Staying Alive: Classics at Yale-NUS
story | Avani Adhikari, Staff Writer
photo | Alysha Chandra
My conversation with Nicholas Lua ’19 and Tay Jun Hao ’19 began with a discussion about names.
Tay said, “Learning old languages is fun because it makes understanding a lot of modern words and names easier. Like, the scientific name for Chicken is Gallus Gallus, literally chicken chicken in Latin. You can make an educated guess about most things in this way.”
Lua enthusiastically nodded. “Like your name Avani for example. It means Earth in Sanskrit right? All these words are connected and when you learn this language you are blown away by the history of it all.”
Lua and Tay began their journey in Yale-NUS College with different backgrounds and took different paths through college, yet they still ended up as close friends with a never-ending passion for languages and classics.
Tay is a scholar of Classical Chinese who is also familiar with some Latin and Ancient Greek. Tay’s passion for the field became apparent as we started talking about his craft. “I’m actually translating an untranslated chapter of Sima Qian for my capstone — well, untranslated so far. Scholars are working on it and will probably finish before me,” he said.
Lua, on the other hand, is a scholar of Sanskrit, but also knows basic Latin and Ancient Greek. He wears his passion on his sleeve — literally. His wrist watch, which he wears daily, has numbers written in Devanagari, a Sanskritic script. He explains, “I bought this in Nepal because I had the hardest time remembering the numbers. This way, I see them daily and am less likely to forget, you know?”
I wanted to learn more about their experiences, as seniors in Yale-NUS, of taking an unconventional path. In a school where the most popular majors are in the sciences and social sciences, why take dead languages? To find out, I sat down with them to ask some questions.
Ed: Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you come to focus on classics?
Lua: Oh man. I actually started Yale-NUS as a DDP student. If you had asked me then I would have told you that I would be a law major.
Tay: Yeah, I thought I would be an anthropology major, but as time went on I started thinking of going into archeology. I was always interested in Chinese history but classes in Chinese poetry and historiography heighted it and made it my main focus.
Lua: Me too! I had Valerie Hanson who was a visiting professor at the time as my LitHum 1 professor and she inspired me. I started Latin and I really enjoyed it to the point where I decided, why stop at just one language? There are so many connections in the ancient world; learning Sanskrit was the next logical step.
In hindsight, as History majors with interest in language, has your opinion on the epic-heavy Common Curriculum changed?
Lua: Oh boy. For me the text that I never really appreciated until after I learned Sanskrit was the Bhagavad Gita. My first reaction to reading it was “Why are people into this this strange crazy text?” rather than anything else.
The realization of how beautiful the Gita was only came in the third year when I read it again and then I realized, “Wow! It’s so profound.” This idea of the self that Krishna is talking about is connected to the Buddhist idea of the self. This connection only comes after you understand the Sanskrit world and it changes your perspective.
Tay: This question is hard to answer because my capstone is theoretically based on a text we studied in the Common Curriculum, The Records of the Grand Historian. I didn’t really understand The Records properly until I finished Classical Chinese and I did a course Professor Cook, and then I was lucky enough to get a class with Professor Nienhauser whose translation is what we study for the common curriculum.
Studying under the two I saw The Records as it is. Reading it in the original language, you see the ambition of these great texts and what they are supposed to do. You understand the ancients and how they structured the world through language.
Lua: Professor Mira Seo says that “The Odyssey makes you more human” and I never understood that in my first year. Have you ever picked up a book and found it so moving that you keep coming back? One of the beautiful things about ancient epics is they have been that for a lot of people. They are beautiful in a way that transcends anything normal. That’s what I have understood now.
What was the hardest part of studying a dead language?
Lua: Well, first of all I wouldn’t call these languages dead. They may not be alive in the way that Italian or Spanish are, but as long as they are studied and read, they continue to live.
Tay: Yeah, because even right now they have a lot of relevance. Latin helps a lot in learning romance languages. Classical Chinese helps for modern languages in grammar and syntax. After learning Ancient Greek and Latin I realized that suddenly my vocabulary had increased.
However, vocabulary is also always the hardest. Especially when you want to call it up because you are like, “I have seen this word before, I know where it came from.” It’s like a very complex puzzle.
Lua: That’s why it’s fun, right? Because it is a puzzle. If I got 9/10 of the words in this sentence correct, I have almost solved the puzzle.
You likened the Classics community at Yale-NUS to a family. Why is it so?
Lua: Professor Steven Green always says, “You never meet an uncharismatic classics professor because they always have to stand up for their department.” And it is true, the thing about ancient languages is that it is always going to be a small community. People are always going to ask, “Why should budget be assigned to this?” So we always have to fight for one another.
Tay: It’s very interdisciplinary, all languages and departments pitch in. Professors have this Ancient Worlds cluster — made up of faculty members and other classics students — and when there are talks, you will see these same people who all turn up to listen. The professors will always be ready to help you because they want to support you.
It’s beautiful and it’s kind of what the school stands for — building small but passionate communities that support each other no matter what.