How can one fail to notice, on opening a Latin primer, that the paradigm for the first declension is not always and everywhere the famous rosa, adopted in France not so very long ago to replace the traditional musa? Although Italy and Spain use rosa too, in the United States and Canada pupils practise on puella, in England and Holland on mensa; in Germany, where schoolchildren use agricola, the textbook for medical students at Göttingen had vena as its model, while the one used at Münster gives lingua as its archetype.Isn’t it remarkable that something as notionally universal as the teaching of Latin grammar has diversified into such culturally specific forms, to flatter our prejudices and affirm national stereotypes? Imagine French, Spanish and Italian schoolchildren practising grammar drills on the word ‘rose’, and understand the florid and fragrant sensibilities and melancholy romanticism of those peoples. See how American culture oscillates between the twin poles of sexualization and infantilization (‘puella’ in love poetry is a mistress or courtesan, as well as being simply a ‘girl’). Observe that the empirical and resolutely anti-idealist mind of the Englishman has been subjected to the repetition of the word ‘table’. And the industrious German has had the word ‘farmer’ drilled into him from an early age.
Latin, or The Empire of a Sign
The reason I say that the teaching of Latin grammar might be thought of as ‘universal’ is because it was for a long time singular in method; and the reason that musa (‘a song’, or else ‘a Muse’) was for so long the 'traditional' paradigm for first declension nouns is that it is in Donatus, whose fourth-century Latin grammar was the basis for all grammars that came after. In the middle ages it was a by-word for elementary grammar study, and it has even been argued that an edition of it was the first ever printed book to issue from Gutenberg’s press.
A century after Donatus, Priscian’s grammar became part of the pedagogical tradition. As examples of feminine first declension nouns Priscian also gives ‘musa’, and, more patriotically (since ‘musa’ is really a Greek word) ‘Roma’. He adds examples of masculine first declension nouns (‘scriba’, ‘poeta’), of nouns that can be either gender (‘advena’), and of proper names (‘Aeneas’, ‘Anchises’). These would be the core standard examples in grammar textbooks for centuries to come.
Some, like the early humanist grammars of Perotti and Sulpizio, evidently had good reasons for favouring ‘poeta’ as the main paradigm: their interests were in the promotion of fine Latin style, and the elevation of the (masculine) figure of the creator-poet. Badius Ascensius, also part of this tradition, uses ‘poeta’, ‘musa’, ‘conviva’, and ‘talpa’. These examples are obviously selected to give a range of grammatical genders: ‘poet’ is masculine, ‘Muse’ feminine, and ‘guest’ and ‘mole’ may be either. ‘talpa’ (‘mole’) seems somewhat less dignified than the other examples, and it does not appear in many later grammars.
From the thirteenth century, by far the most widely used school grammar textbook was the Doctrinale of Alexandre de Villedieu. The section on first declension nouns in the Doctrinale offers no examples (the commentary in humanist editions offers ‘musa’ and ‘poeta’), and is written in an abominable and near-incomprehensible Latin verse that so offended the humanists. Nevertheless, it continued to be widely used, in the North at least, well into the sixteenth century (largely thanks to the efforts of the afore-mentioned Badius). Here’s the start of the section on the first declension:
Rectis as es a dat declinatio prima,Which, considering it’s meant to be a mnemonic verse, reminds me of the pointlessly convoluted mnemonics that used to appear in the Viz Top Tips page (I seem to recall one on traffic signals that went something like: ‘When the light red does show / Then take care you must not go…’).
Atque per am propria quaedam ponuntur hebraea,
Dans ae diphthongum gentivis atque dativis.
Am servat quartus; tamen an aut en reperimus,
Cum rectus fit in es vel in as, vel cum dat a Graecus.
[First declension nouns end in as, es, a in the nominative
and some Hebrew proper nouns end in am,
In the genitive and dative taking the diphthong ae.
The accusative has am; but we also find an or en,
And the Greek nominative is constructed with es, or as, or sometimes a]
The Doctrinale was long the stuff of schoolboys’ nightmares, as this extract from Folengo’s grammatically unconventional – to say the least – macaronic masterpiece ‘Baldus’ shows:
Nonne caro carnem facit, attestante pedantoThe whipping obviously didn’t take, since Boccalus here completely mangles the mnemonic verse, and even makes the mistake of thinking it’s for nouns of the third rather than the first declension.
Doctrinale meo, declinans nomina terzae?
Nonne flagellabat mihi saepe culamina propter
“rectis as es a"? qui mattus nascitur, unquam
non guarrire potest, etiam medegante Galeno.
[Does not flesh make flesh, as my schoolmaster the Doctrinale proves, declining nouns of the third declension? Didn’t I get my arse whipped often enough over ‘rectis as es a: he who is born a fool, can never be cured, even if Galen himself treats him.’]
Waquet tells us that Burnouf was responsible for replacing ‘musa’ with ‘rosa’, because he thought the use of the same paradigm for learning both Greek and Latin was causing confusion. You can consult Burnouf’s Méthode pour étudier la langue latine on Google Books. To exemplify the different Latin cases, Burnouf gives these French sentences:
La rose est une belle fleurBeautiful. Look at that example for the vocative. It’s even an alexandrine! Surely a grammarian with such a poetic soul could only come from France, the country of Ronsard. (OK, I admit that ‘God made roses a nice colour’ isn’t quite the most poetic sentiment ever set down on paper, but still.)
O rose! ton éclat ne dure qu’un instant
L’odeur de la rose est douce
Dieu a donné à la rose une couleur agréable
L’enfant cueille la rose
On extrait de la rose une essence précieuse
I note that ‘mensa’, which Waquet says is the paradigm most often used in English schools, features in Kennedy’s Latin Primer – perhaps this is the origin of that pedagogical tradition? I note also in passing that certain claims have been made to suggest that Kennedy’s Primer is not quite as dull as the ‘table’ paradigm suggests (see The sex secrets of Kennedy’s Latin Primer for details).
Also on Google Books I find a little volume published in 1840, entitled The Comic Latin Grammar: A New and Facetious Introduction to the Latin Tongue. As if the title weren’t enough to tell you how painful the thing is likely to be, here’s a sample (using, of course, the traditional ‘Musa’):
Musa musae,Which is, even as these things go, excruciatingly unfunny (unless that peculiar brand of English public schoolboy humour appeals to you). It’s also very lazy: what, they couldn’t have come up with an English word to rhyme with ‘musarum’, so they cop-out with Latin? They could have had ‘alarum’, for one.
The Gods were at tea,
Eating rasperry jam,
Made by Cupid’s mamma.
Thou ‘Diva Dearum.’
Said Jove to the lass.
Can ambrosia beat this?
I note also that the The Rudiments of Latin Grammar by Alexander Adam and Ebenezer Fitch (1814) (also available on Google Books) boringly uses for its first declension paradigm ‘penna’, ‘a pen’. Now, recall Burnouf’s example for the vocative case ‘O rose! ton éclat ne dure qu’un instant’, and compare it with the one given by Adam and Fitch: Vocative: ‘penna’, O pen!
Addendum: I notice that Waquet also mentions a song about the 'rosa' declension by Jacques Brel. Listen to it, and see the video, here.