IT’S ALL GREEK TO ME!
You have likely heard this saying. If you have not, once you start studying Greek, you can be sure someone will say it to you. (You are hereby forgiven if you have already said this to someone else who studies Greek.)
When you study Greek, this saying means that you have come to appreciate the power and legacy of the Greek language, and the people who spoke and wrote in this language. (This does not mean that everything you see is positive, by the way: half of the time the lesson you learn from the Greeks is “Don’t do that! It ends badly!”). You learn more about the world. You learn ways to make it better (or hope that it does not end badly…).
But of course, that is not what “It’s all Greek to me” means to most people.
It means that Greek is an impenetrable mystery language that no one understands.
It is true that some things written in Greek, including occasional passages of famed authors, are nearly incomprehensible. But this is not because you or anyone else cannot learn Greek. Even some ancient Greeks admitted that they did not understand all that they were reading. The comic playwright Aristophanes, for example, makes jokes about not being able to understand Aeschylus, and the scholar Dionysius of Halicarnassus confesses that sometimes he cannot figure out what Thucydides means. These Greeks knew the language perfectly well, and in some cases they were themselves experts in the Greek language. Yet even they encountered Greek that was unintelligible to them. This does not mean, however, that Greek is fundamentally impenetrable. Some passages in every language are unintelligible to the average native speaker. Have you understood everything you have ever read in English?
The good news is that, despite its reputation, a lot of Greek is blindingly simple. This fact leads to the mission statement of Ancient Greek for Everyone:
- Learning the core of Greek should be straightforward for beginners.
- After learning the core, readers of Greek best learn more Greek by reading more Greek.
(If you are wondering why Greek has been so hard to learn, or if you have tried to learn Greek before and it was frustrating, there is an appendix to this introduction that explains why. Otherwise, we can move forward.)
This digital package embodies the first part of the mission of Ancient Greek for Everyone, by providing explanation and practice of the core of the ancient Greek language for beginners. After that, just read more Greek. You will understand most of it and you will understand more as you read more. Depending on what you read, some of it will at first appear incomprehensible. You can struggle with these bits of Greek or you can just move on, as you wish, but it won’t be because you can’t understand Greek. It will be because you know that the sentence is incomprehensible and you want to continue forward to more Greek that you understand.
HOW DOES ANCIENT GREEK for EVERYONE WORK?
A team of teachers and scholars has devised Ancient Greek for Everyone (AGE) on some core principles:
- No other language is quite like Greek, so learning Greek is not quite like learning any other language. Everything in this digital package, therefore, is designed to facilitate learning Greek.
- Greek should not be ridiculously hard to learn. Throughout history, millions of people have successfully learned Greek as an additional language. It is not a mystery language.
- Users of AGE live in the 21st century. Traditional instruction in Greek has changed very little since the mid-19th century. As a result, students with an educational background that accords with 19th-century approaches (e.g., some students of Latin) have tended to have the most success when learning Greek in a traditional environment. This is fine, and nothing in AGE will put such students at a disadvantage, but AGE is designed from its foundations for students of the 21st century who have only English as a base language.
- People want to learn Greek for many different reasons. No other language has a legacy comparable to Greek. People come to Greek for Homer (8th century BCE), philosophy (starting in the 6th century BCE), the stunning achievements of the Classical Period (5th and 4th centuries BCE), the koine Greek that spread around the Mediterranean world following the conquests of Alexander the Great (3rd-1st centuries BCE), the New Testament and writings of early Christians (1st-3rd centuries CE), Jewish writings from the Hellenistic period (3rd century BCE to 1st century CE), Greek writings from the Roman empire (1st century BCE to 3rd century CE), writings of the Byzantine and medieval age (4th to 15th centuries CE), the Classical Greek reworked for the modern world, including katharevousa (the 18th to the 20th centuries) and Demotic (aka Modern) Greek (20th and 21st centuries). Some people are curious about the achievements in medicine, science and engineering from many periods, or about the oldest surviving Greek, the Linear B Greek of the second millennium BCE. Currently, AGE includes readings from the Classical era and Biblical readings, but the long-term plan is to have parallel readings and lessons from every phase of the Greek language.
To accomplish these broader goals, the approach of AGE is to rebuild the learning of Greek from its foundations. Three principles distinguish the approach of AGE from other presentations of Greek:
- SPELL IT LIKE IT SOUNDS
- Most ancient Greek texts were composed for an audience of hearers, not readers. As a result, the writing of Greek historically functioned more as a recording system of the human voice than a written system independent of speaking. Almost every textbook and reference work on Greek presents a dizzying array of variations of Greek words, but these variations are almost always reflections of a simple principle: Greeks wrote Greek to reflect the way that they spoke it; if they pronounced something a little differently, they changed the spelling to match what they spoke. In general, you should always be skeptical when someone claims that they present a simple principle that others have overlooked, but in this case it is remarkably true. AGE presents the minor variations in Greek for what they are: a record of many human voices in all their variety, variations which are beautiful and valuable for what they preserve, but which are just records of pronunciation, not endless variations of the language to be memorized. AGE asks not that you memorize thousands of bits of data in Greek, only that you recognize how Greek speakers recorded their language.
