Saturday, January 15, 2011

Greek Is Hard (or, Greek with Peek)

I started studying ancient Greek last semester. I've studied other languages before (Spanish, Latin, German, and French), but never enough to become fluent or to make them stick. (It's like a long string of love affairs that seemed promising but all ended in heartbreak, and none producing a lasting relationship or any offspring.)

Fortunately, Professor Philip Peek of the Bowling Green State University Romance and Classical Studies Department has let me attend his elementary Greek classes. Peek is truly a great professor--he achieves a good balance between challenging and supporting his students, for example, and he's a lot of fun to be around and work with. Unfortunately, ancient Greek is a lot harder than any other language I have tried and failed to learn. There are several reasons for this, including the complex rules for accent, rules for contracting vowels, rules for ellision and crasis, the large number of irregular conjugations and declensions (more than the number of irregular verbs and nouns that I recall seeing in Latin, for example; especialy difficult is Greek's schizophrenic third declension, in which every other word seems to be irregular), the peculiarities of Greek grammar (a middle voice in addition to the active and passive, an optative mood in addition to the subjunctive, a dual number in addition to the singular and plural, an aorist tense in addition to the imperfect and perfect), and many more reasons than I care to list right now. Learning to read a new alphabet has been simple in comparison to all these other issues.

A quote from the textbook we are using, Alston Hurd Chase and Henry Phillips' A New Introduction to Greek (first published in 1941), nicely illustrates the experience:
A word bearing the acute upon the ultima is known as an oxytone, one with the acute upon the penult as a paroxytone, one with the acute upon the antepenult as a proparoxytone. One which bears the circumflex upon the ultima is called a perispomenon, one with the circumflex upon the penult is a properispomenon. These terms, though formidable, will save much laborious periphrasis (p. 4).
"Will save much laborious periphrasis," indeed. It is only now that I understand Saint Augustine's seemingly irrational hatred of his childhood Greek grammar lessons (as described in his Confessions). We'll see what this semester will bring; reading Plato and Aristotle in the original Greek still seems a long, long way off--and the distance has seemed to only increase the more Greek that I have learned!
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