I like learning languages, even if they’re not likely to be useful to me specifically. I may not visit the country, but if the language is fun, why not enjoy picking it up? I mean, I go running even though nothing I do for money requires running. It just makes me feel better and makes my body work better. I think that’s useful. Likewise, I think learning languages is useful, even if I don’t learn very much of a given language.

But what is a good way of learning a language? What things are useful? Different people will tell you different things and offer different approaches. It is likely to vary from person to person and depending on how the person intends to use the language. For instance, some people swear by audio-based acquisition methods – learn just by listening. However, if you’re in another country, my experience is that you will need the language most for reading signs and other instructions; spoken communication is both more flexible and longer in development. And if you have a strongly visual memory, having written forms to hang the words on may be a big plus.

I have found that getting used to the sounds of the language helps a lot – listen to it in videos, music, et cetera. In fact, learning songs in the language can be very useful and memorable… but for some languages, the sung version departs notably from the spoken version. If I’m going to actually use the language in another country soon (as for instance Portuguese on my recent vacation), it is best to learn things first that I am most likely to use: buying drinks, buying tickets, finding bathrooms, getting through airports… But if I just want to learn the language for literary purposes, and to get to know the culture, well, it makes sense to learn the standard cultural literary background, doesn’t it? Or at least selected highlights? A chrestomathy?

Chrestomathy. There’s a word you won’t see often; it is unlikely to show up in a chrestomathy of English. It is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable (and with the ch said as /k/). It means, per Oxford, “A collection of choice passages from an author or authors, esp. one compiled to assist in the acquirement of a language.” It has tastes for me of chrysalis, that intermediate form leading to a butterfly, and crest, a ridge point one must pass over, and stoma, which is basically a hole or a tube, and math, although this is more about language (still, why not be a polymath too if you can be a polyglot?), and more distantly of mastery and stretch and a few less pertinent things such as matches and Chester and torch.

But it comes from χρηστός khréstos ‘useful’ and μαθεια matheia ‘learning’. There is a related word, chrestomathic, which means (again per Oxford) “devoted to the learning of useful matters.” It’s a bit presumptuous to hold choice literary passages to be the epitome of useful learning, more than songs, say, or “Excuse me, where are the washrooms?” This is a basis not in the business of life – perhaps this is a vision for thelemites, who have servants to see to such little things – but in the standard references of culture. Famous scenes from movies? Snippets of children’s books? Apparently we should think more of scenes from Shakespeare and lines by John Donne and Alexander Pope and (if there is any justice at all) Edna St. Vincent Millay. Or even a single-author chrestomathy (perhaps Hemingway for the introductory readers, Nabokov for the more advanced, and Joyce or Faulkner or Pynchon for the exceptionally odd).

Well, whatever. If I were to christen my own chrestomathy for English, my choice of passages certainly would include music (“There are places I remember…”), children’s books (“The night Max wore his wolf suit…”), movie clips (“…We’ll always have Paris…”), comic strips (“…Tyrannosaurs in F-14s!!”), and perhaps even an ad or two (“Where’s the beef?”), to go alongside “To be or not to be…” and “No man is an island…” and “A little learning is a dangerous thing…” and “I burn the candle at both ends…” (and perhaps “…yes I said yes I will Yes” and “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins…” and “A screaming comes across the sky…”).

Or, you know, just some paragraphs from my blog.

2 responses to “chrestomathy

  1. “Chrestomathic” was a word that Bentham claimed to have framed then discovered to exist already. His “Chrestomathia”, a proposal for a new sort of day school, was published in 1816 (before any of the references cited in the OED, although one of those citations does mention Bentham) and the project to build a chrestomathic day school was one for which he solicited subscriptions, though unsuccessfully. The book contains a brief discussion of the origin of the word: “[Chrestomathic] A word, formed from two Greek words, signifying conducive to useful learning. After it was framed, it was found employed in a book of the 17th century, and would probably be to be found in other books.” (Source:

    I can’t find any 17th century use in English in Google Books, but here is an 18th century use of “chrestomathy” in 1774, itself essentially translating “Chrestomathia” from use in a Latin book title:

  2. Daniel E. Trujillo Medina.

    It is interesting that you mentioned buying drinks as the first of the basic survival activities you need to master before going somewhere new. Now, that would certainly provide you with more than enough material for a traveller’s chrestomathy.

    Daniel E. Trujillo M. @VolcadoDePila ________________________________

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s