- HIGH FREQUENCY VOCABULARY
- One area where Greek is fundamentally easier to learn than many other languages is vocabulary. Many Greek words have come into English, so once you know the Greek alphabet, you can match many Greek words to English ones. Also, in terms of raw numbers, Greek simply has a smaller number of vocabulary items to learn: typically about half that of most other languages, including English (to learn more, click here). Computerized databases have made it possible to measure what are the most common words in Greek. Unlike most Greek textbooks or resources, AGE introduces these most common words early and provides plenty of practice with them, so that when you have finished the core, you are comfortable with most of the words that you will encounter as you continue to read Greek.
- To facilitate retention, all vocabulary – organized by chapter – is also available on Quizlet (click here or here), where students can master their vocabulary acquisition through games and other learning tools.
- STRUCTURED TOPICS
- AGE has a simple, consistent structure. Every chapter or unit focuses on a single type of word in Greek (verbs, nouns, conjunctions, pronouns, prepositions, adverbs). This means that the explanations and the readings stay focused on one topic. Other textbooks and resources will claim to have some sort of focus but then toss in the “Genitive of Ablatival Locativeness” or some such into a chapter, just in case you are heading to graduate school and someone there might ask you about it. AGE is for beginners and sticks to the core of Greek.
The basic roadmap of AGE is this:
- Learn the Greek alphabet, so you know the sounds that the letter record.
- Verbs: describe what is happening.
- Nouns: what things are and how they fit into what is happening.
- Conjunctions: link every sentence together.
- Pronouns: stop repeating every single noun and also have more ways to link sentences together.
- Practice more verbs, nouns, and the rest of the pronouns.
- Learn the tenses of verbs that describe the past.
- Adverbs, adjectives and participles: describe what is happening more subtly.
- Commands and calling: how to make someone do it in Greek.
- Particles: every little spoken sound matters in Greek.
- Hypothetically speaking: imagine what can or could happen in Greek.
Once you have this core of Greek, just read more Greek! You will get better and find out more about the world and the legacy of Greek in it!
AGE is a gateway to learning a rich and fascinating language. To promote increased student engagement with the Greek language as they move through the core material of AGE, each lesson chapter includes:
- A list of key terms and concepts at the end of each lesson chapter, to facilitate an understanding of how Greek works as a language.
- References to the section numbers in Greek Grammar, by H.W. Smyth (abbreviated as “S”). These references provide interested students and instructors a chance for more advanced study of morphology and syntax.
- References to paradigms in the Greek Paradigm Handbook, by E. Geannikis, A. Romiti, and P. T. Wilford (abbreviated as “GPH”). The Greek Paradigm Handbook provides all essential Greek paradigms in a small, easy-to-use spiral book.
- An inscription. These inscriptions come from the corpus of over 7000 inscriptions that have been recovered during excavations by the Athenian Agora Excavations (agathe.gr). Each inscription can be clicked for a larger view. For interested instructors and students, a bibliography is provided in AGE to facilitate further study. While it is not expected that beginning students can translate many of the inscriptions (and some of the inscriptions are not complete enough to translate, anyway), these inscriptions nevertheless can serve as a gateway for discussions of a number of broader issues, such as the differences between the Attic and Ionic alphabets; religious practices; administrative practices; burial practices; and the reuse of stone inscriptions as spolia.
Additionally, the readings include samples of the standard authors famous in the Greek tradition and the New Testament, but also from writings of the same period that are less well known, but which become open to you since you can read Greek. Some background and full citations are always given so that you can pursue more reading in the areas that interest you.
APPENDIX: WHY IS GREEK SO HARD, or IS IT?
You might legitimately be wondering why Greek has the reputation for being inscrutable or perhaps you have previously tried to learn some Greek and found it inscrutable. How has anyone ever learned this language? And how can learning Greek with AGE be so different? These are fair questions. Here are some answers:
- Effectively every textbook or learning resource for ancient Greek that you can find now is rooted in the way Greek was taught in the United States, the U.K. and Germany in the nineteenth century. Why? At that time higher education put “Classical Education” front and center, so Greek was a core part of the curriculum. Although education in the United States and around the world has shifted priorities since then, for the most part, the people who teach Greek have been “Classically” trained in one way or another, and teachers for the most part tend to teach subjects in ways similar to the way that they learned them, so the basic method has persisted.
- This “traditional” method does work, but it is not the most effective method for most students in the 21st century. The educational system in which the teaching of Greek flourished in the 19th century involved a great deal of practice with the raw mechanics, the grammar, of language, especially in English and Latin. Instruction in Greek, therefore, assumed that students already knew the mechanical grammar of language. It was a successful system in its day.
- Textbooks for Greek in the twentieth century adapted to the changes in education in peculiar ways. Rather than change the way Greek was to be taught, most Greek textbooks of the twentieth century (and into the twenty-first) add explanations about grammar that were standard or well known in the nineteenth century. The resulting books become enormous! It is easy to find Greek textbooks close to or more than a thousand densely-packed pages, because they are teaching not only Greek but a whole language curriculum from a bygone era.
AGE is a fresh start. AGE is a digital resource for students of the 21st century who know English and want to learn Greek. Every explanation and exercise has been designed and tested to make translation from English to Greek (or Greek to English) as smooth and direct as possible. Sometimes we make use of the tools of the nineteenth century, because they are still the most effective tools we know. Understanding the sounds of letters and parts of speech remains straightforward and powerful, but we use these tools purposefully.
Wilfred E. Major, Louisiana State University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Laughy, Washington and Lee University, email@example.com
– τὸ τέλος –