Some reflections from a student who took Greek for the first time this summer
“The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” –Aristotle
We’ve all experienced times throughout when education feels simply bitter, with the fruits that are promised to come not even on the horizon. In other words, any time a test rolls around or a paper is due. And yet, nearly every time, the relief of being done is a sweet enough fruit, and the realization that at least some significant learning was done is just a cherry on top. In no other area of study have I experienced feelings of bitterness towards education followed by enjoyment of its fruits in such rapid succession than in learning Ancient Greek.
As a lifelong Latin student, I admittedly thought that the first few classes, and even weeks, of my Ancient Greek course would be a breeze. Sure Latin and Greek were different languages, but they both fell under the Classics umbrella and used similar grammatical structures that are now second nature to my Latin oriented brain. However, I failed to account for a primary aspect of Greek: its alphabet. Most people, especially Classics students, know some of the Greek letters, like alpha, beta, or delta. Those in particular are familiar to English and Latin speakers, given that they closely resemble A, B, and D. It’s the rest of the alphabet that gave me, and most of my classmates, fits.
Many of the letters were completely foreign shapes that represented unfamiliar sounds. Some contracted sounds, such as ‘th’ and ‘ps’ are simply one letter, with many letters out of order from our standard English alphabet, and some letters like ‘h’ even being shown by an accent mark rather than a letter. So when we were asked to read aloud and translate Greek words, I found myself first transforming the characters into their approximate English counterparts to read them aloud, and then translating them into their English definitions. Not only is pronunciation not stressed at all in Latin, the altered alphabet made each word feel like an enormous hurdle.
However, as is Aristotle’s golden rule of education, the sweet fruits came not far behind. After a few hours of dutiful practice, both with classmates and alone, I became well acquainted with the formerly alien Ancient Greek letters. I can’t say it has become second nature, because to be frank I’m not sure if it ever will, but my fear of reading Greek words aloud has reduced dramatically. Unfortunately, that relief has been short lived, as our course has carried on to the minutiae of the language: declensions, conjugations, and articles. Yet, the immediate swing from bitterness to sweetness gives hope for further enjoyment of the Greek language.
“The happy man is the one with a healthy body, a wealthy soul and a well-educated nature” –Thales
Many philosophers throughout human history have spoken to the joy that is necessary to properly learn and live, and that the happiest people are those who are the most educated. While this notion feels at times preposterous, I find that it is especially true when students are allowed to thoroughly learn the material that interests them at their own speed.
By choosing an Ancient Greek course for the first time this summer, I have gone back to the basics of any language: vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. And while I have little memory of doing similar exercises to learn English, I can remember building the foundations of Latin nearly six years ago. However, I have now reached the Latin stage where classes and homeworks are dominated solely by translations– I have a dictionary on hand, because at this point there’s no time to study more vocab, and whenever I see an infinitive verb, I just assume that the author is using some form of indirect speech. To be frank, I don’t think I’ve seen any form of “esse” in years. This ease I feel with Latin has helped me read increasingly complex texts and perform more adept analysis, but the fundamentals of the language have certainly been a bit lost.
During my experiences with Greek this summer, however, I have made a genuine commitment to understanding each and every aspect of the sentences I translate. I, of course, want to be precise with my vocabulary translations, but rather than simply trying to get through as many sentences as possible, and half-heartedly moving on from any phrases that don’t quite make sense, I’m trying to actually figure out what I don’t quite understand. While these goals have certainly made learning Greek more time consuming than I originally anticipated, it has actually brought considerable joy to me. For the first time in years I feel less of a time crunch to get through material, and therefore increased enjoyment and fulfillment in learning the material.
I’ve often heard people discuss the extreme difficulty of the English language, and that, most of the time, it simply makes very little sense. From the spelling of our words to the grammatical structure of our sentences, English is often considered one of the hardest languages to learn. However, I don’t think that I personally understood why that was until I returned to the fundamentals of Ancient Greek.
Latin and Greek are the two foreign languages I have studied the most, and both have a calculated, almost mathematical, structure. Since the case of a noun or adjective determines what the word’s role in the sentence is, we as readers can identify each word’s job purely by looking at the ending. The same is true for verbs, as the ending tells us the person, number, tense, and mood of the verb all within a few letters at the end of the word. And while these rules, of course, have many exceptions, even those exceptions have trends that can be studied and then identified when looking at a sentence. In general, one can learn the languages by studying paradigms and grammar charts, in addition to practicing translating sentences. These paradigms are so accurate, in fact, that often personal pronouns and “to be” verbs can be omitted. The ancient Latin and Greek texts even had no spaces between words, punctuation, or capital letters; however, readers could still understand the material because of the steadfast rules of the languages.
These immovable, easily explainable rules seem to be what’s missing from English. Most of the reasoning behind why certain words look the way they do or function in a particular manner is because that’s just the way it works (in word order). There’s not a easy declension or case system for all English nouns and adjectives, verbs don’t share common endings that allow one to identify their syntax, and spelling feels, at times, completely arbitrary. We have so many words that are spelled the same with different meanings or have the same pronunciation with different meanings that we categorize them: homographs and homophones. While not everyone has a mathematically-oriented brain, the calculated approach Latin and Greek take to grammar certainly makes them easier to wrap our heads around, in addition to highlighting the outright confusing nature of English.
Having now completed my Introductory Greek summer course, I am able to reflect on the most impactful aspects that I took away from the class. While learning a new language always provides a new window into how we think about various dialects, grammar, and vocabulary, I find that learning a Classical language gives an additional perspective that modern languages cannot supply. By learning a dead language, I, and all Classics students, are forced to examine how life was when Ancient Greek was the common denominator. I briefly took a Spanish course in middle school, and I recall the translation passages consisting of dialogue between people getting food at a market, or walking down a city street; however, the Greek passages consist of philosophical debates between philosophers of the time, or strenuous journeys across dangerous seas in triremes. In uncovering these events that are so foreign to the modern eye, I am truly taking a history course along with a language course. This multifaceted learning experience certainly gives me genuine interest and enjoyment in translating large volumes of text.
In addition, as I made my way through the unique, and admittedly odd, stories, I was forced to make somewhat of a human connection with the characters. For example, many of our passages involved a character who lived his life as Homer would, and frequently quoted the great poet. While his antics were at times confusing, I would always become a little more alert and absorbed in the text when he, and his Homeric philosophies, appeared in the passages. These little nuances, that can really be found only in the texts of Classical, dead languages, showcase the human interest that learning Ancient Greek provides. Looking forward, such connections to the text has greatly heightened my fascination with the Classics as a whole, and encouraged me to dive deeper into the field.
My name is Matthew Abati, and I am a rising high school senior at Milton Academy just outside of Boston. I have been a Classics lover since middle school and am very excited to share some of my thoughts on the Classics here on Sententiae Antiquae! When I’m not in school, I love to read all types of books and play all types of sports.