Monday, May 15, 2017

Learning the basics of Ancient Greek from a book



It took me three and a half years to read this

For three and a half years, I have read C. A. E. Luschnig's "An Introduction to Ancient Greek: A Literary Approach," 2nd edition - some 280 pages of it. Specifically, I read it from 28 September 2013 through 13 May 2017, at which time I completely finished it. I did so completely from a book, and never had the benefit of a classroom, a professor, or a native speaker - or even a recording of one, for that matter! I've never heard so much as one hour of audio of the language, even from non-native speakers, and this made it somewhat daunting at times. It may have increased the difficulty level in at least some ways, and I don't recommend it to others unless other options are not available (as they were not for me). It was a long process that was sometimes tedious (though usually not at all so), but I'm nonetheless glad that I read it. It's given me access to the world of Ancient Greece, and may one day give me access to various parts of the Bible in the original.




This book is difficult like you wouldn't believe ...

For me, this book is the hardest book I have ever read (so far, at least), and nothing I've yet read even compares to it in difficulty for me. In the preface to the textbook, the author said that she "assumed that students who study Greek at the university level really want to learn Greek, and learn Greek so that they will be able to read Greek or some particular thing(s) in Greek, not in order to recite paradigm after paradigm in endless and meaningless succession." (Source: C. A. E. Luschnig's "An Introduction to Ancient Greek: A Literary Approach, 2nd edition, page ix) In so many ways, this has turned out to be true for me. I have limited interest in the finer points of Greek grammar for its own sake, and have been interested primarily in reading Plato and the New Testament. "Yet the paradigms must still be learned," the author says later, and I have persevered through these "paradigms" largely because of this. (No understanding of anything in the original is complete without the grammar, I think; so I moved forward with this difficult task even when it was hard, and when it required great effort to completely master.)


Plato

Keeping my eye on the end goal throughout this process

Keeping my eye on the end goal here helped me to get through many a rough spot, and there were plenty of "rough spots" in this book for me. If I had to choose one word to describe my experiences with Ancient Greek thus far, it would be "perseverance." As much as I've enjoyed studying Ancient Greek (and it's quite fascinating), it's also a long - and sometimes laborious - process which is quite demanding (and even exacting). I've often had to remind myself of the end goal, and "catch the vision" all over again for why I started to learn it in the first place. The first few years were especially frustrating, I think; because I didn't know how long it would take me to learn this language, and was impatient with the slow progress that I was then making (or at least, seemed to be making). I suppose it might have been easier if I had learned it in a classroom with a teacher, but this option was simply not available to me at this time (or other times). Thus, I learned it the hard way from a book.


Socrates

Pronunciation in a dead language whose native speakers were never audio-recorded

Every dead language presents problems of pronunciation, of course, over and above the norm of language learning. (The exceptions to this are languages that died out more recently, and were thus audio-recorded before they disappeared.) No native speakers of Ancient Greek were ever audio-recorded, as one might expect, because the last such native speakers died centuries before the technology was invented (even millennia before). Thus, the only audio-recordings that we have for speaking Ancient Greek are all from non-native speakers of the language today. These represent the educated guesses of today about what Ancient Greek might have sounded like. There is actually a great deal of scholarly debate about what Ancient Greek sounded like, as it turns out, and it is unlikely that this debate will ever be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. There are accepted pronunciations in American schools, however, so I did my best to learn them from a book as much as I could. (This is yet another barrier to learning the "true" pronunciations for me, and it is one of a number of reasons why my pronunciation is somewhat substandard - and necessarily must be so.) I never tried to learn the Ancient Greek tones, though, and wouldn't know the first thing about how to pronounce them if I tried it. After some limited searches for help with this feature on YouTube (which has audio, of course), I completely abandoned the enterprise; and had no interest in buying CDs or other audio to help me with this. Learning it from a book was good enough for me, at least for my purposes; and I didn't have much interest in listening to educated guesses, even from the experts. (Although I do respect the guesses nonetheless.)


