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How did Monastics Learn Language

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How did Monastics Learn Language

Postby Ursinus » Sun Oct 15, 2017 3:47 am

I am fascinated the methods that monastics used to learn language. As many of you probably know, Irish monastics were particularly learned. Many of them, besides their native tongue, knew Latin, Greek, and sometimes Hebrew. Is anyone familiar with the ways that they learned language?
In hoc enim fallimur, quod mortem prospicimus" -- Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Vestibulum: Revised and Expanded

Gratia et Pax,

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Re: How did Monastics Learn Language

Postby Nikolaos_Magistros » Mon Oct 30, 2017 2:04 pm

Well, one must presume they preserved, mutatis mutandis, the ways in which children were schooled in the Roman world. I cannot really speak about the West, but in the East this would have meant learning first how to write and pronounce the individual letters of the alphabet, then syllables phonotactically native to the language, then go on into reading some short and easy material with a teacher's help; for the native/main language this was normally the Psalter, which monks would go on to learn by heart and recite over and over again during the course of their daily business, and was a ubiquitous text even for those who wouldn't go on to learn much more. After learning basic literacy, which was probably where most children stopped, the second tier would be to study the poets, Homer in particular (Iliad 1 is the most commented, hence most used text), probably with a lot of glossing unknown words, learning swathes of text by heart etc. After mastering the kinks of grammar through the poets, the truly learned would go on to study the orators, philosophers etc. I am not familiar with the situation in the West, like I said, but in the East at least not nearly all monasteries were centres of learning on a grand scale, although e. g. the Stoudios monastery in Constantinople certainly must have been; in the East one of the main pillars of the preservation of learning was the civil administrative tradition which never broke down, unlike in the West where I gather it was perhaps more of a monastic affair. Still, I've seen catalogues of the books owned by monasteries in Crete in the 16th century (a later period, admittedly), where the presence of ancient authors like e.g. Arrian indicates a possibility they were used for educational purposes in the monastery itself (or not). Still, I believe most of the superbly educated monks in medieval Eastern Roman culture were former laymen who had acquired their education in a more secular context, perhaps during a distinguished career as a civil official, and withdrew to the peace of a monastery later in life.

Foreign language acquisition (that is, I mean learning another learned tongue besides the main one of your cultural area - of course Latin was a foreign language for the Irish too) is something I don't know a lot about, but you should see Dickey's book "Learning Latin the Ancient Way", in which she presents a number of school texts intended for Easterners who wanted to study Latin, usually for professional purposes like trade or a career in law, and which also shed light on the way little elite Western children learned Greek in antiquity. There are short simple dialogues or narratives with parallel translation, which were apparently used a lot in the early stades of language learning. I don't think though that there were texts like that for eg. Irish or Egyptian children wanting to learn Latin or Greek respectively, I suppose children's natural language acquisition ability would have played a main role; I suspect they would simply have been somehow immersed in a Latin or Greek-speaking classroom situation. If you put a child in a school in a foreign country they will soon enough get the hang of it; maybe the teachers initially translated words and phrases in Irish and Egyptian; but anyway, once the ice is broken I expect the children would just soak up the language and be taught in the same way. I do recall seeing somewhere an Early Medieval Latin text with lots of glosses in contemporary Iberian romance; let's hope someone here knows more than I do. Also, I recall Dickey saying some of the material originally intended for teaching Latin to Easterners was preserved in Western manuscripts because some Westerners (presumably like your Irish monks!) used them to try and teach themselves Greek. But I do not know what kind of success they had; do we know how many Irish monks actually knew Greek, and if so, how much and what kind of Greek, and to what use did they put this skill?
Εἰ μὲν οὖν ἐστί τις οἰκειότης πρὸς ἀλλήλους τοῖς λόγοις, προὔργου ἂν ἡμῖν αὐτῶν ἡ γνῶσις γένοιτο· εἰ δὲ μή, ἀλλὰ τό γε παράλληλα θέντας καταμαθεῖν τὸ διάφορον, οὐ μικρὸν εἰς βεβαίωσιν τοῦ βελτίονος.
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