Re: How to memorize verb forms...

Carl W. Conrad (
Fri, 6 Dec 1996 06:17:29 -0600

At 7:23 PM -0600 12/5/96, Jonathan Robie wrote:
>>At 7:28 PM -0600 12/5/96, Alan Repurk wrote:
>>>Now as I write this I am beginning to understand where I have gone
>>>wrong. I am trying to acquire the skill of being able to say
>>>the chart from memory, at least when prompted with the lexical form.
>I have to admit that I'm still not clear on this. What should my goals be? =
>can often, (but not often enough), figure out the grammatical form of a ver=
>when I see it in context. Now I would like to change that "often" to
>"usually" or even "almost always", at least when reading the GNT.
>How should I approach studying this?
>What forms do I really need to learn?

Not so small a question, and yet it seems to me that we--teachers and
students of Greek alike (and teachers, at best, are only students with a
bit of a head start over students)--continue to look for simple and uniform
answers to it. As one who has pondered this question for 35 years or so and
not really become much wiser, I'd like to share some pedagogical thoughts
about language learning generally, but about learning Greek in particular.
Some of this may well be repetitive of what I've argued before, but chalk
that up to senescence.

2 ways of learning a language: memorization and in-depth-understanding:
There are actually 3 ways of learning a language, but the "natural" way of
learning it by growing up amidst native speakers is barred to us for
ancient Greek. The options left are (1) the old-fashioned way: memorization
of paradigms of verbs, nouns, adjectives, and other word-forms that are
inflected, and memorization of those verbs, nouns, and adjectives that are
ornery enough not to follow the standard paradigms; (2) the new-fashioned
way: resort to memorization as little as possible (realizing that it cannot
be totally dispensed with), but instead learn the principles of noun-,
verb-, and adjective-formation in terms of all the ways in which roots are
modified by markers to indicate case, gender, number, tense, voice, mood,
person and number, etc., etc. I try to go the "new-fashioned" way as much
as possible, which means, for instance, that instead of teaching students
to memorize paradigms of contract verbs I get them to learn a table of
contractions and to understand the phonological principles governing those

the metaphor of a landscaped terrain, patterned, but not organized in
perfect, wholly balanced array, and in fact altered with some degree of
regularity over the years, partly by design and partly by accident of alien
influences and lazy habits of cultivation: Over the years I've meditated
upon this analogy for a language and although it may have pitfalls (like a
landscape) I have found it pretty serviceable. Some languages (e.g. German)
are really quite orderly; others (English seems notorious to me) appear to
be relatively chaotic; but the most orderly are far from perfectly so and
the most chaotic ones are far more orderly than they seem. Now there are
two ways to learn a landscaped terrain: (1) by studying maps and geological
charts, and (2) by walking the land, up and down, all around, over and
over, day after day and year after year until you can be carried in your
sleep to a spot somewhere on that terrain and wake up and know where you
are, so well-oriented have your years of experienced made you.

It seems to me that the old-fashioned method of language instruction tends
to emphasize the study of maps and charts in great detail before the
student ever begins to walk the terrain. Or there may be sentences
constructed by the teacher that are like scale-models of a piece of that
terrain, but they have to be very carefully composed so that they only show
that part of the terrain that is perfectly landscaped without any
irregularities. The hope is that students will ultimately be able, like
non-swimmers thrown into deep water, to start swimming more or less
instinctively to keep from drowning. The marvel is that sometimes this
works, but it seems to me that it more often results in students feeling
like drowning children that want to get away from the water and not go back

I have to confess, on the other hand, that the new-fashioned way just won't
work for any and all students either--and it may not just be a matter of
how bright they are. I've certainly seen some bright kids learn Greek or
Latin the old-fashioned way and (relatively) quickly become accomplished
sight-readers of ancient texts. I suspect that the new-fashioned way is not
very suitable to students that can't grasp ideas quickly. I used to think
that anybody could learn anything but that some people just learn a lot
more quickly than others; I'm coming around to the point where I suspect
there are some who were never meant to learn Latin or Greek, and all
efforts that I have expended on them--and that they have themselves
expended (I'm not speaking of lazy students) appear to reap diminishing
fruit. Suffice it to say that there are quite a few students who would do
best to memorize the paradigms. If that's your way, then take up the lists
of principal parts and go to it.

