Learning Greek on one's own (was Re: 'instrumental-comitative dative')

From: Carl W. Conrad (cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu)
Date: Fri Jun 18 1999 - 07:59:16 EDT

At 3:59 PM -0400 6/16/99, Tony Stark <Data7201@aol.com> wrote:
>In a message dated 6/16/99 3:10:12 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
>cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu writes:
><< After 40 years of teaching it, I'm now
> pretty well convinced that what one must learn in Beginning Greek probably
> is best done in three 15-week semesters, preferably meeting at least four
> times a week. There is just that much memorization and cumulative
> absorption of essential grammatical information to be done. A worthy
> alternative for those who can afford the time: the special summer course at
> CUNY at UC-Berkely that meets 5-days-a-week for 6-hours-a-day for 8 weeks: >>
>With so many years teaching greek,i want to ask you what is your experience
>with those learning greek on their own? What are the advantages and
>disadvantages of teaching yourself? What have you learned from others who
>taught themselves that need to be avoided? What are the limitations that
>these students have and can they be overcome? Thanks for your reply if
>possible. :-)

I guess that I have made so bold a statement that I had better clarify what
I mean by "more than a superficial knowledge of Greek" as well as respond
to Tony's question about learning Greek independently.

I do indeed think that one can learn Greek on one's own so long as one has
access to the necessary materials, but however much of what is in books has
to be learned, one really needs to have access to persons with greater
experience in the language; one needs to be able to put one's questions to
someone who can give answers that are not only competent but helpful. For
these reasons, despite the ample on-line resources, including lessons,
grammars, and dictionaries now accessible on the internet, the community
constituted by the B-Greek list is itself one of the most vital resources
of all: understanding Greek is an enterprise that depends upon the
accumulated lore of hundreds of generations, and much of that never finds
its way into books but is shared by teachers and learners in the classroom
and in informal discussions.

There are several courses in Biblical and even classical Attic Greek that
can be perused and studied on-line, including those prepared by our own
list-members Jonathan Robie and Jim West. Some are reasonably complete,
others (Jonathan's, for instance) are still in process of development. But
caveats are in order: (1) "completeness" is relative: the most complete
textbook i the world, on-line or not, fails to deal with lots of things
that are more important than a beginner can realize are important--i.e.
textbooks and on-line courses should be understood for what they are:
primers, beginning courses of instructions, not "all you need to know about
Greek." (2) One needs to understand also that ALL grammars and
dictionaries and textbooks and teachers are subject to error. The best of
them are sometimes simply wrong, the inferior ones more frequently. It
really is important to be observant and to be able to question anything one
is confronting that seems unintelligible; that's why it's important to have
someone to pose the questions to, even better to have a community such as
B-Greek, where you can get a variety of responses to your questions, some
of them possibly even correct responses!

There are several listings of such courses and resources for learning Greek
on the web; rather than list several I will simply refer to what I think is
the most thorough and the most regularly updated listing of such resources,
the page maintained by Mark Goodacre:


Phonology: This really is important, but most textbooks don't give much
more than instructions on vowel-contractions (usually when introducing
alpha, epsilon, and omicron contract verbs) and on assimilation of
consonants (usually when introducing the future and liquid aorists. But one
really needs to learn quite a number of significant facts about ancient
Greek phonology, e.g.: the relationship of original long-alpha to Eta and
epsilon, iota, and rho; the original consonantal forms of iota and digamma
and initial and medial sigma that are responsible for hiatus and numerous
vowel contractions; compensatory lengthening; loss of final consonants
other than sigma, rho, and nu, etc., etc. Of course one needs to have some
sense of how Greek was pronounced, however theoretical that may be; but far
more important is this phonology, because unless one understands it, one is
doomed to doing a lot of memorization of morphological paradigms which will
seem wholly irrational although they are really quite rational to one who
understands the phonetic principles underlying the apparent anomalies. This
is one of those things that is rarely taught, but I've always thought it
fundamentally essential, and I've thought it was a primary differentiator
between students who barely succeed in acquiring a reading knowledge of
Greek and those who really understand the WHYs of the morphological
paradigms in their historical forms. What's most important to know is even
available on-line in Smyth's grammar at the Perseus site:


