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How I fell in love with Classical Greek

September 10, 2014

In my previous blog-post, I describes how I came to be at university studying Classical Philology and why. From the beginning, I intended to begin Classical Greek at the start of my second year in the program. I was advised to start Greek after Latin and the first course in the sequence of introductory classes was only taught during the Fall term. The language had a daunting reputation. Repeatedly students assured me that ancient Greek would be the most difficult subject I would likely ever study. Yet I was determined and so prepared to give maximum effort and attention to the subject, which I did. I  also had the good fortune that the book which had been used for years (called Reading Greek) stopped being used and that a new professor, Dr. Golden took over teaching the introductory Greek sequence of courses. The book Reading Greek had taken a sink or swim approach to learning Greek which from my perusal of the book at the time seemed more geared towards strengthening the reading skills of students already exposed to Greek than fully introducing the subject. The new book Dr. Golden used is call Athenaze and did start students reading in Greek from the start but also genuinely introduced the grammar and

English: Ancient Greek Grammar: Present Indica...

English: Ancient Greek Grammar: Present Indicative Active of luo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

vocabulary without assuming any previous knowledge. Dr. Golden, who was head of the department at the time, looked notable only for how unremarkable he was until he started talking. Then within minutes, the fact that he was brilliant, loved his subject area and knew it inside out became obvious. Moreover, while speaking English (his native language) he stammered terribly; yet in spite of that, his lectures were fascinating. Of course when he read or recited Greek, his eyes would either close or mostly close and absolutely flawless, beautiful Greek would come out of his mouth with no stammering whatsoever. He was also a gifted teacher and a genuinely nice man. I never learned who the previous instructor was and did not want to do so, but whoever that was had a reputation as a pompous jerk. Between the new book and instructor, the level of difficulty of Classical Greek was radically reduced. I still approached the subject as if it was going to be difficult but that it was something I greatly wanted to learn.

Learning the rules of Classical Greek pronunciation and memorizing the Greek alphabet took me about an hour. All the letters were familiar from math and science classes in high school. Use of a dictionary reinforced the knowledge of the Greek alphabet through the next few years. Towards the end of college, I won a minor wager at an end of term party because I was able while rather intoxicated to recite the Greek alphabet backwards without either mistakes or hesitation. As I recall, nothing was on the line in the wager except pride, but no one else could match the feat.

My previous exposure to ancient Greek consisted of a few words of Greek I had picked up from my father. Since I do not wish to make this post about religion, I will only say that although I am a Jew and specifically an Orthodox Jew, born a Jew, my father is or was a Christian minister. All the Greek I had picked up in this manner (about Greek words for love, the nature of the Koine dialect, etc.) had turned out to be flat wrong. The reason I mention that point (which I do not wish to belabor) is that follows from the basic philosophy of language used in philology, and that philosophy of languages in turn informed the approach to languages. The Church has its traditions about what words mean and what grammar is used in the Christian Bible. In philology, meaning of words is fundamentally established by meaning in context whenever a word is used throughout the extant corpus of documents in a given language; when cases are ambiguous, they are treated as such. Then the definition which occurs most frequently is treated as the most probable meaning of a word and so forth. Modification of meaning by other words, such as syntactical combinations, are treated in roughly the same manner. Since philologists use different methodology for understanding texts than do Christian clergy, one should not be surprised that the two groups of people reach different conclusions.

One of the great things about taking Classical Greek was that no one who took the class was doing so to fulfill an arbitrary language requirement for a degree. The combination of an instructor who knew and loved the subject and students who wanted to be there for the subject was phenomenal. The most important piece of advice that Dr. Golden gave us students was that the Greeks never took an introductory Greek course and hence the rules of grammar should be regarded as merely guidelines to understanding the patterns within the Greek language. Virtually all “rules” of Greek grammar had clear extant exceptions. (Dr. Golden cited a passage in the Odyssey describing the interaction between Odysseus and Nausikaa by the river where Homer uses the “wrong” case with a preposition; yet clearly regarding Homer’s use of Greek as “wrong” is absurd. The usage is just unusual.) Thus I was introduced to the concept of the role of grammar being to merely explain (i.e., descriptive grammar) as consistently as possible how a language is normally used as opposed to delineating how it must be used (i.e., prescriptive grammar). I drove my roommate a bit nuts that year doing flashcards for Latin, Greek and German. I took the exact same approach to learning material previously described that I had used for Latin in my first year. Thus, I memorized vocabulary and constructions as if I wished to speak the language and used no notes in class.

Where Greek began to particularly shine for me as more interesting than Latin was when I reached the stage of beginning to read literature. For my third semester of Greek, taught over the summer again by Dr. Golden, we read The Apology of Socrates by Plato. Had I waited until the Fall term, I would have been reading the Anabasis by Xenophon which even Dr. Golden reluctantly characterized as rather repetitive and boring. In contrast, the Apology was, according to Plato at least, the speech given in court by Socrates when dragged before court on ludicrous charges. Dr. Golden characterized the charges as accusing Socrates of actually holding and teaching the youth elitist and seditious views like Aristophanes’ caricature of him in the play The Clouds; he compared this to charging a politician in court based on how he was depicted in a political cartoon. Socrates refused to treat the trial seriously and was determined to show the tria up for the mockery of justice that it was. I simply loved it. Reading unaltered real Classical Greek I got to read a piece of literature which made me laugh with and root for the hero, Socrates, while seeing how and why this work was still worth reading more than two millennia after the events it describes. My next literature classes after that in Greek was on the Odyssey. The works in Greek being studied in the department simply held for me far more interest than those in Latin being studied. That feeling has never gone away.

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