The past that was loved a lot.

Some readers may have seen the current meme sensation sweeping the internet, wherein you take it upon yourself to describe a complex subject using only the most common English words. Or, as that task would itself have to be described: Can you explain a hard idea using only the ten hundred most used words? Needless to say, Classics doesn’t get a look in. Nor does literature. But then, I’m used to that squiggly red line appearing on Word every time I write intertextuality. (Not sure why I haven’t added it to the dictionary yet; I think I might be trying to keep it real?) And so, I thought, why not try to explain Classics? Or indeed my PhD, just as an example. This is what I’ve got:

Many years ago part of the world made a lot of things and had a lot of ideas. Everyone in the world has always made a lot of things and had a lot of ideas, but the ones we study became very important for the people from this part of the world, even hundreds of years later. These people loved the past and so did the people after them – and some of them did very bad things because they loved their past so much they thought they were better than the people they decided had other pasts instead. But some of them also did things we might say are good, because they used the past to think about thinking and came up with the ways of thinking we use to build things that make life much easier and stop us being sick and dying so much.

These days we are the people trying to understand what this past was that has been loved for so long – and why it might not be what people thought they loved. What might that mean for who we are today? I study the words, stories and books of this past and try to understand how they work to mean things, and so what that makes them mean. Most of the time I use ideas we have only had in the last few years for how to think about this.

For the moment I am looking at stories which have not much been loved for the last few hundreds of years, but which were loved for many hundreds of years after they were written. These stories also seem to love the past and use ideas and words in order to sound like the stories that were most loved of all in the time we study. Sometimes I think this will change how we think about the past as something easy to love as a whole, because these stories (and others too) did not think they were part of the same past as the other stories, but that there were several worlds of stories happening at the same time. Knowing this might make us think different things about our own stories and how they work.

How do you think I did? I’m very interested to see other definitions of Classics and summaries of people’s research!

26 thoughts on “The past that was loved a lot.

  1. “A big man does stuff. He makes pictures of the stuff he does. He also writes about it. Do other big men do the same?” Short and sweet.

  2. ‘A long time ago the people around the water knew each other and bought things from each other. There were cities and art and all kinds of things people today think are important. But then something happened and lots of the cities disappeared or got a lot smaller. As far as we can tell they didn’t know each other so well and didn’t buy things from each other so much. Some people think there wasn’t enough food to go around. Other think there might have been a lot of fighting. But lots of the cities and the people in them were never quite the same again.

    But it wasn’t the same all over. In one place, by the edge of the water, it doesn’t look like things were so bad. The cities didn’t get much smaller and the people kept doing the same things they’d always done. Not everything stayed the same, of course, but lots did. The trouble is, we don’t know very much about this place because nearly everything the people the people there wrote and almost all the things they made have been lost. I try to find out what happened there and why it was different to so many other places.’

    This is basically like a Google Translate option for ‘Bedtime Story’, isn’t it?

    • I’m rather enjoying the bedtime stories, I have to say – suddenly I can understand all these research projects people are talking about! Even if mine still has the air of wank. Your mystery is particularly engaging – what did actually happen???

      • Maybe we should do a Bedtime Story GIS, where everyone has ten minutes to present their project as a fairy tale. “Once upon a time there were some people who lived in palaces and had a lot of sheep…”

      • Considering that the start of the Batrachomyomachia (after the prologue) is basically a fable in hexameters, I feel like this bedtime story GIS would be very feasible indeed…

      • I’m considering this provisional volunteerance. Would you prefer to tell your stories on the 1st or 8th March?

  3. Did this last week, here is my effort! (My main trouble was no word for “language”)

    When we talk we can say things in different ways. Some people can use different kinds of talking, which they use to talk to different groups of people. When these people write something down, they can use words from both of their different kinds of talking. Sometimes they do this more often because they think it looks good. Sometimes they do this less because they think it doesn’t seem right. I want to know why people sometimes think it’s a good idea to use words from both their different kinds of talking, and sometimes think it’s a bad idea. I want to know this most of all about people who lived a long time ago (about twenty-three hundred years ago). We can’t ask them why, so we have to try to understand this from the things they wrote down.

