Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Learn Ancient Greek

I am about to start up my Greek classes again, and this is something I've been very proud of: I have been teaching Ancient Greek in two variants since last September, one class focusing on Book One of Homer's Iliad, another reading bits and pieces from the Greek Bible. Greek, of course, is not so terribly easy, but way back in high school, after three years of Latin and two of Greek, I decided that Greek was the cooler language of the two: that it was basically much friendlier, much nicer than Latin. I still think so, even though today my Latin is much better than my Greek. That, of course, is why I teach Greek: no better way to learn than by teaching it!

Anyway, the other day I found this lovely little Greek textbook on a friend's bookshelf. I wish I had known it earlier, as I might have used it for my classes last year. In fact, if I would start a new beginners' class now, I might use it, as it is a very nice introduction and written with a lot of humor. The book is Learn Ancient Greek by Peter Jones, a professor at the University of Newcastle on Tyne.

There's a number of things I love about the book. One thing is that Jones doesn't even bother printing the accents. I think this is such a good idea, as learning the accents from the beginning makes the work unreasonably difficult, and really, there's not much reason for a beginner (or for anybody learning Greek for fun, for that matter) to bother with them.

Equally unorthodox is how Jones doesn't much bother to distinguish between Attic (Sophocles), New Testament Greek, and the Homeric dialect. Rather than emphasizing the differences from the outset, you might as well start with the—let's face it, many—things the dialects have in common.

But the best part of the book is that it's so funny, and in a very pleasant way. Here is some pretty witty wisdom right from the Introduction:

Talk about learning ancient Greek and someone is bound to ask 'Ancient Greek? What use is that?' The answer, I suppose, depends on whether you think pleasure is useful. Being a joie de vivre man myself, I can think of few things more useful than pleasure, but I do not want to stop anyone being as miserable as sin if they so choose.

I mean, all these crazy discussions about why high school students have to learn Latin—their SATs, learning other Romance languages later, the Beauty of Vergil—one gets really tired of it. Greek is even harder to tackle—except if you think Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Herodotus are simply vastly important to one's understanding of society, and that reading these authors in translation, like it or not, is watering them down big time.

But really, such discussions are useless in the end. Either people understand you and you don't need to tell them, or they don't understand you and, in all likelihood, never will. That's why I love the way Jones deals with the problem. Why Greek? Hey, it's so much fun! And of course, it is!

Here's another great little paragraph, dealing with this silly idea of "dead" languages:

As for ancient Geek being 'dead', that is the sort of claim made only by those ignorant of the language. I waste no more space on them.

Yeah Professor Jones! That'll teach 'm. Of course! How can anybody who has read aloud two lines from the Iliad or, for my part, a paragraph from the Gospel of Mark in the orginal language maintain that this language is dead? Hey: you just read it, with feeling I hope, and through your voice, Homer (or Mr. Mark) spoke. Dead? Alive? It all depends on you reading it—or not, of course.

To be fair, I don't think the book will suffice if you really want to learn Greek: it's meant as an introduction, and that's what it is. An enthusiastic group of language lovers with the help of a teacher I'm sure can work through it in a semester, very comfortably in two. High school teachers will probably look down on the book, but actually, I think it would be a great basis for an after-school program (or even an official one-year course) in Greek.