February 25, 2011

Litteras disce

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Today's saying is Litteras disce! In English: "Learn your letters!"

I am going to use this proverb to make a comment that might seem unexpected: I am in complete agreement that people should "learn their letters" in the sense of learning how to read. Being able to read is, I think, essential, and it is worth any and all the time that it requires in school. Yet I am not convinced that writing is something that deserves the same amount of attention. Given that I teach writing, that might seem like a strange thing to say, but I certainly have a lot of experience on which to base my opinion. Writing is a skill very different from reading, and far more difficult. Learning to spell, learning the rules of punctuation, and learning the specialized vocabulary of formal written English requires thousands of hours beyond the time it takes to learn to read. Is it the best use of a student's time? I definitely believe that students should learn to express themselves clearly and creatively. I am not so sure that writing is the best way to do that, unless the student is personally motivated to write.

The Latin plural here, litterae, "letters," has the same connotation of the English use of "letters" to mean literature. So the saying is not just about learning the alphabet from A-Z, but instead being able to read and learn from the great body of written literature, the things that have been written down and preserved with the magic of the alphabet for all of us to share and learn from, even when the authors of those written works have long since passed away.

For those of you who are fans of macrons, here is the Latin written with macrons:

Litterās disce.


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