    • I like it! On first glance I understood ‘kind of talking’ as register rather than language (that’s me, never reading the introductory blurb…), but that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. I think the word I missed most was probably ‘narrative’, but that probably proves that I have bad habits with lit crit jargon.

  4. “A very long time ago there were people who wrote things down. They spoke in the same way as the people who lived in the same places later on, but they wrote in a different way. For a long time no-one could read what they wrote, but then a man worked out how to read it. Now other people study what they wrote to find out about how these people lived. But to be able to study what they wrote we also have to study how they wrote it, so I study how their writing worked – what the signs they used mean and how they wrote them down. Sometimes different people wrote things in a different way, or people in the same place all wrote in the same way but in different places they wrote in a different way, and from this we can work out how their writing began and how it became different over time.” I have a really interesting topic, don’t I?

    • But it is very interesting! For some reason it entertains me that ‘sign’ makes the list of acceptable words; I think I’d forgotten how common it was given all its associations with linguistics and semiotics etc.

      • I’d have been in quite a lot of trouble if “sign” and “writing” hadn’t both been acceptable! I fee somewhat bad about my description of Michael Ventris but it wouldn’t even let me have “a very clever man”…

  5. From place to place, people who talk for the most part in the same way, will still talk a little different from each other. A long time ago this was still the case as it is now. In a place a long time ago a people spoke different from city-to-city, and they wrote down their different ways of speaking as each city spoke because they were not all together as a big happy group of cities, and didn’t often get along with each other. Although they didn’t get along with each other all the time in a happy way (which was sad for them), this is not sad for us; we can tell now days how they spoke from the different ways they wrote, since they didn’t agree how to write the same way from city to city, because they talked different in each place and so didn’t agree to write the same way in each place. I study the way things got written down different between these cities to try to explain why they wrote and talked different from each other.

    I think I should get bonus points for translating the concept of the uniformitarian principle.

    • *sprinkles bonus points upon you* Although I think my favourite part is the almost Sesame Street comment about how it was sad that people couldn’t all get along. It goes quite well with my Barney-esque obsession with love.

      • Just makes you want to give all the Greek poleis a great big hug and tell them to all be nice to each other, doesn’t it?

  6. In some places, they thought all people should run things. But in other places, only one big person ran things. The people in the places where all people ran things sometimes talked to the single big people who ran things in the other places. It was sometimes hard for the people from the places where all people ran things to talk to the big people who ran things by themselves, because they thought in very different ways.
    I want to know how the people from the places where all the people ran things thought they should talk to big people who ran things all by themselves.

  7. I’m amazed it won’t let you have ‘sea’ or ‘mountain’, or even ‘hill’. It’s almost impossible to explain Phoenicia without those concepts.

    • Ah, but the most important word in that sentence is ‘almost’! Though that is a bit strange. I’ve been wondering where they’re sourcing their words from, because they are so many different sample sets they could choose from… Even dictionary databases are only going to reflect a certain type of English usage.

    • I found doing a poster for the college grad poster display last year fairly like this. I’d write things like “Linear B was a script used for administration in the Mycenaean palaces” and then realise I couldn’t actually use the word “palace” without lengthy qualification/explanation that I had no space for…very useful exercise!

    • Registration seems a bit mean, but I completely agree that it’s a useful exercise. I was under the impression that it’s a fairly common part of job applications, though, that you present your research in a way that can be understood by non-classicists (or maybe I’m just thinking of JRFs)? Of course, that’s a slightly different skill yet again, because you’ve got all the words you like at your disposal. You’ve just got to work out how to use them clearly.

      • Well, yes, that was more the point of the poster exercise. The difficulty there being a) lack of space (explain the whole background of Linear B plus my entire thesis on an A2 piece of paper, with pictures) and b) need to make it immediately interesting and informative and clear in the first two sentences or everyone will stop reading. It really does make you reassess what’s *actually* important in your project…

  8. Pingback: Two Years of Res Gerendae | res gerendae

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