Certamen

Certamen

Certamen, Latin for "competition", (pl. 'Certamina') is a quiz bowl style competition with classics-themed questions. The reference invokes the brief ancient Greek account of the Contest of Homer and Hesiod, Certamen Homeri et Hesiodi. The formats differ, but most are similar to the formats of quiz bowl. The questions are on topics ranging from the minutiae of Latin grammar and vocabulary, Latin-based etymology, Roman history and culture, and classical mythology. Certamina are organized by classics organizations, usually chapters of the Junior Classical League, and are held at local high schools, state forums or conventions, and the National Junior Classical League national convention.

Certamen at National Junior Classical League Conventions

The Certamina played at the National Junior Classical League Conventions (Nationals) are the most competitive and prestigious. There are three levels of competition: Novice (for students in Latin 1/2 or 1); Intermediate (for students in Latin 2, previously called Lowers); and Upper (for students in Latin 3 and beyond). Students may play in a higher level than their completed Latin, but never in a lower level. Each team may only consist of students from the same state, and each state may only have one team for each level. Since three teams play against each other each round, the draws are composed of multiples of threes (e.g. 15 teams, 18 teams, 21 teams). If such number of teams do not register, Wild Card teams made up of any willing students (but still in the appropriate level) are formed to balance out the draw.

How Certamen is scored

A certamen match at Nationals has twenty toss-up questions which any player on any team may buzz in at any point of the question to try to answer. However, players may not at any time during a toss-up communicate (confer) with other players. If a player gets a toss-up correct, his/her team receives ten points. Then the whole team of that player is given two bonus questions to answer. The team now gets to talk amongst themselves to try to answer the bonus questions. During this time, it is the responsibility of the team captain to confer with his/her teammates and decide on an answer. Only the captain, designated at the beginning of the round, is allowed to answer bonus questions on behalf of the team, although he is permitted to defer his captinacy temporarily to another player, in case of difficult pronunciation or lengthy answers. The bonus questions are each worth five points. No penalties are given for wrong answers. After questions number five, ten, fifteen, nineteen, and after the round, the scores are read out loud to the players and the audience.

Physical setup of a certamen match

In a typical Nationals-level certamen match, two or three certamen teams each composed of four members play against each other. The teams are seated in chairs or desks in a semicircular fashion.

The moderator, who presides over the match and reads the questions, stands in the center so that the teams are mostly equidistant from him/her.

In addition to the moderator and the players, there is a spotter who is in charge of announcing which player buzzed in first to answer a question. This is done via the certamen machine, which is a buzzer system with a lock-out mechanism that registers a beep and displays the buzzer number of the first player to buzz in. The use of a buzzer system is required at national-level competition, and is generally preferred by both players and officials. However, where no buzzer system is available (as is often the case in a classroom setting, or in preliminary rounds of local competitions), players signal their answers by slapping-in, that is, striking the surface of their desks with the flat of one palm while simultaneously raising their other hand. In this case, the spotter and any assistant spotters identify the first player to signal. Should the spotters judge that the players have signaled at the same time, each signaling player gives his response to the question in written form. If correct, the player's team is awarded the points; if both or all signaling players are correct, all teams are awarded the points for that question.

There is also a time keeper who times the fifteen seconds allotted for bonus questions (boni). The time keeper and the spotter may be the same person. There are also one or two scorekeepers who record the scores of the teams. Depending on the size of the room, and the popularity of the players, there may or may not be an audience. Due to the importance of silence in the extremely tense race to buzz in, the audience is only allowed to make silent cheers (such as the ubiquitous spirit fingers) except when scores are read, which is after questions 5, 10, 15, 19, and 20.

Semifinal and Final Rounds

After three preliminary rounds of certamen, the scores each team received during the three rounds are tallied up and posted. Based on those scores, the top nine teams advance into the semifinals. Each team receives a seed based on the amount of points it received during the three prelim rounds, and the semifinals are matched up in this manner: teams number 1 vs. 6 vs. 7; 2 vs. 5 vs. 8; 3 vs. 4 vs. 9. The victor of each of the three semifinal rounds (regardless of previous scores or seeds) advances into the finals. The victor in the finals then captures first place. Unlike the three prelim rounds, semifinals and finals are single-elimination matches.

History

Certamen was invented by Tony Ruffa, who taught in Richmond in the 1960s and '70s. He invited all Virginia schools - both secondary and collegiate - who taught Latin to come to Richmond for the first tournament. This single-elimination event had local schools play on Thursday afternoon and out-of-towners on Friday; the winners of each division faced off the next week on taped public television.

The first two championship teams, in 1971 and 1972, were from Handley High School in Winchester, Virginia, and were coached by Latin teacher Susan S. Schearer. Schearer, VA state chair at the same time and in charge of the 1972 NJCL convention at Virginia Tech, introduced the game to NJCL at that time. There was only one level; Intermediate, then called Lower, was added several years later, and Novice in 1987. Tennessee went on to win the first two national championships.

