syllabus

Classes are starting. Universities are reawakening from their estivation. For the first September in a long time, I am not a registered student at a university. My time is subject to my own dictates. I have no textbooks to buy, no classes to attend, no papers to write, no syllabus to read.

Ah, the syllabus. Apparently it often goes unread. I don’t understand how students have any idea what books to buy and what to read for what class without looking at it, but professor after professor can be seen (for instance on Twitter) complaining that the students don’t read the syllabus.

Are the students afraid of it? Perhaps it has the aspect of a sharp-toothed monster that may devour them if they come too close. But in the odyssey that is a course, if you avoid the Scylla-bus monster, you head to the whirlpool of Charybdis and go down the drain. (As indeed some of them do.)

Not that we ought to lay the blame altogether on the students. Syllabuses are subject to many silly abuses by the professors too. One professor I had (within the last decade) hand-wrote everything on lined paper and photocopied it, which could lead to misreadings. Another one gave us a nice, tidy printed-out syllabus; I read it thoroughly, assembled my readings for each week and did them as listed, and a few weeks in discovered that there was a reading we were to discuss that I had not read. The professor, it turns out, had revised the syllabus after handing it out and had unceremoniously posted the revision online.

But many students don’t get even that far. They’ll glance at it, sure, to find just what they need – next week’s reading, or the due date for the assignment (though of course the professor might change either of those later). But read the whole thing?

And yet they’re university students. Reading is a central competency; you can assume a decent percentage of them actually even like reading. Could it be that, in at least some cases, the syllabus actively repels the reader? And that the standard expectations of the genre, from the perspective of the creators of the syllabi, require a pharaonic level of dusty desiccation?

It could be, yes. But I don’t need to go into depth on that, or on the remedy for it; Iva Cheung had a conversation with others on Twitter about it, and adduced some resources, and she has put together the whole thing in a readable form at storify.com/IvaCheung/course-syllabi. You should read it there.

My task here, rather, is to taste this word syllabus. You will already have noticed (if you have read all the words to this point) that it has two viable plurals: the English-form syllabuses and the Latinate syllabi. But if you stop and look at this word and think about it for a moment, you may make a syllogism based on the first syllable: it has a y in it; Latin used y just in words borrowed from Greek; syllabus must be borrowed from Greek; the –us ending in Latin words taken from Greek was generally a conversion of the Greek –os ending; the plural of –os in Greek is, as a rule, –oi; thus there should be a syllaboi option.

Ah, alas, silly boy! (Or silly girl! Or man or woman!) This Jenga of assumptions has a faulty one we must take out, and then the whole tower collapses. The assumption is that the Latins read the Greek carefully, without making any unwarranted leaps of their own.

The Latin syllabus, as it turns out, seems to have been based on a misreading of σιττύβας. The Greek that they (or at least one of them) thought they had seen was σύλλαβος. Easy enough to see the difference here, but remember that this was all hand-copied in someone’s idiosyncratic handwriting (or hand-printing, anyway). The actual Greek, σιττύβας, was a plural of σιττύβα (sittuba), meaning ‘parchment label’ or ‘book title-slip’. But if it had come from σύλλαβος, that word in turn would have come from the verb συλλαμβάνειν ‘put together’ – which was the origin of the word συλλαβή, which became Latin syllaba, and now exists in English as syllable.

You can see how easy the assumption would be to make. Indeed, that assumption seems to have guided the usage of the word, so that we could say it traces as much to the (unattested in Greek) σύλλαβος as to its actual etymon. After all, a syllabus is not simply a rubric or title; it is rather an assembly of the titles of all the sessions of a course (or similar set of things), and, in the modern university, a statement of the required readings, assignments, office hours, and other such pertinent information. And so we might say that the word was not only misread but partially revised mid-course.

3 responses to “syllabus

  1. Interesting. But what’s a syllabub and is it connected?🙂

  2. One might suggest, whimsically, that “syllabub” is the familiar designation of a person who revises their syllabus without prior notification… the victims of such practice being “syllabutts”…

  3. Pingback: syllabub | Sesquiotica

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