One of the things I most regret about growing older is the decline in my ability to memorize things. Not boasting, but between the ages of 10 and 18 I somehow committed to memory great swathes of Latin and Greek morphology (or Accidence, as it was then known — declensions and conjugations, regular and irregular), not to mention mathematical formulae, geometrical proofs, historical dates, French verbs and vocabulary, how to read music, and I suppose well over ten thousand additional English words with their spellings and meanings. That was in school. On my own I taught myself a limited amount of Italian, the Cyrillic alphabet, thousands of Gregg shorthand outlines, and to play the melodeon. To add to school-generated conversational fluency in French, I acquired rather better privately-acquired fluency in German and Esperanto.
You want to know the value of pi? No problem. What the sine of an angle is? How to calculate the area of a circle? Solving quadratic equations? The lyrics of every pop song from the early fifties? Of course. Once learnt, always remembered.
And scores of square dances, country dances and Scottish dances.
Not any more. Now I struggle just to try and memorize a paltry hundred kana symbols or a few lines of song for the choir. Learnt today, gone tomorrow.
What makes it especially galling is that so much of this memorizing in my youth was effortless and unplanned. No one made me learn the words of Doris Day’s The Deadwood Stage. I didn’t even try to learn them. They just came.
I suppose the period of effortless learning extended to my undergraduate and postgraduate years. I never remember having to make any particular effort to remember a hundred-plus phonetic symbols. My teacher or my book told me about them: from then on I knew them. (However I do have to admit that as an undergraduate I failed to acquire Sanskrit morphology and the Devanāgari to write it with. So motivation was obviously a factor by then: Sanskrit wasn’t part of the examination.)
Now I can’t even remember the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets. That’s because I didn’t attempt to learn them till later in life.
These depressing thoughts came to me when for some reason I was thinking of the Latin Grace recited before dinner in Hall when I was an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge. There were two Graces, one of which is taken from Psalm 145:15-16. I remember it as
Oculi omnium in te sperant, Domine, et tu das escam illis in tempore opportuno. Aperis tu manum tuam, et imples omne animal benedictione. [The eyes of all wait upon thee, O Lord, and thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing.]
Searching the web shows, however, that this Latin text differs from that found in the Vulgate in one word. The Vulgate reads
Oculi omnium in te sperant, Domine, et tu das escam illorum in tempore opportuno. Aperis tu manum tuam, et imples omne animal benedictione.
Had Trinity changed illorum (of them) to illis (to them)? Or am I remembering it wrong? Perhaps my memory is not really as good as I imagine.