Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Those of us who went to school in what used to be Czechoslovakia probably feel like throwing up every time someone mentions the name of John Amos Comenius (a.k.a. Ján Ámos Komenský). The father of modern education, one of the greatest sons of our country, our largest university (and my alma mater) is named after him, his birthday is a sorta school holiday (ok, that's a minor plus point) blah blah blah. You know what it's like - you get something shoved down your throat long and hard enough, you start hating it too. And worst of all, they never actually tell you why something is important, only that it is. That is the main reason I did not learn the full truth about Comenius until relatively late, when I started learning Latin. It was only then that I found out that Comenius authored what many consider the first modern language textbook, Janua linguarum reserata (also known as Porta linguarum reserata, published in 1631). This textbook of Latin for schoolchildren, though still heavily vocabulary-based, not only provided teaching and learning advice, but also gave context to aid the children in understanding and learning the new words. Surely, (I hear some of you say), this is nothing new or groundbreaking. Aaah (I answer), but it was back then. Memorizing long lists of words was the only way to learn languages and providing context was nothing short of revolutionary. And don't call me Shirley!

Comenius followed Janua with a workbook and grammar exercise book, Januae linguarum reserata aureae vestibulum (1633). It was, as you can see from the title, intended to a be a preface to Janua, but more importantly, it contained pictures. The idea of picture dictionary appealed to both Comenius and - judging by the popularity of the workbook - to his readers as well. Moreover, Comenius believed that learning words was no learning at all and that if the children were to learn the language properly they had to learn about the concepts behind them and their relationship to the world as well. And so in 1685 in Nurnberg he published what is probably his most important work, the dictionary-encyclopaedia Orbis (Sensualium) Pictus. The first bilingual Latin-German edition was an instant success and rightly so: not only does it provide context and aims to teach words according to their semantic fields, it also contains a lovely introduction to phonetics. But what is more important, it is probably the first schoolbook which treats learning as fun and the child as a partner. Just consider the introduction:

M. Veni, Puer! disce Sapere.
P. Quid hoc est, Sapere?
M. Omnia, quae necessaria, rectè intelligere, recte agere, rectè eloqui.
P. Quis me hoc docebit?
M. Ego, cum DEO.
P. Quomodo?
M. Ducam te, per omnia, ostendam tibi omnia, nominabo tibi omnia.
P. En adsum! duc me, in nomine DEI.

Even after all these years, Orbis Pictus still remains a wonderful tool for learning Latin. Lord knows it did help me and so if you're on the same path, be sure to check out one of these versions: Hungarian (with Hungarian text and woodcuts from the 1685 Levoča version, NB the spelling), English, Russian (selected chapters only), the 1658 German and Latin original (incomplete), Latin only and a modern Latin-English version with new pictures to bring the book up to date.

And here's an added bonus for those of you who know my real self: check out the Hungarian version of the chapter on Agriculture and note No. 16.



Anonymous said...

Awww, a Hungarian insider joke... I feel so left out... :o(

Conrad H. Roth said...

As I commented somewhere else, I love Comenius too. I have a lovely modern edition of the Orbus Pictus at home, along with a translation of the fascinating "Panglottia" on the universal language. Great stuff!

bulbul said...


I'm sooo sorry.
It's not much of a joke, more like a fun fact: that word no. 16, that's my last name :o)


nice of you to drop by :o)
I have a modern Latin-Czech version of Orbis, too, plus a quadrilingual tractate/lecture on books and how to read them (can't remember the name right now). One of the used books stores here is selling a 18th century edition of Janua Linguarum. I've been thinking about getting it, but gosh darnit, it costs more than my monthly mortgage payment...

Conrad H. Roth said...

"One of the used books stores here is selling a 18th century edition of Janua Linguarum. I've been thinking about getting it, but gosh darnit, it costs more than my monthly mortgage payment."

Yes, but when you get evicted, Comenius will keep the rain off your head. I say go for it (but then, I have a bad habit of buying books I can only 'sort of' afford...)

Anonymous said...

Ah. I already feared :o)

Anonymous said...

I don't believe it took me this long to actually click through to your blog. (bangs head on desk) Having seen the error of my ways, I'm putting you on my sidebar with Language Hat.

And I love Orbis, which I didn't know existed before today.

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