Teaching Grammar as a Liberal Art

I’ve been thinking today about the Liberal Arts, those seven ladies of medieval training that offered insights into mathematics, memory, attention, learning and life. The arts in question are Rhetoric, Grammar and Logic, which form the trivium, or the three-fold arts of literary theory; and Arithmetic, Astronomy, Geometry, and Music, which form the quadrivium or the four-fold arts of mathematical theory.

Lately I’ve been teaching a lot of grammar, in the context of teaching Latin.  My students have been wrestling with the idea of declensions — for those who don’t know, or may have forgotten, a declension is a set pattern of noun endings that help the reader discern what a noun is doing in a sentence.

The conversations in class go a lot like this:

Me: “What sort of word is nuntius?”

Student 1: “It means messenger.”

Me: “yes, but what type of word is it?”

Student 1: “Oh! It’s a noun.”

Me: “Good.  Student 2, what function does it have in the sentence?”

Student 2: “It’s a noun.”

Me: “Sure it is..  But what function does it have in the sentence?”

Student 2: “Oh! It’s a subject.”

Me: “So, now we know that Nuntius means ‘messenger’, that it’s a noun, and that it’s the subject of the sentence.  Student 3, what case is it in?”

Student 3:  “It’s a masculine noun.”Me: “That’s true. What case is it in?”

Student 2: “Oh! It’s second declension.”

Me: (with glare at student #2) “Great, it’s a second declension masculine noun, and it’s the subject of the sentence.  Student three, what case is it in?”

Student 3: “Uh… accusative?”

Me: “Student 4, if Nuntius were an accusative masculine noun in the second declension, what ending would it have on it?”

Student 4: “The ending would be -os.”

Me: “Sure, if it were plural.  But actually, this singular masculine noun in the accusative case would be Nuntium, and it would be the direct object.  This word here, Nuntius, is spelled with the -ius ending, so it’s …?”

Student 1: “Nominative!” (definitively) “Plural.”

Me: “Not plural.  But nominative, yes. Moving on…”

Agonizing.  This takes a long time, and it’s disheartening how many wrong answers I get.  But gradually, I’m seeing improvement.  Especially since one of my goals is to help students build confidence at recognizing grammar in their own language, and understanding how sentence patterns form in Latin and in English, this kind of minds-on verbal training turns out to be truly helpful. They’re having to articulate what words are in sentences, what functions they serve, how they relate to other words, and how they communicate meaning, all at the same time… thinking on their feet.  This is, apparently, how grammatical training was done in the medieval schools, and it seems to be a better format than sentence diagramming.

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  1. My English teacher used to harp on “form and function”. The form of nuntius is nominative singular, and it’s function is subject. My Latin teachers implicitly did the same, but it helped us to articulate the formula. It was even harder for us to get it in English, since we select words so automatically in our native language.

    I’m rooting for your class to pass through the Porta. Keep us posted!

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