Via an unusual route, I discovered Edward Adolf Sonnenschein and his thoughts at the turn of the 20th century on teaching Latin (and Greek).

It started last week when I was looking through Oronzo Cilli’s wonderful book Tolkien’s Library: An Annotated Checklist for entries relating to Greek. One of the books mentioned was Sonnenschein’s A Greek Grammar for Schools: Based on the Principles and Requirements of the Grammatical Society, marked King Edward’s School (where Tolkien went) and with Tolkien’s brother Hilary’s name.

This was clear evidence that Hilary Tolkien, and possibly John Ronald himself used Sonnenschein’s grammar at King Edward’s School. Sonnenschein was a classics professor in Birmingham, editor of a series of grammars (of which the Greek Grammar was one), and co-founder of the Classical Association.

The grammars were published by Swan Sonnenschein, founded by his brother and which, incidentally, merged with George Allen & Co just before it became George Allen & Unwin. Two decades later, of course, Unwin published The Hobbit.

Talking to Seumas Macdonald about the Greek grammar (and Tolkien’s classics education), he mentioned he was familiar with Sonnenschein from his Latin readers.

Now quite independent of this, I was looking at The Greek War Of Independence, a easy Greek reader by Charles D. Chambers. We’re producing a digital edition of it as part of the Greek Learner Texts Project. Not only was the original book published by Swan Sonnenschein but the preface begins:

This book an attempt to apply to Greek the methods which Professor Sonnenschein has expounded in his Ora Maritima and Pro Patria. The main principle is that the systematic study of grammar should proceed side by side with the reading of a narrative.

So here was another mention of Sonnenschein’s Latin readers. I dug up an online scan of Ora Maritima and discovered the following in the preface (written in 1908):

My apology for adding another to the formidable array of elementary Latin manuals is that there is no book in existence which satisfies the requirements which I have in mind as of most importance for the fruitful study of the language by beginners. What I desiderate is:—

  1. A continuous narrative from beginning to end, capable of appealing in respect of its vocabulary and subject matter to the minds and interests of young pupils, and free from all those syntactical and stylistic difficulties which make even the easiest of latin authors something of a problem.
  2. A work which shall hold the true balance between too much and too little in the matter of systematic grammar. In my opinion, existing manuals are disfigured by a disproportionate amount of lifeless Accidence. The outcome of the traditional system is that the pupil learns a multitude of Latin forms (Cases, Tenses, Moods), but very little Latin.

I love the phrase “disfigured by a disproportionate amount of lifeless Accidence”. It reminds me of the style of Tolkien’s reviews in The Year’s Work in English Studies in 1924. I also love “the pupil learns a multitude of Latin forms…but very little Latin”.

As Fletcher Hardison pointed out when I shared this quote with the team working on the easy Greek readers: “I think we just found our manifesto”.

Later in the preface, Sonnenschein writes:

The pupil who has mastered this book ought to be able to read and write the easiest kind of Latin with some degree of fluency and without serious mistakes: in a word, Latin ought to have become in some degree a living language to him.

The use of “no book in existence” at the start makes me wonder whether this was the first real attempt at applying the Direct Method for historical languages. I wonder also if this is the first mention of Latin alongside the phrase “living language”.

Ora Martima also includes an earlier essay Sonnenschein wrote in 1900 entitled New Methods in the Teaching of Latin. Presumably the reader is an attempt to implement the ideas in this essay.

In it, Sonnenschein writes:

Grammar has its proper place in any systematised method of teaching a language; but that place is not at the beginning but rather at the end of each of the steps into which a well-graduated course must be divided.

There should be no preliminary study of grammar apart from the reading of a text.

Each new grammatical feature of the language would be presented as it is wanted, in an interesting context, and would be firmly grasped by the mind; at convenient points the knowledge acquired would be summed up in a table (the declension of a noun or the forms of a tense).

This is almost identical to what I outlined back in my “New Kind of Graded Reader” video in 2008 (100 years after Ora Maritima!): “we are first introduced to forms as they are used in context and then come back later to consolidate, abstract, and generalize later.”

The use of “would” suggests that Sonnenschein does not (yet) consider the idea to have been implemented in any books (hence the goal of Ora Maritima eight years later).

The entire essay is worth reading. It’s available at the Internet Archive although I might correct the OCR and make available a proper transcription.

All of this has made me interested in the history of classical language teaching at the turn of the century. What was the relationship of Sonnenschein’s work to that of W. H. D. Rouse? Did Sonnenschein know Gouin’s book? Was Tolkien exposed to the Direct Method at all?

Via Seumas, I became aware of The Living Word: W. H. D. Rouse and the Crisis of Classics in Edwardian England by Christopher Stray. I promptly ordered a copy as well as Stray’s The Classical Association: The First Century 1903-2003.

What started as a tenuous connection to Tolkien’s classics education has returned me to a study of the pioneers of the Direct Method applied to classical languages and given me even more inspiration to work on the Greek Learner Texts Project.

UPDATE: I’ve finished a first pass correcting the OCR of Sonnenschein’s 1900 essay Newer Methods in the Teaching of Latin (as reproduced in Ora Maritima) here.