August 3, 2013

Finest Hour 122, Spring 2004

Page 45


I came across this Churchill quotation in my Latin course book (Wheelock’s Latin, sixth edition, Harper Collins, p. xxv): “I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.” But on your website (Action This Day; Youth 1874-1900, Autumn, 1989, Age 15), the quote reads as follows: “I would make them all learn English; and Greek as a treat.”

I plan to use the quotation during a speech on the importance of Latin in learning English. Can you tell me which version is correct?

—Hayriye Karliova,
Istanbul University,
Department of Latin Language and Literature

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That is a very good observation, and your Latin book is right: our “Action This Day” writer omitted some words. The quotation comes from Churchill’s autobiography, My Early Life: A Roving Commission, first published in London and New York in 1930 and republished many times in many languages. It occurs on pages 30-31 of the first edition, where Churchill writes about his years at Harrow School. Because you are studying Latin and English, here is the full passage:

“However, by being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell—a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great—was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing—namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis.

“Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue and green inks. Subject, verb, object: Relative Clauses, Conditional Clauses, Conjunctive and Disjunctive Clauses! Each had its colour and its bracket. It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. As I remained in the Third Fourth three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly.

“Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing. And when in after years my school-fellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had to come down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for is not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that.” 

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