Ne Plus Ultra (n)

Several years ago, an old friend of mine enrolled her middle-school-aged son in a prestigious private school in Connecticut. One afternoon she mentioned in passing that she struggled to help him get through his Latin homework.

Latin homework for a middle-school student?!?

In fact, as I started to think about this, an experience from my own education suddenly made sense. As an undergraduate in the Five College Consortium, I studied the Russian language in one of the colleges in that system. I’d had a year of Spanish in high school and learned a functional version of the language in my travels through Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. So I understood gendered nouns and conjugating verbs, though I was no expert at the latter.

Russian, however, was the first heavily inflected language I’d encountered. I really did struggle with oblique cases and all the rules that governed them and the usage rules they themselves governed. My fellow students appeared at ease with Russian. When I gave some thought to my friend’s son studying Latin, it suddenly occurred to me: my fellow Russian students almost certainly gained their understanding of the inflected structure of Russian because they had studied Latin–either in middle or high school.

It so happened that I began using Latin and Greek word roots–with which the English language is relatively rife–for vocabulary building early on in my teaching career. Because many of my students spoke Spanish as their first language, Latin was inevitably a bridge to English for them, and they figured that out quite quickly. They also figured out that as a rule, Latin is offered in in some of the best high schools in the United States, so there was, even in the limited way they were learning it with me, some status and prestige in learning the lingua franca of the Roman empire.

So I figured that if Latin was good enough for students at Phillips Exeter, it was good enough for the inner-city kids under my tutelage. Over the years, I’ve developed a number of materials on Latin and Latinisms (if you search those two terms on this blog, you’ll find a plethora of materials) for use in my classroom.

So when it was the word of the day a few days back at Merriam-Webster, I let if go by at first; but within a few hours, I’d worked up this worksheet on the Latin noun ne plus ultra. It means, as I think the comparatively strong context in its sentences indicate, “the highest point to be attained.” Will our students ever use this noun in conversation? Not very likely. Will they encounter this word in academic or scholarly prose? There is at least a chance of that. Will this worksheet school them in an analytical reading method? My experience is, in using context clues worksheets for years, that it will. Will kids think it cool to possess this piece of arcane knowledge? In my experience some if not most do.

So that’s the reason for this post.

If you find typos in this document, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.


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