A Founding Father of the Oral Latin Movement?

The pseudonymous ‘Michael Blowhard’ of 2Blowhards was recommending Maupassant the week before last. Inspired by his enthusiasm, I checked out a collection of short stories, one of which turned out to be very pertinent to (of all things) Latin teaching methods. Here is the relevant passage of “This Business of Latin”, as translated by David Coward in the Oxford World’s Classics volume Guy de Maupassant: Mademoiselle Fifi and Other Stories:

For ten years, Robineau’s Academy had obtained much better examination-results than the town’s grammar school and all the secondary schools in the area, and its continuing success was generally attributed to one lowly assistant master, Monsieur Piquedent, or rather Old Piquedent.

[I pass over the cruel description of Piquedent and his career.]

One day he got the idea of making all the pupils in his class give their answers entirely in Latin. He persisted with this notion until they could keep up a conversation with him as easily as they could in their own tongue.

He listened to them as the conductor of an orchestra listens to musicians rehearsing, and he was forever banging his desk with his ruler, saying:

‘Lefrère, Lefrère, you are perpetrating a howler! Can’t you remember the rule . . . ?’

‘Plantel, that turn of phrase is irretrievably French, not Latin. You must get the feel of the language. Pay attention, listen to me . . .’

At the end of one school year, pupils of Robineau’s Academy walked off with all the prizes for prose composition, unseen translation and Latin diction.

The following session, the headmaster, a small man as sly as the grinning, grotesque monkey he so closely resembled, inserted the following into the prospectus and advertising-matter and also had it painted over the door of the Academy:

Specialization in Latin Studies.
Five First Prizes Awarded in all Five Classes in the Academy.
Two Distinctions in Public Examinations open to all
Grammar and Secondary Schools in France.

For ten years, Robineau’s Academy continued to carry all before it.

Thanks to the pseudonymous ‘J. Cassian’ of February 30th (scroll down to the 19th), I find that the story is on-line in French and (rather clunky) English at this impressively full Maupassant site. Go to the alphabetic list of titles and scroll down to Q: the French title is “La Question du Latin”. Here’s the relevant portion of the French text, for those too lazy to follow the link:

Depuis dix ans, l’institution Robineau battait, à tous les concours, le lycée impérial de la ville et tous les collèges des sous-préfectures, et ses succès constants étaient dus, disait-on, à un pion, un simple pion, M. Piquedent, ou plutôt le père Piquedent.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Un jour, l’idée lui vint de forcer tous les élèves de son étude à ne lui répondre qu’en latin ; et il persista dans cette résolution, jusqu’au moment où ils furent capables de soutenir avec lui une conversation entière comme ils l’eussent fait dans leur langue maternelle.

Il les écoutait ainsi qu’un chef d’orchestre écoute répéter ses musiciens, et à tout moment frappant son pupitre de sa règle :

“Monsieur Lefrère, monsieur Lefrère, vous faites un solécisme! Vous ne vous rappelez donc pas la règle ? . . .”

“Monsieur Plantel, votre tournure de phrase est toute française et nullement latine. Il faut comprendre le génie d’une langue. Tenez, écoutez-moi . . .”

Or il arriva que les élèves de l’institution Robineau emportèrent, en fin d’année, tous les prix de thème, version et discours latins.

L’an suivant, le patron, un petit homme rusé comme un singe dont il avait d’ailleurs le physique grimaçant et grotesque, fit imprimer sur ses programmes, sur ses réclames et peindre sur la porte de son institution :

“Spécialités d’études latines. — Cinq premiers prix remportés dans les cinq classes du lycée.

“Deux prix d’honneur au Concours général avec tous les lycées et collèges de France.”

Pendant dix ans l’institution Robineau triompha de la même façon.

A few random comments:

  1. The French word translated “assistant master” is ‘pion’, which also means ‘pawn’ in chess. Whether it is related to English (or rather Spanish) ‘peon’ I do not know.
  2. ‘Piquedent’ must mean ‘Toothpick’ or ‘Picktooth’, so the students of course call him ‘Piquenez’. Do I have to translate that?
  3. Piquedent’s teaching career comes to a sudden and rather surprising end, but whether it is a bad end or not is difficult to judge. The simian headmaster no doubt thought so.
  4. The headmaster arranges special lessons for the narrator, charging him five francs an hour, of which Piquedent receives only two.
  5. Most important, I want to know whether the teacher’s method was something Maupassant invented, or found in real life.
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