Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Python, Brian, grammar, accents, and the fall of Empires

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-07-20

"Monty Python’s contribution to Classics" (2009-07-20) from LatinTeach has video clips of the classicist’s favorite parts of their Python’s most intellectually incisive movie: "Romans Go Home" (where the centurion forces the protester to "do lines" after taking him through the correct grammar in the manner of the stereotypical Latin teacher) and "What have the Romans ever done for us?"

"To go" is always a pain to learn.  It’s almost guaranteed to be irregular (even in English, the past participle is "went", and a smart toddler will naturally used "goed" instead).  The most used verbs tend to be short and irregular.

Do any readers know of a language where "to go", or especially "to be" are regular?

My first Latin teacher had much in common with the centurion.  He was pretty scary.

He also had a very thick Lancastrian accent.  He also taught French.  As if the pronunciation by both these languages by junior secondary schoolboys wasn’t bad enough!

Thankfully, our noses were taken out of the language by another teacher… otherwise a few years later when trekking to Melbourne Uni to do a Latin reading competition, we’d have sounded like an Appalachian backwoodsman (Hatfield or McCoy types) doing the soliloquoy from Hamlet – and no way would all 8 of us have got honorable mentions or better.

It’s also worth thinking about the "What have the Romans ever done for us?" sketch.  Would a similar joke work for a 4000CE equivalent of the Python team covering a US occupation.

The Romans usually came in, put in water, roads, et cetera, then absorbed much of the local culture.  Think of the phrase "Rome conquered Greece, and was conquered by all things Greek" (ok, a very free rendering, but clearer to those unaware of the reference).  Think of all the various cults from the western and south Mediterranean absorbed: Isis, Mithras, and most unfortunately, Christianity.

The exception to this general rule?  Carthage.  But even the Romans felt that they probably went to far salting the earth, and suffered the "Punic Curse" as a result.  (I wonder if the establishment of "New Carthage" was an attempt to mollify the gods and remove the curse?  For a century or so, it seems to have worked.)

And the Americans?  They talked about "bombing back to the stone age", and the sorts of "infrastructure" put in soon after would be burger joints and other bits of cultural imperialism.

And now we have another parallel I haven’t seen discussed before: the fall.

Gibbon‘s magisterial "Decline and Fall" (my favorite English prose – and if you’ve never done Latin, and want to feel the language, from vocabulary to the "kick" at the end of a sentence/paragraph, it’s perhaps the best way) attributed in large part, with high military expenditure and loyalty of troops to individuals rather than the state, the fall of Rome to the intellectual stultification created by the retreat of thought with the advance of Christianity.

Could US imperialism have been, at least in part, undone by the same thing?

A nation founded with the idea that the state should not enforce any religion moved more and more from a secular state to one promoting one religion, or at least, with the weasel-words "people of faith", one family of religions, the Abrahamic.  Perhaps the difference between Rome and the US here is that the former withdrew while the latter overreached.

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