative case, I had to learn that verbs can be transitive or intransitive (or both). For an intransitive verb, the action begins and ends with the doer: I laugh. she smiles. For a transitive verb, the action passes over (transits) from the doer to another person or thing: The boy broke the table.

I also had to learn about the object in a sentence. The word that is affected by the action of a transitive verb is the object. There are two kinds of objects: In The boy broke the table, table is a direct object since the table receives the verbal action directly. An indirect object is indirectly affected by the action of the verb and it always comes before the direct object in a sentence: The boy gave the table (indirect) money (direct). The dative case or indirect object is often
eliminated by using the actual word, to or for: The boy gave money for the table.

Most troublesome of all was the vocative case. Why would I say, “O Table”? To me initially, it was all part of the strangeness of that august place. After some sarcastic addresses to the table (O table), to my adulterated first name (Lesta: “O Lester”) to other pupils (O Benjamin; O Samuel) and to our Latin teacher (O master), I put the vocative case in its place and got on with the business of learning and enjoying Latin.

Decades later, I discovered that none other than Winston Churchill (and many others) encountered a similar difficulty with the vocative case of mensa (O table). Winston Churchill enquired of his form master what it meant. He was told that “O table” would be used in addressing a table, in invoking a table or in speaking to a table. It is reported that Winston Churchill blurted out in honest amazement to his form master that he never spoke to a table.

In response, his form master terminated the conversation by invoking the whip and promised that we would punish Winston Churchill on his backside, and very severely too, if he continued to be impertinent. It is written that Winston Churchill recorded, “Such was my first introduction to the classics from which, I have been told, many of our cleverest men have derived so much solace and profit.”

The Latin for table is mensa. The Latin for land is terra. Both nouns undergo the same, first declension in Latin. Those who understand the vocative case and are bold enough to address a table, to invoke a table and to speak to a table, might very easily, like Winston Churchill, be heroic enough to address the land, to invoke the land, to speak to the land and come to understand the meaning and value of land.

Hence, if one the lions of the British Empire, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, a noted statesman, orator and strategist, knew that many of the cleverest men derived much solace and profit from Latin, we, Antiguans and Barbudans, will chant in the plural form of the first declension when they come for our lands: Terrae, terrae, terras (how lovely), terrarum, terris, terris. Terrae, terrae, terras (you get it?), terrarum, terris, terris.

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