=46or other students, there is no substitute for an understanding of the
rationale of phonology, morphology, and syntax. I tend to be this way
myself, and I tend to teach with an expectation that my students are that
way. Since students are different, and since even relatively small classes
of students may have radically different chemistry, I have my share of
failures: students who should have been made to memorize paradigms at the
outset, but my pedagogical technique has been governed by a belief that
when the student begins to read an unfamiliar Greek text and his/her
resources are a dictionary, a grammar, and a remembered trove of language
lore, he/she needs to be able to analyze verbs and nouns--nouns, of course,
are relatively simple in Greek--but particularly verbs. One needs to be
able, I think, to take a form like KATESTHSANTO apart into elements such as
1. KAT' (elided prefix); 2. -E- (augment); 3. -STH- (long-vowel form of the
verb root); 4. -SA- (first/sigmatic/alpha aorist tense formative element);
5. -NTO (secondary 3 pl. middle ending, further analyzable into -NT- {3 pl.
personal marker} and -O {middle voice marker for secondary tenses). I think
a student needs to know this in order to find the lexical form of the verb
as well as to delimit the possibilities of its function and sense in its
own context. Hopefully, most (?) students who continue with Greek will
reach a point where such analysis is no longer consciously performed but
automatic, but anyone may come across a verb form sooner or later that is
puzzling enough to require such analysis.

Principal parts, tense stems, and variant root forms: I think a student
needs to grasp how the language works--how a verb root like PEIQ, POIQ, PIQ
tends to show that -E- grade in the present stem, the -O- grade in the
perfect stem, and the "zero" grade in the aorist stem; I think one needs to
learn the ten fundamental ways in which present-tense stems are formed from
a verb root; one needs to know how first, second, and "third" aorists are
formed and how the thematic vowel interacts with tense stems and with
vocalic and liquid and nasal verb stems in patterns that are intelligible
if one understands Greek phonology and the ways in which the Greek alphabet
reflects that phonology. I think one needs to know something about
"digamma" roots like WEID, WOID, WID from which the standard Greek verbs
for "see" and "know" are formed in certain tenses, and I think that one
needs to know about the other vanishing-consonant verbs that once had
initial iota or initial sigma: that makes intelligible the otherwise
anomalous fact that the present tense of EXW has a smooth breathing while
the future hEKSW has a rough breathing.

Composition hand-in-hand with reading of ORIGINAL Greek texts similar in
genre and subject-matter to what one is composing: the only way,
ultimately, to learn to think in Greek. I don't suppose this is ever taught
in seminaries, and I think there are relatively few grad school programs in
Classics that still teach it; I feel blessed that Harvard taught it when I
was in grad school. It's easy to say this is a useless luxury, an
intellectual game for aristocrats that some may prefer to polo or breeding
race horses; the fact is that it can be fun, can be a sport, can be more
fun than doing a difficult crossword puzzle, but it is not undertaken just
for fun but rather for a pedagogical purpose: this is how one learns to
THINK in the language. For an ancient and dead language it is the only
possible equivalent of the modern-language student's immersion in
foreign-language conversation or spending a year or two in the land where
the language is spoken today.

All of this takes time, I need hardly emphasize; it takes a lot of
commitment. Maybe it requires one to be, at heart, a philologist--a lover
or words and locutions and language. What it certainly does mean is that
learning Greek cannot succeed if it's just a matter of "tasting," or
"sampling" the GNT. This has been a lengthy ramble, but the question that
evoked it is a very real one for those who think they are serious students
of Greek: how to memorize verb forms ..., and noun forms, and everything
else. The bottom line, as I see it is this: it won't work if it is a matter
of memorizing nonsense-syllables that don't even rhyme, like memorizing a
few pages of the telephone directory. There has to be an underlying
rationale grasped for every verb that one learns: every single verb you
learn is a monument to the way a people thought and understood their lives.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR