Grammar Guerilla: Quasi As Distinct From Pseudo (And Why Latin Helps)

Guerilla-GorillaJust before I entered public school in 1966 the geniuses who were running the education establishment had already begun to give up on education in favor of using schools as laboratories of social change, personal development, and family therapy. In their defense, the collapse of the nuclear family, which was already beginning to manifest itself, was bound to have consequences for public education. Nevertheless, even before that time, there had been a philosophical shift in colleges of education on university campuses across the USA away from a focus on the objective (“reading, writing, and arithmetic”) toward the subjective. That program has only intensified over the following decades and we have been seeing the consequences for some time. One of the casualties of the education revolution was Latin instruction. Sixty years before that, in the few places where it had remained, Greek was euthanized and carried off on a stretcher. The death of instruction in the European languages followed.

The revolution was unable to kill my love of reading and writing, however. Despite the fact that few of my teachers had any idea of how to teach us to write I kept taking English courses all through Jr High, High School, and university. It was a trade off. However useless most of the instruction was we were still assigned to read and that was, at least sometimes, a pleasure. Still, despite the hours of literature and English courses I did not begin to understand how English worked or how to distinguish between words like quasi and pseudo until finally took Greek and Latin as an undergrad. All this is to explain why I regularly hear and read English speakers abusing these two words. Most of us have no real idea what these two words mean and why they are distinct in their meaning but they are distinct.

Quasi is a Latin adverb, a word that modifies a verb, which is a word that that describes an action, a state of being, or an occurrence (so the the Oxford American Dictionary). In Latin quasi means “as if,” or “just as though.” In English usage it has come to signal “almost” or “sort of.” “His book is quasi-academic.” “She released a quasi-popular album last year.” The range of meaning of pseudo is quite distinct from quasi although it also has classical roots.

Whereas quasi is a Latin loan word, pseudo is a Greek loan word. In Greek it means “false.” In Matthew 7:15 “false prophets” are “pseudo-prophets.” The “false apostles” of 2 Corinthians 11:13 are “pseudo-apostles.” CBD may be a quasi-medicine but Dr Snookum’s snake oil is most definitely a pseudo-medication. There is a significant difference in meaning. CBD may have medicinal properties (it may not, I am not that sort of doctor) but to the degree it does it is “quasi.” Most of the stuff sold on late-night television, however, is pseudo medicine. A blender that is quasi-effective works somewhat, for some things, but a pseudo-wrench would be useless.

There are numerous reference works that will help orient the reader to the Greek and Latin roots of English. Learning Latin will revolutionize the reader’s understanding and use of the English language. It will open the door to the world of inflected languages (the way words relate to one another, e.g., who and whom) and it will transform the reader’s use of English. It will also open the door to learn Greek, since they are built on the same structure.

R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Our head of classics at school told us that whilst the initial learning curve for Greek was much steeper than for Latin (I’m paraphrasing him – I can’t remember what words he actually used, but I’m sure “learning curve” was not part of his vocabulary), Greek was the easier language to master overall. What’s your opinion?

    • Speaking as a Classicist and a schoolmaster, I should say there were two things at work here. Initial textbooks for Greek were, historically, designed on the assumption that the young person had studied Latin for two years or so before beginning Greek and that s/he had a rough working knowledge of case usage in an inflected language. Accordingly, they felt confident in having that steep curve. The second aspect relates to the accessibility of literature. In the normal time allocation for Latin in a present day school, it takes two-and-a-half to three years of study before the student can move comfortably from manufactured course-book Latin to something worth reading by a Roman writer. However, there are some excellent Greek writers, such as Herodotus and Xenophon, whose narrative passages have a natural flow that allows the reader with perhaps only a few months learning to access them with a prepared vocabulary.

    • Allan, thank you. The steep learning curve I was referring to was principally the alphabet!

      I get the impression that Latin is actually a very wooden language with limited capability of expression (though modern scholars like Oliver Lyne seem to have found some expressive capabilities in it), which may be why Greek was used in preference in everyday life. I wonder whether that was what was originally behind the Papal interdiction on translating from the Vulgate (I heard in a lecture that this came about in 666 AD under Pope Vitalian, but if that’s so, Wikipedia seems to have suppressed the information).

  2. You have have quasi-erroneous sentence:

    The “false apostles” of 2 Corinthians 11:13 are “false apostles.”

  3. Thankfully Greek had not been ‘euthanized and carried off on a stretcher’ while I was at school. Latin was compulsory from age 11, though in those Cold War days with the USSR superpower one could elect to take Russian instead of Greek.

    Taking up some points from John and Allan, Greek (4-year course) was introduced one year after Latin (5-year course), which seems a sensible way round if one is to learn both languages, and most Greek teaching and learning material that I saw (going back to the nineteenth century) assumed that the scholar already had a working understanding of Latin. As Allan says, Latin gives you an understanding of a heavily inflected language, and it does so without having to learn a new alphabet. Moreover, there is arguably more structure to understand and learn in Greek, which go beyond both English and Latin usage: not only active and passive voice, but middle; not only indicative and subjunctive mood, but optative; not only perfect, imperfect and pluperfect, but aorist; not only singular and plural but dual, and so on.

    It would be an interesting question whether if one only had time to master one of the two languages, which it would be. For Christians, I suspect that access to the original NT would be more greatly valued. And if one had time for only two learned languages would not the other be Hebrew?

    As for mastery of language, it depends to some extent on the material: one can always match across languages materials of equal difficulty. As Allan says, Xenophon is very accessible, famously his Anabasis, as is the NT if one has studied the earlier Attic Greek. In the last year or two of our courses we were reading Plato and Homer (for Greek prose and poetry) and Livy and Virgil (for Latin prose and poetry). I suppose these were reckoned to be of similar difficulties for each genre. At the time, I found the Virgil more difficult because we had to apply scansion (reduce it to metre) as part of the exercise of memorizing it and orally reciting it. The benefit of that, though (well, arguably!), is that I can still remember and recite the Virgil in its metrical form, whereas I have quite forgotten the text of Homer in the original.

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