It's all Greek to me!
February 22, 2010 2:03 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way to learn Ancient Greek?

I took Greek for two years in high school, and I'm taking it again in college. I'm finding it significantly harder this time around, probably because I don't have the time to devote to it that I did in high school. Are there good ways to memorize the charts and lists and obscure grammer rules, or do I just have to memorize them through brute force?

I'm really asking if there is some organizational system to understanding how Greek fits together. Right now, I'm doing flash cards for vocab, writing principle parts maybe a hundred times to get them in my head, and trying to take good notes in class. Is there something else I can be doing? I think I know something, but when it comes time to take quizzes or tests I'm failing miserably.

Any help would be appreciated!
posted by pecknpah to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
There is a certain amount of just raw data you must memorize-- principle parts, conjugation+declension rules, and vocab. General memorization tools will help (flashcards are great, also do the principle parts to a melody, use different colors, etc). Study with other students in the class if that helps you.

You're also probably finding it harder because college language classes generally move a lot faster than high school ones; you're expected to take in information at a significantly faster rate.

You ask about "how Greek fits together"; do you find you're having trouble with understanding the grammatical structure? If so, what other languages have you studied? Seeing parallels with those languages might help, or if English is your only other language, gaining a deep understanding of English sentences could be useful. (E.g., do you know how to properly use "who" and "whom" in relative clauses in English? Boo prescriptivism and all that, but if you understand the reason for case in English you'll have an easier time understanding it in Greek, too. Same with tenses, moods, etc.)

Also- try more than one textbook. Everyone needs different help to learn new material; each text has its own approach, and you might be better off with a different one. (If you tell us what you're using, we might have other suggestions!)

Lastly- I had some trouble with Greek, or what I thought was trouble with Greek, but turned out to be trouble with the particular source material I was reading (Lucian). Once the term ended and the new term brought material I was happier with (Euclid, Archimedes) I felt a lot better about the language. If this is your issue, welp, maybe just stick it through until the material changes?
posted by nat at 2:34 PM on February 22, 2010

Best way to learn ancient Greek? Immersion.

Failing that, do you have any study buddies? I've studied a few languages and really the only way to get comfortable with them is to get your brain to think in that language; that's held true for Chaucer's English, Spanish and C++, so I'd imagine that would be the same for ancient Greek.

It may seem ridiculous to practice an archaic language conversationally, but the great philosophers were great speakers as well, and you may get some benefit from hearing and speaking it as well as reading it.
posted by modernserf at 2:48 PM on February 22, 2010

Response by poster: The textbook is Reading Greek, from the Joint Association of Classical Teachers. I think it's British. I used Athenaze in high school.
posted by pecknpah at 2:48 PM on February 22, 2010

What do you want to be able to do with Ancient Greek? If the answer is just "read it" (as opposed to "perform Aristophanes in the original" etc.) I would devote more practice time to reading than anything else. Ask a TA to recommend some easy BUT NOT BORING texts at your level, or if you are motivated by one text in particular pick up a good bilingual edition of that, and practice reading as well as your homework. It's much easier to remember the info in those tables when you have a sense for how it all fits into sentences organically.
posted by No-sword at 3:09 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: If you don't mind textbook recommendations, From Alpha to Omega by Anne H. Groton is good. It's presented logically, and each chapter has a short reading passage that's scaled to the ability a student should have upon finishing each chapter.

Once you're comfortable with the basics, A Greek Boy at Home is a good immersion text that gradually gets more advanced as you go along.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:00 PM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

the gospel of john is fairly straightforward and gripping reading. and the Iliad is probably also on that level, and admittedly more glamorous. If you get the Loeb editions, you can go a section at a time and verify your translating on the facing page.
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:25 PM on February 22, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for your suggestions so far! Perhaps I should clarify that I don't have a significant problem with translations. I am usually able to translate with fairly good accuracy both in class and in my homework. I have translated extensive portions of the Iliad and quite a bit of the New Testament. The problem is understanding the nuances of grammar and articulating those rules and parts of speech in class and in my homework. For example, I understand what a conditional statement is, but I wouldn't be able to tell you if it's present active or future less vivid, even though I could translate it accurately.

