Sunday, January 3, 2016

It's Greek to Me

As usual the NY Times has a personal tale about one's dissatisfaction with humanity. This time it is some Classic Greek instructor bemoaning his students lack of ability in declension and conjugation, nouns and verbs.

The author states:

Reading Greek (or Latin) depends, first and foremost, on recognition of case endings. A student must develop an instinct for seeing the word “anthrōpou” as “of a man,” “anthrōpois” as “for men,” and similarly with eight other forms of the same word. To look for meaning rather than case, to see only “man” in either word, is what readers of English are programmed to do. My task, as a teacher, is to defeat this impulse. The experience of reading without reference to word order, once students “get it,” can be exhilarating, like being freed from a kind of gravity. But for reasons I don’t understand, some take far longer than others to “get it,” and a few never will. Lack of intelligence isn’t the problem; it’s more about adaptability, acceptance of change. How long should such students go on in the language, hoping for an epiphany? Should I encourage them to continue? And if I do, is it only to assuage my own sense of failure?

Now anyone who has had an early classics education will understand the problem. They do not even understand English grammar! It is not taught anymore so how is a student to understand anything else. To conjugate the verb "to be" or "to have", the two essential verbs in any Western tongue. The student is clueless. Then the difference between adverbs and adjectives, and the abuse of prepositions.

Now when I was in secondary school I studies Latin, French, and even a year of classic Greek. Each had their own rules, and classic Greek was near impossible. So some forty years later I am at a Bar in Athens, and to show my colleague my expertise I proceeded to ask the waitress using my Greek, yes Homeric Greek! I thought I would try. Her response was, "I am from Queens, I work for my uncle here and frankly I have no idea what you said." It was perfect Queens accent. So I replied in my perfect Staten Island accent that I understood, and we got free drinks, first round. Then I became curious, how quickly could I learn current Greek? The basic verbs were the same, really, and as anyone educated to the minimal amount will know, almost every word has a Greek root. In three months I could negotiate my way in Greek in Athens. I knew declensions, and conjugations, and 1,000 words! I was fluent, and off I went.

Yet I could not translate Sophocles, Homer, or any of the classics. I could read the newspaper and understand the Greek on reruns of the Sopranos on American TV. One must remember that the Greeks ran Sicily for centuries, so they are all a bit Greek!

The question then is what does the good instructor want? Current day Greek has all the elements of classic Greek, one can learn declensions and conjugations. One can read Kazantzakis, and that alone is a reason for learning Greek. Maybe Sophocles can come later? After all the Scholastics managed Aristotle in Latin tanslation.

Back to the purpose of a language. Learning French can mean understanding the French. The language is filled with subjunctives. Learning Russian brings the same. Arabic is depleted of a solid future tense. Languages tell how a people think. English can be assembled in some understandable form with the worst combinations of grammar. Listen to any Television commentator or news reader. Not only do they use the wrong grammar but all too often the wrong words! And for spelling, my dyslexia is an excuse, what is their?

Classic Greek is complex, a language that contains the subtlety of Greek thought, and the beginnings of our civilization. To begin to understand it one needs English, then perhaps Latin, and another language, and then try Greek. One reads Sophocles and understands that only with the tools of a cicilizations we are losing by the day. That I believe is the problem. Don't be critical of the students, the mere fact that they tried is credit alone!