Morphology: It's simply no good muddling through with guesses about what a
verb form or a noun or adjective or pronoun is; one needs to know the
paradigms so thoroughly that one recognizes instantaneously the inflected
form as soon as one sees it--or at least the range of possible forms that
it could be--and one needs to be able to understand from context why a form
like PEIQOUSIN must in a particular instance be a dative-plural participle
and not a 3d plural present indicative; one needs to realize at once that
EDEXW is an aorist middle 2nd sg. and not a future indicative 1st sg. One
needs to know from context where forms of AUTOS are real 3d person pronouns
and that AUTH hH GUNH means "the woman herself" while hH AUTH GUNH means
"the same woman." Memorization is vital here and there is simply no
substitute for it. One has to do quite enough intelligent guesswork when
reading a Greek text, but there is no excuse for failure to discern the
quite-limited range of possible ways of understanding any inflected form of
a verb, noun, adjective, pronoun or adverb.

History of the Language: This is another of those things that I consider
important while most teachers of Greek think it ancillary at best. I know
that many really do believe that one can learn to read NT Koine Greek
without ever reading anything else except perhaps the LXX, but I honestly
believe this is a delusion and a dangerous one, if for no other reason than
that one needs to know the difference between a standard Greek construction
and a Semitism peculiar to the LXX and common enough in the GNT. I think
one needs to know SOMETHING about the history of Greek from Linear B up to
the modern language; how much one needs to know is debatable, to be sure,
but I am personally convinced that one who can read at least some Homer and
some Plato is better equipped to read the GNT than one who cannot, and I am
convinced too that it is really worth knowing something about the
change-history of Greek inflections over the course of three millennia. I
don't expect to convince everyone that this is true, but I will state my
reason: it is that however much one might like to think of the Koine of the
GNT in synchronic terms as a stable entity fully intelligible as a
linguistic system, the fact is that the Koine of the GNT is a hodge-podge
of morphological and syntactic structures which are far from homogeneous;
if most of those structures DO conform to standard textbook paradigms, all
well and good, but in fact, there are VERY MANY morphological and syntactic
structures that reflect what were common earlier or became common later
forms in Greek. It is good to know something about the history of
hINA-clauses and to understand their relationship to earlier Greek purpose
clauses as well as to later Greek infinitives. Admittedly I have a bias
here toward a diachronic conception of Koine Greek that many do not share,
but as I have said, my reason for this is that the simple fact that one can
see concurrent forms like EIPON and EIPA for the first-person sg. aorist
indicative in the GNT is sufficient evidence that the Greek of the GNT is a
language in flux.

Vocabulary: This is obvious and I think everyone realizes it; perhaps not
quite as obvious as it ought to be is the necessity of knowing the
principal part of 50 to 60 major irregular verbs--knowing them so well that
one can instantly recognize a compound of hIHMI or a -QH- form of a verb
that isn't and never was a passive because a verb such as DUNAMAI can never
have a passive sense. But there's a lot more than memorization of basic
forms as such here; one really needs to know some fundamentals of
word-formation (e.g. the difference between -THR/-TWR, -MA, and -SIS
suffixes with verbal stems, the kind of nouns created by adding a -THRION
ending, the kind of verbs created by using an -IZW or a -SKW present-system
stem formative). Smyth and BDF--any really good reference grammar--have
sections on word-formation that are worth studying and absorbing. In
accordance with my above-stated bias toward diachronic perspective on
language, I think it's important to understand words and roots in terms of
their history in the language, where possible--and although etymology can
be misleading regarding the current actual sense of a word, it is more
often a source of helpful guidance than one may realize. And I think it is
important to STUDY lexicons when confronting a word that ranges very widely
in its meaning (such as PROS!) and to endeavor to see how word-meanings
ramify from each other and to examine sentences and phrases illustrative of
actual usage of words. I wrote at length on this subject once on B-Greek
and that's in the Archives [s.v. Carl W. Conrad, 1/30/96, "using lexicons
and learning Greek"].

Reading: My own conviction about learning Greek is that there is no
substitute for reading large and connected chunks of original Greek text;
one may start with relatively easy things like John's gospel, but sooner or
later one has to tackle the difficulties of the Pauline corpus or the
complexity of Hebrews--the stuff in the GNT that is really hard. And I
continue to think that one really ought to read plenty of stuff outside
the GNT also; read some LXX at least, read some Philo or Josephus, read
some Apostolic Fathers; read some Plato, read some Homer. And keep reading,
and keep learning. Learning Greek is a lifelong endeavor: it doesn't ever
come to a point of rest while one lives, so far as I know.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
Summer: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
WWW: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/

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