I recently came upon Churchill’s account of his Latin-learning experience while reading a book on historical Japanese linguistics (what that has to do with Churchill, I’m still not sure), and it vaguely reminds me of my experiences learning Classical Chinese when I was young. At that time I had no clue (nor did my teachers) what 之乎也者 all meant, and getting a detailed explanation was also impossible.
“What does it mean, sir?”
“It means what it says. Mensa, a table. Mensa is a noun of the First Declension. There are five declensions. You have learnt the singular of the First Declension.”
“But,” I repeated,” what does it mean?”
“Mensa means a table,” he answered.
“Then why does mensa also mean ‘O table,'” I enquired, “and what does ‘O table’ mean?”
“Mensa, ‘O table’, is the vocative case,” he replied.
“But why ‘O table?'” I persisted in genuine curiosity.
“O table – you would use that in addressing a table, in invoking a table.” And then seeing he was not carrying me with him, “You would use it in speaking to a table.”
“But I never do,” I blurted out in honest amazement.
“If you are impertinent, you will be punished, and punished, let me tell you, very severely,” was his conclusive rejoinder.
Such was my first introduction to the classics from which, I have been told, many of our cleverest men have derived so much solace and profit.
In 1861, the scientist and mathematician Pliny Earle Chase proposed that the Chinese script was quite possibly “indications of alphabetic genesis”; that is, the ancient Greek and Latin alphabets was modeled after Chinese characters. Here’s a page from his work above indicating his suggestions (notably that 單 led to delta Δ, 旦 to theta Θ, and 切 to t.
Of course today we know that this hypothesis is utterly ridiculous – however, Chase’s work predated the identification of oracle bone script later in the 19th century. If you’d like to read some bad linguistics (and have access to JSTOR), however, you can check his original article “Chinese and Indo-European Roots and Analogues” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society here.