Monday, 15 June 2009


One of the things I most regret about growing older is the decline in my ability to memorize things. Not boasting, but between the ages of 10 and 18 I somehow committed to memory great swathes of Latin and Greek morphology (or Accidence, as it was then known — declensions and conjugations, regular and irregular), not to mention mathematical formulae, geometrical proofs, historical dates, French verbs and vocabulary, how to read music, and I suppose well over ten thousand additional English words with their spellings and meanings. That was in school. On my own I taught myself a limited amount of Italian, the Cyrillic alphabet, thousands of Gregg shorthand outlines, and to play the melodeon. To add to school-generated conversational fluency in French, I acquired rather better privately-acquired fluency in German and Esperanto.
You want to know the value of pi? No problem. What the sine of an angle is? How to calculate the area of a circle? Solving quadratic equations? The lyrics of every pop song from the early fifties? Of course. Once learnt, always remembered.
And scores of square dances, country dances and Scottish dances.
Not any more. Now I struggle just to try and memorize a paltry hundred kana symbols or a few lines of song for the choir. Learnt today, gone tomorrow.
What makes it especially galling is that so much of this memorizing in my youth was effortless and unplanned. No one made me learn the words of Doris Day’s The Deadwood Stage. I didn’t even try to learn them. They just came.
I suppose the period of effortless learning extended to my undergraduate and postgraduate years. I never remember having to make any particular effort to remember a hundred-plus phonetic symbols. My teacher or my book told me about them: from then on I knew them. (However I do have to admit that as an undergraduate I failed to acquire Sanskrit morphology and the Devanāgari to write it with. So motivation was obviously a factor by then: Sanskrit wasn’t part of the examination.)

Now I can’t even remember the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets. That’s because I didn’t attempt to learn them till later in life.

These depressing thoughts came to me when for some reason I was thinking of the Latin Grace recited before dinner in Hall when I was an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge. There were two Graces, one of which is taken from Psalm 145:15-16. I remember it as
Oculi omnium in te sperant, Domine, et tu das escam illis in tempore opportuno. Aperis tu manum tuam, et imples omne animal benedictione. [The eyes of all wait upon thee, O Lord, and thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing.]

Searching the web shows, however, that this Latin text differs from that found in the Vulgate in one word. The Vulgate reads
Oculi omnium in te sperant, Domine, et tu das escam illorum in tempore opportuno. Aperis tu manum tuam, et imples omne animal benedictione.

Had Trinity changed illorum (of them) to illis (to them)? Or am I remembering it wrong? Perhaps my memory is not really as good as I imagine.


  1. I’m sixteen, and have acquired fluency in Esperanto as well. How well do you speak it now? Do you still use it?

    I’m also interested in phonetics, typesetting and music. I learnt Greek and Latin as well as a little Hebrew—but I never got the Devanāgari alphabet down.

  2. You were lucky you weren't at University College, Oxford, reputed to have the longest grace in Oxbridge. I once attempted to recite the grace from memory at a formal dinner, only to come embarrassingly unstuck!,_Oxford#Original_version

  3. What was the pronunciation of the Grace? Something like:

    /ɒkjulai ɒmniʌm in tei sperænt, dɒminei/

  4. If you remember it incorrectly, it only shows your competence in Latin. I'm aware of the fact that your post's topic is memory, but I'd say speaking (or thinking) in Latin beats memorising a Latin phrase.

    vp, concerning the length, try comparing the standard version of the Jewish grace, pages after pages of usually memorised Hebrew, said each and every time an Orthodox Jew had bread with the meal.

  5. @ Micah: Since you ask, yes, I am thoroughly fluent in Esperanto and often deliver lectures in it, for example at Esperanto congresses. (Mi estas Prezidanto de la Akademio de Esperanto.) I am currently revising my two-way Esperanto dictionary: see

    My advice to you (and to other teenagers) would be to learn whatever interests you, and particularly languages, as hard as you can while you are still young. Good luck.

  6. I remember grace at Trinity the way you do, John, and it's on their web site that way too:

    If memory serves, the psalm verses usually had Italianate pronunciation, (so /ɒkʊliː/ rather than /ɒkʊlaɪ/. You had to wait until the doxology for the silly vowel-shifted Cambridge-don pronunciation: /glɔːrɪə peɪtraɪ et faɪlɪəʊ/ etc.

  7. 'Thank you' for making me consider my teens wasted.

  8. I'm interested that you mention maths several times in this post. I think that phoneticians are often good at maths as well.

  9. Lucky you, my memory gave in half way through uni. Don't know if it was the beer or the lack of motivation...

  10. Memory served a bit more overnight! The Trinity version doesn't include the word opportuno - just in tempore. I remember being surprised by the extra word the first time I sang a musical setting (the one by Charles Wood).

  11. @Martin - Gosh, so where did I pick up "opportuno" from? I've never read the Bible in Latin. I suppose it could be a sort of mental calquing of "in _due_ season", but it's still mysterious.
    At home we just said "Benedictus benedicat" before meals and "Benedicto benedicatur" after.

  12. Fernando Lamadrid23 January 2010 at 21:12

    I am a thirteen year old conlanger and I have rather good memory. I have learned 5 languages in 3 years and I can read the Cyrillic, Arabic, and DevanAgari alphabets with difficulty.