There’s been a lot of discussion on Twitter this week about ‘First Generation Classicists’ – mostly referring to people who were the first in their family to go to university (although this definition isn’t agreed on by everyone). I’ve seen some very personal and harrowing stories from people who’ve overcome incredible odds to study Classics.
Well, you’ll be glad to hear that this First Generation Classicist isn’t planning on sharing any particularly personal stories – not this week, at least. And none of my stories are deeply distressing anyway. Yes, I grew up in what used to be called ‘straitened circumstances’, and yes, I was the first person in my family to go to university, and yes, there were things that weren’t easy. But I haven’t been homeless or desperate, like some of the scholars who have been sharing on Twitter. If I’m honest, my difficulties in #FirstGenClassics have been more amusing than upsetting.
As I was reading all of this, I was also having conversations with students which, coincidentally, were bringing up some of the same problems mentioned in the #FirstGenClassics discussion on Twitter. So in this post I thought I’d highlight one of them: pronunciation.
I’m not talking here about how to read Latin and Greek aloud, or any serious language skills. I’m talking about the much more basic issue of how you use classical names, terms or titles in conversation, if you’ve never heard them spoken before.
Pronunciation is something that ‘first generation’ [I don’t like this term, by the way – but that’s a gripe for another day!] scholars identify as a problem for them, and often as a source of embarrassment and humiliation too. However, I think it’s even more a problem for distance learners, who could conceivably write an entire dissertation on Thucydides without ever knowing how to pronounce ‘Thucydides’. The lack of face-to-face contact means that pronunciation problems can become a big source of worry which can make distance learners feel out of place and self-conscious, and often it’s a worry that people will never admit to anyone. The higher your level in academia, the more embarrassing it can feel, so it’s a problem that doesn’t go away.
Sometimes, of course, my students ring me or talk to me online – and then they tend to ask me about pronunciation, as a few people have been doing this week. These queries are usually couched in a self-deprecating way (‘I’m not sure if I’m saying this right…!’; ‘I know it’s silly that I don’t know this, but…!’), but still, it’s a quick and easy way of fixing the problem.
However… most people don’t ring, and I don’t have direct and regular verbal contact with everybody. So a lot of the time, the problem goes unreported and remains unfixed.
So what do we do about it? Well, in previous years I’ve sometimes announced a ‘pronunciation week’, in which I invite all of my students to send me a list of all the terms and names that have been bothering them. Then I simply record an audio clip of myself reading out the list. It takes about half an hour of my time – and the reassurance and confidence it can provide is worth much more than that.
The internet can be a great resource for helping with pronunciation of names, with podcasts being particularly useful. Documentaries are good too, particularly the ones which feature academics. But sometimes it can be difficult to find a documentary or a podcast which addresses your particular pronunciation problem, especially if it’s an obscure term or name. What surprised me, when looking for useful resources online, is that there don’t seem to be a lot of videos or podcasts which specifically address pronunciation. There are a few big pronunciation generator websites, but since they seem to source their pronunciations from lots of different countries they certainly don’t help with consistency!
One video I found, which simply gives the ancient and the modern pronunciation of Gaius Julius Caesar, has had over 49,000 views.
The best resource I’ve come across is Emily Wilson’s pages of recordings, which cover the characters of the Odyssey. She says in her introduction to the recordings that her goal
is not to suggest that pronunciation matters much; you can have brilliant insights into Homer no matter how you say the names. I offer this list to enable people from any background to read aloud and to discuss the poem confidently, without the inhibitions that come from fretting about pronunciation.
That, I think, is exactly right – pronunciation is about confidence. If you strongly suspect that your pronunciation of ‘Ammianus Marcellinus’ is wrong, then no matter how much you know about him, you’ll probably be reluctant to talk about him. Pronunciation worries can inhibit.
While a lot of the ‘first generation’ discourse makes this about social class, the situation of distance learners is quite different. It’s about feeling like you can take part in an academic conversation – and that’s difficult when you worry that people will laugh at you for a painful mispronunciation.
So I think it would be loverly if more pronunciation resources could be developed and made available online, to help both first generation classicists and distance learners to talk with more confidence. I’d do it myself if I had time [adds note to very long list of Things I’ll Do Someday].
Of course, I may well be missing things! So if you know of any brilliant resources out there to help with the modern pronunciation of names and terms, do let me know and I’ll pass them on!
Right… off for a Big Weekend – it’s my son’s birthday on Sunday, and much cake will be consumed!
This week’s links from around the internet
Roman fort gifted to the nation – The Guardian
The papyrus scandal – The Guardian
Comment and opinion
Conference thoughts – The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World
Prince Harry and Tiberius – A Don’s Life
The morals of murderous women – Classical Wisdom Weekly
The Taurobolium – Macquarie Ancient History
Racially biased textbooks – Ad Meliora
Did the Trojan War actually happen? – BBC Culture
Harpalus and Thibron – History Hit
The Black King among the Magi – Hyperallergic
Cynisca of Sparta – Ancient Herstories
On being pushed out of Classics – Sententiae Antiquae
Women in Classics: Shelley Haley – Society for Classical Studies
Podcasts, video and other media
Videos from the Ancient Worlds Study Day – Warwick University
Catullus – In Our Time
All things Seleucid – The Hellenistic Age Podcast
‘The Toga and Roman Identity’ launch and fashion show – Book tickets