Virginia has won the most national certamen titles, with 35. When an anonymous donor first gave $500 to the winning Advanced Level team, a Virginia team won and spent it on the Maureen O'Donnell traveling trophy, which spends the year in the state of the winning Advanced Level team.

Virginia defeated Massachusetts and Wisconsin in the 2008 final round and now holds the Advanced trophy, with the Massachusetts team earning 2nd place after two intense rounds of tie-breaker questions against Wisconsin. The Florida Intermediate team narrowly defeated Ohio and Virginia, taking home the championship for their division, and Massachusetts defeated the Texas and Florida teams to win Novice.

Questions, Preparation, and Strategy

Questions At national competitions, on novice and intermediate levels the questions are broken up as follows:

  • 50% language skills, which may include grammar, vocabulary, translation, and derivatives
  • 25% mythology
  • 25% history and culture

On the upper level, literature is added to the topics since the players are now assumed to be reading real Roman writings. Therefore, the question breakdown is as follows:

  • 40% language skills
  • 20% mythology
  • 20% history and culture
  • 20% literature

Questions are usually worded like those of regular quiz bowl competitions. However, the NJCL Certamen Committee has slowly been phasing in new types of questions. These include:

  • Passage, or reading (listening, rather) comprehension questions, in which a paragraph of Latin is read aloud twice then succeeded by a toss-up question pertaining to the preceding passage, which may either be in Latin or English and is usually to be answered in the language of the question.
  • Visual aid questions, in which teams are given a sealed sheet of paper which is torn open at the moderator's direction. Sometimes passages of Latin such as tomb inscriptions or poems are on the pages; sometimes it is a visual representation of a piece of classical art or architecture.
  • Prop questions, in which the moderator reads aloud several Latin phrases then performs one of them with a prop, which have ranged from a helmet to a small portable fan.

Preparation and Strategy Players often arrive at nationals with hundreds of hours spent in preparation for the competition. A great certamen player is not only knowledgeable, but also quick; therefore, certamen preparation ought to encompass both study and buzzer practice.

Study techniques differ widely, depending on the player's level, area of focus, coach, and personal inclination. Source books are often very useful; the National Junior Classical League publishes a list of sources from which all its questions are drawn. A partial list includes:

  • Language skills: Allen and Greenough's New Latin Grammar; a Latin dictionary, typically Lewis and Short's; and a thorough English dictionary.
  • Mythology: Mark Morford's, Edward Tripp's, and Pierre Grimal's mythology handbooks.
  • Roman history and culture: Edith Hamilton's The Roman Way, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine by M. Cary and H.H. Scullard, and A History of the Roman People, by Ward, Heichelheim, and Yeo.
  • Literature: "Latin Literature: A History" by Gian Biaggio Conte; "History of Latin Literature" by Moses Hadas; "The Oxford Classical Dictionary"

Actual certamen practice is harder to orchestrate, because of the need for buzzers and a competent moderator. Many school teams practice after school, sometimes on a daily basis. In the summer, state teams are known to take retreats, spending weekends to bond with their teammates and practice their buzzer skills. Some states, notably Virginia and Ohio, hold daily study and practice sessions known as Castra Latina ("Latin Camp").

The make-up of a team is very important to its success. Many teams, especially on the novice and intermediate levels, follow the general pattern of having one grammarian, one historian, one mythologist, and one all-around. Another popular format is to have two players for language, with one each for history and mythology. With the advent of literature questions on the upper level, this format is often tweaked to supply someone who also specializes in the history of Roman literature, either by having a player learn multiple categories or by dropping a language player in favor of literature. However, language is so important to a successful team that many teams hope that at least three players who are extremely capable in the Latin language. In addition, it is not uncommon for several players on a team to study multiple categories.

Some states divide their Nationals players into starters and alternates, with four starters and up to four alternates. An alternate may be exchanged for a starter for any round(s), though no changes are allowed within a given round.

National Championships

A victory at the national convention is the most prestigious achievement for a certamen player. The winning Advanced level team receives a one-year lease on the traveling Maureen O'Donnell Trophy, as well as $500 from an anonymous benefactor which is generally donated to a charity of the winning team's choice.

Those players who are on two or more winning Nationals teams are entered into the Certamen Hall of Fame

At the 2007 NJCL Convention at the University of Tennessee, a new certamen competition was inaugurated, deemed the World Series of Certamen (WSOC). This competition, which will become an annual event, is open to all registered non-JCL convention attendees, and attracted twenty-one teams formed of Latin teachers, other adults, and SCLers. The event, which featured questions testing both the knowledge and sense of humor of the participants, was a big hit among students who were both awed and highly amused.

Team JAKT from Ohio won the first WSOC championship. In keeping with the tongue-in-cheek spirit of the event, they received an equally ironic award: the traveling Susan Schearer spirit cane and a case of Red Bull for each member. At the 2008 NJCL convention, the Texas team Cornua Longa (The Longhorns) captured the WSOC title, receiving as their prize the newly modified Susan Schearer pogo-stick as well as WSOC t-shirts.

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