Aristotle

No way of knowing if my translations were good ones, since I didn't have a professor or a class

The translation exercises were always the hardest part for me, because I had no idea whether I was making progress in this endeavor. There were no answers at the back of the book, you see, or any professors grading my work to let me know if I was "on the right track" or not. So I had to guess at times; and hope to God that my guess was a good one. I would often re-read prior sections of the book to refresh my memory of things, and later made use of the Greek-English vocab list at the back of the book when I didn't know a word. Sometimes the back of the book didn't have the word, either, and so I'd wonder why the author would include this word without an explanation of some kind for it (which she usually gave, but not with every word universally). Persevering through these difficulties still had some definite benefits, though; since it improved my Greek in ways that nothing else could. Given that the book was designed for college courses that normally last about a year or so, it's sometimes embarrassing that I took some three and a half years to finish it. Nonetheless, I'm glad that I took the time to do it anyway, and I might have been almost as thorough as I was painfully slow. (I actually re-read virtually every section at least three times before moving on, and this may have contributed to the slow speed with which I read it.)


Xenophon

This book is long (and I skipped things like the index ... )

At 280 pages, this book would seem to take a long time even for the smartest people; and I'm not particularly smart myself by any stretch of the imagination. Even without reading the additional 96 pages of appendices, indexes, and other things; it took me a long time to finish it, as I have noted previously. I didn't read all of these sections at the back, I should give a disclaimer to say; but I did skim them at times when they had information I needed for an exercise. They presented it in an easily accessible format that made these sections very handy to use at times. Since I read everything else in this book, I should note here, I nonetheless feel comfortable saying that I read it cover-to-cover (more or less), since no one reads the index as anything but a reference unless they're even nerdier than I am - and let's face it, not too many are. (Although I would totally respect it if they were, I should be clear, since I have great respect for fellow nerds, and consider myself proud to be one.)


Sophocles

This book is a good one, though, which is both thorough and good at motivating you

The length of this book makes it a major commitment of time which was sometimes daunting for me, but also made it a painstakingly thorough treatment of the grammar. I can scarcely imagine an intro book that is more thorough than this one, or which does such a good job of motivating its reader to continue on with their journey. It has things like well-chosen quotations and cultural notes to remind you of why you are doing this, and how interesting the subject of Greek really is. (Most of the quotations are from various classical authors, although they do throw in quotes from the Greek New Testament and the Septuagint at times. This increases interest among the more Bible-oriented segment of the Greek student population, which I count myself a part of.) All my criticisms of its difficulty aside, this is a fascinating book, which manages to liven up even the dullest of Greek grammar's finer points with a sense of humor, and with boundless enthusiasm for its subject.


Greek New Testament

The difficulty of this book comes from one's actually learning the material while reading it

This book made it easier for me to learn Ancient Greek, and the difficulty I have mentioned comes from my actually learning the material when reading it. Some books make it harder in ways that don't really add anything to the learning process, but this book is different, and gives only the amount of difficulty necessary to teach the material properly. No amount of teaching will ever make foreign languages truly easy for everyone, I should note here, but one can make them easier than they otherwise would be. All these things notwithstanding, I'd only recommend this book to the serious; but I hope this reflection will be interesting nonetheless even to my friends who aren't interested in learning it themselves. This post is partially about my experiences anyway, and so may work for some of my friends who just want a personal story (or at least, I can hope so ... one can never really be sure).


Conclusions: There were great benefits to the journey for me

I won't know for sure that I was taught well by this book unless I successfully read a work written by Ancient Greeks and actually understand it well. Nonetheless, it's been a thoroughly engaging journey in any case which has enriched me greatly. It will likely get more engaging, more enriching, and more enlightening as the years go on.

Book at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Why I am learning Ancient Greek

How I found Plato in the original Greek

My search for the Greek New Testament


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