Learning Ancient Greek (was: Question Concerning Terminology)

From: Steven Craig Miller (scmiller@www.plantnet.com)
Date: Fri Jan 21 2000 - 17:35:29 EST

<x-flowed>To: Carl W. Conrad,

SCM: << It seems to me (I don't know if others with concur or not) that the
major task of a beginning student learning Greek is threefold: (a)
memorizing basic vocabulary, (b) memorizing paradigms, and (c) learning
basic syntax. >>

CWC: << But as one who has been teaching beginning Greek students for a
little over forty years, I'm rather bothered by the notion that beginning
to learn Greek is mastering "these three items." I've known people who
actually have mastered "these three items" pretty well and still have a
great deal of difficulty reading idiomatic Greek prose or poetry. I think
that no less important than these three, perhaps (but I hesitate to say so)
even more important, is acquisition of an ever more intimate familiarity
with the IDIOM of Greek. The metaphor I've used in the past is that of a
person learning a terrain by walking all over it again and again and
sensing where it rises and where it falls, where it's cut by ravines or
watercourses, where there are sinkholes, etc. Perhaps the best geophysical
maps can give one some sense of what to expect in a terrain when you get
there, it's not like being there in different kinds of weather at different
times of the day or year. It's not a matter of EPISTHMH but of SUNOIKHSIS.
I know that you've said that you learned Greek originally using Reading
Greek, Steven; although I complain about some features of this textbook,
I've used it for years and I'm using it this final go-round for my teaching
of Beginning Greek this year--precisely because it immerses the student in
huge chunks of idiomatic text that is alive and authentic ancient Greek. If
I were a baptist (this ain't theology folks), I'd say that it's not much
good to be introduced to Greek by sprinkling; you really need to be dunked
in it and forced to swim (actually I don't know that swimming has anything
to do with the baptismal metaphor), but what the heck? The point is simply
that learning Greek, IMHO, is not a matter of acquisition of theoretical
mastery of its phenomena but of direct-confrontation with what
Greek-speakers have left us in the way of a living heritage. >>

I enjoyed using "Reading Greek." Unfortunately, my professor seemed to
spend an excessive amount of time devoted to lecturing on morphology and
how older endings became our Attic endings. It has been a long time since
I've took this course (perhaps 16 or 17 years now), but if I remember
correctly (and correct me if I'm wrong) but I think "Reading Greek" had a
tendency to introduce new words in the reading text, only to introduce them
in the next lesson's vocabulary section. Do I remember this right? I
personally dislike such a practice. But that is more of a personal quibble.

What emphasis do you place on learning to translate from English to Greek?
I've never learned "Greek composition." And the few books on Greek
composition I've looked at, seem to start at a too advanced level for me.
I've been thinking that if I'm really going to move my knowledge of Greek
to my next level, I probably need to work my way through a beginning
grammar again, but this time focus on the translating of English to Greek.
My problem is, although I have a fairly large Greek vocabulary, most of it
is in (what I call) "passive recall memory" (as opposed to "active recall
memory"), where I can recognize the Greek word, and know what it means, but
if asked to recall a Greek word by its (more or less) English equivalent, I
often draw a blank. (I'm also a fairly poor speller of English words,
although I don't know if the two are connected.) Regardless what your
attitude toward English to Greek exercises might be for first year
students, do you (or anyone else) ever teach a course on Greek composition
for advanced students? What do you (and others) think about the importance
of learning to translate from English to Greek? Or would one be better off
just spending more time reading Greek?

-Steven Craig Miller
Alton, Illinois (USA)
FWIW: I'm neither a clergy-person, nor an academic (and I have no post-grad

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