Friday, June 17, 2011

On the Importance of Pronunciation, or, The Benefits of a Classical Education

It has been pointed out that Modern American English is not Ancient Greek. It has also been pointed out that Classical Latin and Modern American English are distinct and separate languages. Thirdly, for all of the cultural poaching that the Romans did from the Greeks, Latin and Greek are nonetheless not one in the same. However, despite differences in alphabet, grammar and literary tradition, these three languages come crashing together in one area – medicine.

For most, a classical education merely provides the ability to guess the end to every movie ever made, as they are invariably based upon plots which have been recycled again and again since the days of Aristophanes. However, for the physician, a basic understanding of Greek and Latin provides many benefits, beginning of course with anatomy – foramen magnum or thyroid, anyone? Greek and Latin have historically provided the basis for naming in medicine, though as we’ve entered the era of genetics, and what once may have been given a tripartite, multisyllabic, heroically dense name is now referred to as BrCA1. Alas, how far we have fallen.

While the American educational system is well-equipped to make sure that most who make it all the way to medical school are able to differentiate between “there”, “their”, and “they’re”, it’s become deplorably commonplace that Latin and Ancient Greek are no longer required core classes, depriving millions of their Zeus-given right to a classical education, not to mention the joys of being forced to sing Gaudeamus igitur. Nowhere is this failing more evident than in pronunciation. As a first year medical student, my ears were put through agony by the attempts that my classmates would make at the new words we would encounter – for the most part, they did fairly well, but I’ve identified two specific instances in which the average medical student (naturopathic, anyway) could use a little advice.

1. The Latin pronunciation of the letter C

Latin is a man’s language. Most of what was written by the Romans describes thousands of people being killed, either in real life, as in the conquest of the Mediterranean, or in the mythological past, where we mere mortals were being killed left and right. As a result, there are few soft consonants in Latin. This is especially true of the letter c, which is almost always pronounced as a k and never as an s.

Sure, we may slip sometimes and say “extensor pollisis longus”, instead of the firmly masculine “extensor pollikis longus”, but when discussing the Seven Principles of Naturopathic Medicine, it’s important to get your pronunciation right. Remember, you’re a doctor, not a dostor, so don’t forget to emphasize the hard c when you talk about Docere to your patients. Similarly, Primum non nocere takes on a special ring when pronounced correctly, a ring that reverberates with the sound of harm not being done. These may seem like minor points in the greater scheme of things, but know that generations of Latin teachers will smile upon you for your good work.

Adding some complication to this is the fact that Medieval Latin, and by extension Church Latin, replaced many of the c sounds of Classical Latin with the softer ch. “Primum non nokere” gave way to “Primum non nochere”, and thus began the Dark Ages. Believe me, all it took was a few lazy students ignoring their teachers’ stern warnings about pronunciation, and soon half of Europe was dying from plague. It’s really that simple. Let’s not have to go through that again.

2. Greek Consonant Clusters

Greek consonant clusters, while not technically diphthongs, are best explained as really complicated diphthongs that the Greeks created to express their deep appreciation of the challenging, laborious nature of the universe. In the same way that there is something deeply rewarding about listening to an old blind man ramble for days about some guy who gets lost on his way home, just to hear the part where he kills everyone who’s been trying to sleep with his wife, so too is there something gratifying about having to pronounce p and n in direct succession every time you want to refer to the lungs.

Three of the most commonly used examples in medicine involve the letter ngn, pn, and mn. People run into trouble with them because they’re involved in three words that sound very similar, and while no one would nor diamnose someone with gneumonia, when you throw mnemonic, pneumonic and pathognomonic at someone, you run into trouble. Trust me – looks these words up on Wikipedia and you’ll see mention of the difficulties people encounter when dealing with these words. Modern English speakers simply ignore those first consonants and focus on the n, but that’s no way to behave.

People also run into problems with the even more challenging pt. Once relegated to the nightmares of young students trying to translate passages from the works of Ptolemy, this linguistic stumbling block has now been thrust back into the spotlight by oncologists, who insist on constantly referring to apoptosis. Medical necessity, combined with the decline of American educational standards, means that every day, medical students and professionals speak of “ay-pop-toe-sis”, causing thousands of Greek warriors, long dead and buried on the shores of Ilion, to scream from the depth of Hades, “It’s aah-puh-pto-sis, you idiots!”

Here’s what it comes down to: the mountain crags and rocky soil of Attica are no place for frivolity. Food, water, money, and above all letters were conserved, and nothing was wasted. If the Greeks put a letter there, they did it for a damn good reason, so show some respect and pronounce it. Not only will you appease the spirits of red-haired Menelaus and the mighty Ajax, but it builds character too.

In Conclusion

A classical education isn’t all fun and games. Sometimes there were fun and games, for example on Exelauno Day, when we were treated to the delight of several hours of Greek and Latin declamations. But we also learned something: the past isn’t dead, it’s all around us. It’s in the language we speak (even everyday English), it’s in our government and society, it’s even in the food on our tables and herbs in our gardens. The fathers of modern medicine used the languages of the past to describe the world around them, because they knew that new discoveries were made because of old knowledge. As it says in the great seal of the Oldest School in Continuous Existence in North America, The One True School: Mortui vivos docent, The Dead teach the Living. We understand our world because they lead the way, and we who have inherited their legacy are in their debt.

Remember that the next time you bungle your way through pheochromocytoma. I mean, it’s just a growth of dusky-colored cells.