Classics and Transferable Skills, part II

Skill 1 - Logical Reasoning


I cannot remember where this happened or who said it (school, I think?), but it still makes me smile. I overheard someone scoffing about the uselessness of Classics except for the help it gave with cryptic crosswords. I didn’t take the bait. There is some truth in the statement, about Classics and cryptic crosswords that is, not Classics’ utter uselessness. Partly, Classics helps with content. Names of deities crop up, e.g., ‘the god who is a backward waterway’ (Zeus), or Greek characters like ‘eta’, ‘phi’, etc, might make up part of the definition word. Okay, a small concession: yes, to do Classics simply to boost one’s speed when tackling the latest beast in the Sunday Times would be a silly reason to do Classics. But the person I overheard was missing the point. Firstly, though this is not the most important thing, Classicists, especially those who like the languages do often like cryptic crosswords. The second and most important point, which explains the first, is the considerable ‘skill’ overlap between the cryptic crossword and translating Latin and ancient Greek, a skill highly applicable to so many careers. That skill is logical reasoning (TL = translating Latin; CC = Cryptic Crosswords):

1. TL: Taking apart a sentence to analyse each component while translating.

CC: Take apart a clue to identify how the answer has been coded.


2. TL: Application of grammatical knowledge to identify component parts.

CC: Application of knowledge of codes and cues (for example, ‘ruined’ may indicate an anagram) to find your ‘word pieces.’


3. TL: Put it all together.

CC: Ditto

In both cases, just go back and check you can explain how you got to the answer you did.


Latin’s structure (as an inflected language*) makes it very similar to coding. There are logical patterns that modify a word to convey its meaning and purpose in a specific sentence, which once learnt, are applied when translating. Let’s take some examples.


Let’s look at the short sentence from one of my earlier articles:


puella puerum vocat.

The girl calls the boy.

You may remember I pointed out that you can put this sentence in any order you like and it will still mean the girl calls the boy.


puell-A - shows you the girl is doing the calling.


We call her the subject of the sentence.


puer-UM - tells you the boy is not the doer, but is the

recipient of the action, in this case the calling.


This might seem ghastly at first as you think, why oh why, English doesn’t do that.


Well, actually, in saying that, you would not be quite right. We do not change endings. But marking the difference between subject and object with a word change can be seen in English personal pronouns.


She called he

Er, no, I don’t think so.


She called him.

Similarly: He called her (not, ‘he called she’).

The principle is the same, although Latin does this for just about every noun.**

Okay, so before we do our next example, remember, ‘M’ = being on the receiving end.

puella amicum salutat.

The girl ends in ‘A’ as before. We know, therefore, that once again she is the doer.

The ‘amicum’ is on the receiving end. We know that because he ends in ‘M’. You may be able to work out the meaning from comparison with ‘ami’ in French. Yes, ‘Friend’.


There are a number of ways of working out ‘salutat’.


salute - a (usually) army greeing

salut (French) - ‘hello’ (informal)

So, ‘salutat’ means ‘greet’.


puella amicum salutat.

The girl greets her friend.

Very logical. And a highly applicable or, dare I say it, ‘transferable’ skill. I once had a year 12 class of fourteen. Just under half did Maths as well and could see a close comparison with the act of translating Latin and applying logic in equations and algebra. Other Classicists I have known have proven highly skilled at computer programming and coding.


This is not to say that Latin should be a requirement for computing. Of course, I am not. But the skills set is clearly very similar and they all felt Latin (and Greek, in their cases) had been great preparation.


So, transferable skill no.1 established. Attention to detail will be up next.

*An inflected language is one where words are modified to convey differences in meaning.


**Fond memories of reading Molesworth for the first time: ‘To nouns which cannot be declined, the neuter gender is assigned, BE-POP!’

PS: Final quick follow up to what I said about codes, crossword, and logic, cryptic crosswords were a way of recruiting codebreakers for Bletchley Park in WWII.

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