A Fine Thing

Nearly two years ago, disquieting rumors hit my work group: our jobs were moving out of the area, across the country.

I did not want to move out of my home, away from my friends and family, or face restarting our home business in another state, especially since I would just be trading one earthquake zone for another one, but one with worse winters, more flooding, and tornadoes. So I let my bosses know that I wouldn’t be following my work assignment backwards along the Oregon Trail, and starting thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

As usually when requiring clarity of thought, I turned to Dorothy Sayers, who recounts in one of her addresses how she came to learn Latin:

“I was rising seven when [my father] appeared one morning in the nursery, holding in his hand a shabby black book, which had already seen some service, and addressed to me the following memorable words: “I think, my dear, that you are now old enough to begin to learn Latin.” … I was by no means unwilling, because it seemed to me that it would be a very fine thing to learn Latin, and would place me in a position of superiority to my mother, my aunt, and my nurse-though not to my paternal grandmother, who was an old lady of parts, and had at least a nodding acquaintance with the language.”

I already know a little Latin, but I do not know classical Greek. My husband does, and my children do, so far from being in a position of superiority to my own children, I am somewhat at a disadvantage when they talk about finer points of Homer’s style, or the interpretation of a passage from Luke. It seemed to me that it would be a very fine thing to learn Greek, and would place me on something of a more level position with my husband and my children, at least, so far as classical languages are concerned.

Besides, there are some Byzantine commentaries by John Philoponus and John of Damascus on Aristotle’s de Caelo that I ran across when researching my dissertation on medieval astronomy forty years ago, and I have never been able to read them, since the only available printed editions are in Greek and 19th century philosophical German. Of the two, Greek seemed easier to master.

I happened to mention my sort of vague yearning to start classical Greek to a few friends and some family members. This may have been a mistake, but it’s too late now. Scholars Online posted its Greek I course for 2016-2017, and I enrolled, thus putting an end to well-meant but incessant encouragement that I actually indulge myself in the joys of ancient Greek. Mr. Dean kindly agreed to accept me into his course.

It’s been interesting, to say the least.

Latin has seven noun cases, forms of nouns that indicate how they will be used in a sentence as subject, direct object, indirect object, and so on (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, locative, and vocative). Greek has five, lacking the ablative and locative, whose functions still exist but are rolled into one or another of the other cases. Plowing through the explanations in Unit I, I thought, this I can do: Greek is simpler is simpler than Latin!

So for the first unit, I put my time into learning paradigms for three nouns: a first declension feminine: ἡ ἀρχή: beginning, from which we get the English words “archaic” and “archeology”; the second declension masculine ὁ λόγος, word, from which we get “logic” and “theology”; and a mixed bag word which could be either masculine or feminine — you have to pay attention to the attached article: ὁ θεός, ἡ θεός, god or goddess.

I’m sure those of you reading this who know some Greek are mentally nudging one another with barely-disguised glee, the kind novelists invoke with the well-worn phrase “little did she know….” Yes, the plot twist is coming.

With the next unit, we hit the verbs. Greek has all the Latin tenses, plus one more. It has all the Latin verb moods, plus one more. It has an extra voice. It even has an extra number, distinguishing between singular, plural, and dual (just two). That’s a lot of verb forms to learn.

Let me spare you the details, but for the first time since I was in high school, there are 3×5 cards in stacks all over the house, wherever I happened to leave a set the last time I found a few minutes to study, minutes that usually add up to at least an hour every day. The ones with green edges have the principal parts of verbs, the ones with yellow edges give the cases for nouns and adjectives, the multicolored ones hold details on prepositions and which cases they take and how the meaning changes with the case. The blue-edged ones have grammar rules for conditional phrases with wonderful names like “future more vivid”, clauses of purpose with different levels of purposefulness, summaries of all possible endings, and rules for accents that give new meaning to the concept of mathematical chaos. I’m sure there’s a connection, since my teachers insist there’s a pattern even if I can’t find it. The blue-edged cards are the most bent and draggled of the bunch, because for some reason, I can’t keep straight whether the future passive indicative uses the un-augmented aorist stem or the augmented perfect stem with an extra syllable thrown in so you don’t confuse it with the perfect passive, and I have to look up which verb stem is used when, even if I remember the six stems and the proper endings for the tense and mood and voice in question.

There was a time when I thought sequence of moods meant something like the sequence of emotional states on getting a new software program that doesn’t quite do everything you hoped — anticipation, joy, frustration, resignation. Now I realize the “sequence of moods” depends on the verb tense used in the independent clause to govern the tense in the subordinate clause. There is probably some philosophical observation to be made there, but at the moment, I’m just trying to keep my tenses straight. I sometimes feel that if I manage to get the pluperfect endings lodged firmly in my head, the aorist ones will fall out the other side.

But there is more to learning a language than memorizing forms or appreciating its contributions to one’s own native vocabulary. The next step is translation, and while forms may be approached with rigorous method (even if there are lots of niggling details), translating is rarely straightforward.

That’s because words don’t just have meaning in some one-to-one correspondence between languages, any more than chartreuse, lime, Kelly, or Lincoln all mean the same green, even though they all mean “green” at some level.

After centuries of use in philosophical, scientific, and theological works, ἀρχή and λόγος have become loaded terms in Greek, words that absolutely defy a one-word decoding translation.

  • ἀρχή can mean beginning, or the first principles or elements on which all else is built, or the source of power, and by extension an empire, realm, authority, or even command.
  • λόγος can mean the story one tells in words, a speech one makes — that is, the spoken-out-loud-word that stirs others to action (one of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion), or the reason why one does something, or the root or basis behind an action.
  • θεός is more direct: it unambiguously means a god, a deity; it cannot be used for something merely divine or spiritually-inclined.

We did a lot of sentences with the vocabulary words in different situations, partly to learn the different forms, but also to gain by experience appreciation for the nuances of meaning.

  1. Homer taught the men with words (using speech).
  2. The poets teach well by means of stories (skillful use of rhetoric).
  3. The young men learned skills with words (learned to reason clearly or speak clearly).
  4. The messengers from the enemy destroyed the peace with words (of persuasion).

On December 24, I could sit down and work out out the Gospel for the first Eucharist of Christmas in Greek: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεός ἦν ὁ λόγος.

I know the English translation, “in the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”, but the Greek means more than that, so the author of John meant more than the plain English. In a word-for-word translation, the text arrives in English naked, stripped of all the nuances the author surely reasoned out when he chose those words to begin his story and lay out the foundations of his faith so long ago.

And that’s the reason for learning Greek: to read and recognize what Homer and Aristotle, Herodotus and Sophocles, Plato and the authors of the New Testament really said, and to get closer to what they still have to say to us today, in all its complexity.

Learning Greek is hard work, and that’s okay. Learning anything, and learning it well is hard work. It takes time and effort and repetition and review and thought and puzzlement and clarification.

I make lots of mistakes, and that’s okay, too. My mistakes in class provide harmless amusement to my teacher and classmates and they don’t hurt me. In fact, I usually remember the points I’ve flubbed better over the long run than the ones I somehow, and often accidentally, got right the first time.

But the very best part of my own personal Greek journey is something I haven’t mentioned yet: my teacher was once one of our own students.

And for a teacher, it doesn’t get much better than this: to sit at the feet of your own student, and learn something new.

It turns out that taking Greek really is a very fine thing.

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