Is there some system for understanding grammar, or is most of it just brute memorization? I know that Greek has a system, I'm just having problems intuiting what the rules are.
posted by pecknpah at 8:26 PM on February 22, 2010

in my experience, what helped the most was talking with other people using cased languages - latin helps - and then have conversations, even in english, in those grammatic cases. like, try to express the future less vivid conditional in english: I would go to the beach if it would ever stop raining.

also, watch the Romans go home scene in Life of Brian. it'll make you feel better ;-)
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:39 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: I sympathize entirely, because both Athenaze and JACT are *terrible* at providing explanations of the principles of syntax. (Their basic idea is that you can learn Greek by "intuiting" what's correct if they give you a narrative and some dribs and drabs of grammar. Pedagogically, it's a crock of ... cranberries.)

I second oinopaponton's idea of a supplemental book of some kind, one that puts systematic syntax front and center instead of ignoring it as JACT and Athenaze do. Groton could work, but that is meant to be a whole course on its own, which could be distracting if you're keeping up with a course already. Maybe an old-fashioned elementary reference grammar would do the trick? Something like Abbott & Mansfield's _Primer of Greek Grammar_. It has all the paradigms in the first half, a helpful list of principal parts, and all the syntax most undergrads will ever need in the second half. You can look up conditional sentences, for instance, or uses of the dative, or the rules for indirect speech, and find all the terminology, all clearly explained in a nice orderly fashion, with examples. It's old and British....but if you've taken so much Greek already, that shouldn't bother you too much. And it's a nice manageable reference, not overburdened with trivia like Smyth. I wore out my own copy in college: it's a very useful little book.

Greek is the best thing going on most campuses. Good luck, and enjoy!
posted by philokalia at 8:54 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: I've used both Athenaze (which stresses learning grammatical context largely from reading/translating) and Reading Greek (which stresses confusing the holy hell out of you) and neither of them did much for me.

I had greater success with Greek: An Intensive Course by Hansen and Quinn but particularly with Crosby's An Introduction to Greek. Written in 1928, it's not mired down in any of the modern hooha about language learning. Each chapter is quite short and features concise explanation about grammar points. Introduction to Greek should be available at
posted by gsh at 5:01 AM on February 23, 2010

Best answer: For example, I understand what a conditional statement is, but I wouldn't be able to tell you if it's present active or future less vivid, even though I could translate it accurately.

This sounds to me like you would definitely benefit from a grammar-translation-type book. Different types of conditions, for example, are helpfully summarized in an easy chart in Unit 4 of Hansen and Quinn. I like Mastronarde myself -- it even has an answer key!; I think Hansen and Quinn is too hard in the speed/order it presents things. (I'm currently directing a student doing an independent study in Greek using H&Q, and I think a different book would have been a much better tool. It might be okay for review, though.)

Present active/voice is a tense of verbs: e.g., 'luo' means "I loosen." Future less vivid is a type of condition (should-would: optative in both if-clause and then-clause). A grammar-heavy book like Mastronarde or Hansen and Quinn would really help you clarify terminology, especially if, as you say, you can already translate/read okay.

In addition to books, don't forget that nothing beats studying with other people! The study groups i had as an undergraduate (and graduate) student in Classics were absolutely the best part of the whole experience!
posted by lysimache at 5:57 PM on February 23, 2010

Response by poster: Sorry...I meant present 'contrary to fact' conditional sentences. I guess it's a sign that I need some grammer help.

I ordered a couple books that everybody recommended, so hopefully those will help. Thanks!
posted by pecknpah at 8:49 PM on February 23, 2010

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