Re: Learning Ancient Greek (was: Question Concerning Terminology)

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri Jan 21 2000 - 18:10:29 EST

At 4:35 PM -0600 1/21/00, Steven Craig Miller wrote:
>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.

I think you remember it right here (in fact, my impression is that your
memory is in general pretty good; I am very conscious of the evanescence of
some of my own memory). Yes, and this is a practice which I actually have
thought was a good one: you see a word in slightly altered contexts two or
three times with a gloss in the reading notes before it becomes part of the
"learning vocabulary." Yes, that's something I really think is good rather
than bad--but, DE GUSTIBUS etc., etc.

>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 agree--most of what's available does start at too advanced a level; but I
think that North and Hilliard is still in print (like Bradley's Arnold for
Latin Prose Composition, that I'm using now for a Latin prose comp course),
and it's what we used in grad school where I had to do two years of Greek
comp and two years of Latin comp (I don't know whether Harvard still
requires it, but it did in the 50's and 60's). We moved on from simple
sentences in North & Hilliard to translating paragraphs from major works on
Love while reading Plato's Symposium; had quite a bit of fun doing a page
from Lolita into Platonic Greek.

I don't spend much time on it in my Beginning Greek course--there's just
too much else to do, but I make a point of working individually with anyone
who WANTS to do the English to Greek beyond just the sentences (I do ask
them to do the English-to-Greek sentences, but not the paragraphs).

>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?

I think that English to Greek composition is of value first of all in
consolidating morphology and syntax; at the advanced level it does a lot
for sense of idiom and for style--assuming one wants to write like
Demosthenes or Plato or Lysias, to pick a good Attic model. But I doubt
it's done much in the U.S. My impression is that they may do a lot of it at
University of California--Randall Buth, are you there? Didn't you learn to
speak ancient Greek there? I've only taught Greek composition a couple
times in my career, and then only at a relatively elementary level. In my
judgment, the primary key to learning to read is to go on reading huge
chunks of all kinds of Greek, the more the better; it really does work,
although it doesn't pay off right away, it ultimately really does.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649

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