August 02, 2011

Cultural References

Last week I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Enterprise crew meets a people whose entire language is based on cultural references. In the episode, Captain Picard must learn their language or be killed by a wild animal. In explaining how their language worked, the example of Romeo and Juliet was cited.

Mention Juliet on her balcony, and those familiar with the play understand the mutual attraction, romantic love, and insurmountable obstacles - least of which is the distance to the balcony. If you don't know Juliet's story, understanding escapes you.

People dismiss ancient Greek and Roman civilization as out-dated, outmoded, and "dead"; not true. More of the culture in the modern world stems from these ancient cultures than we know.

Many scientific words have Latin or Greek roots; but so do many other words we call "English". I don't speak either language, but can often tear apart unfamiliar words to get a vague understanding, because of similarity to a word I already know.

Much of our architecture comes from Greek and Roman sources. I don't mean only buildings with fancy columns and sculpted frieze work on the facade. I was talking to someone recently about a "Spanish style" house, featuring a courtyard full of plants, breezeways, graceful arches, and thick, white outer walls. The Conquistadores brought this architecture with them as they built in the Central and North American deserts. They knew it was the best design for guarding against the heat. It's the type of home built in southern Spain and along the Mediterranean coast. The design is older than we think; it was used in Greece and Rome on the same coast.

Reading includes many references to history, culture, and literature; some more veiled than others. In my youth, "Greek" mythology was popular. I learned the Roman names first, probably because they're easier for English-speakers to pronounce. I loved the old stories, and tried to interest my daughter in them. She couldn't be bothered until she started reading the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books. Suddenly mythology was fun and exciting; not just the gods, but the creatures, heroes, history, language, and culture. She learned in a fun way, and I'm grateful to J K Rowling and Rick Riordan for making her learning fun. She now reads "docudrama" books based on medieval and renaissance royalty. I smile as I think of the history she is soaking up in her pleasure reading. Now if I could just get her to put the book down long enough to clean her room….

~Marie