Should I even bother trying to learn ancient Greek?
March 6, 2006 9:00 PM   Subscribe

I want to read Plato in the original Greek. Unfortunately, I don't know any.

I want to gain sufficient reading skill in ancient Greek to be able to tackle Plato and Aristophanes. I have read a couple English translations but my thinking is that nothing quite beats the original.

I am currently a full time student in a field that is very far from classics, and I anticipate (fervently pray) that I will have a full time permanent job soon. I would be teaching myself the language from books without any live teachers.

How long term of a project is this? Is this a realistic undertaking for someone who doesn't have superhuman motivation and discipline? How should I begin my study of Greek with the aim of reading the classic texts?
posted by sid to Education (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Three years.

Just kidding.

This is a very large program to undertake, and there's a good chance that even at an hour a day it will take a few years. Remember that Greek, although Indo-European, is structurally very different from even French or Spanish--it involves case declensions, weird verb things, and an entirely different alphabet that you'll have to learn.

I highly--highly--recommend you learn pitches, accents and pronunciation if you plan on reading any poetry, or any Aristophanes. The rhythm of the text is very important, so if you're not going to be using a live teacher, try to find a source online where you can hear words being pronounced.

It is, however, realistic even if all you can afford is, say, five hours a week (any less, I think, is mostly just a waste), but oh-so-worth-it. Good luck!
posted by maxreax at 9:15 PM on March 6, 2006

Let me see if I can give some more specific information. I took one year of Ancient Greek while in college. I've studied many languages since then.

Our text was Reading Greek by the Joint Association of Classical Teachers. It comes in two volumes (one for text the other for grammar and vocabulary). You absolutely need both. For self-study you also need the third volume An Independent Study Guide to "Reading Greek".

To complete these books, you will need at least 150 hours of focused study. About 1/3 of this will be for vocabulary (memorizing and reviewing), 1/3 for grammar memorization (lots of conjugation and declension patterns) and 1/3 for reading and exercises.

At the end of this you will NOT be able to pick up Aristophanes and read him, although you will be able to handle selections (and the texts I've mentioned will include some). Plato will be far more difficult.

However, you will probably be able to pick up speeches by Demosthenes and read those if you have successfully completed the three JACT volumes.

Your biggest problem? Maintaining motivation. It's very hard to do even one hour of language study each day when you aren't forced to. The JACT books do a great job of trying to make this interesting and, as much as possible, everything is "authentic" although highly edited in the first half of the book.
posted by Inerlingua at 9:33 PM on March 6, 2006

Back in my first year of University I spent a lot of time on Plato and Aristotle, and interestingly enough in the course of my reading I actually picked up quite a bit just by comparison. The Penguin volumes we used were annotated with the original Greek, and copiously so. Throughout the text, then you could compare many sections to the translation.

I don't know if it's going to get you that far along the path, but it might be a start.
posted by mikel at 9:35 PM on March 6, 2006

I mean no disrespect with the following question; I truly respect anyone who is willing to undertake such discipline as mastering an archaic language seems to require.

But why do you think you will get more out of Plato in Greek? Aristophanes, perhaps I can understand as it was originally an art conveyed in words. (As well as Homer, though I understand that is fairly different from the attic greek dialect.) However, it seems to me that to understand Plato in a deeper manner, your time and dedication might be better spent in study of history and concurrent philosophies than ancient Greek.

As for help, I doubt I can offer more than those who have responded above. A close friend of mine studied Ancient Greek in college for two years. I know the Liddel & Scott lexicon is a standard and the Smyth text ("Greek Grammar", Harvard Press) was used for a long time (though it has likely been displaced by something less dry and better).

Also, if you are intent on this, you might pick up a copy of the book "Who killed Homer?" by Victor David Hanson for inspiration. He speaks of the decline in Classical Studies in American education and argues for its revitalization. He is not entirely popular among classicists, though.
posted by ghiacursed at 11:25 PM on March 6, 2006

I realize I may have been a bit vague, so here is some specific, free, web-based help:

Ancient Greek Pronunciation

The Pronunciation of Ancient Greek (with accompanying recordings)

Ancient Greek Tutorials (excellent and very comprehensive)

The Greek Alphabet (good starter site for learning the alphabet)

Greek Grammar (links to dozens of good Ancient Greek sites)
posted by maxreax at 2:09 AM on March 7, 2006 [2 favorites]

L A Wilding's Greek for Beginners has been a standard text since my mother learned Greek in the Fifties. In fact I used her copy of the book when I started to learn. It starts off with very simple grammar and vocab and pretty soon you're translating (edited) passages by Xenophon and Herodotus.

When you actually come to read your Plato, my brother (who is a classicist) swears by the Loeb Classical Library where you have the Greek and a pretty straight English translation side by side, that way you're not reaching for your dictionary all the time.

If you already have Latin, Greek will come a lot more easily. But don't let that put you off if you don't.
posted by featherboa at 2:37 AM on March 7, 2006

Is this a realistic undertaking for someone who doesn't have superhuman motivation and discipline?

Not very realistic. You're young, summer's coming, work is looming. I'd bet dinner at a Greek restaurant that you will spend a little money on books or flash cards or software, you'll learn a little bit from the introductory chapters of a text, and then you'll just forget about it as other things come up. The odds of your learning Greek will be about ten times better if you find a live teacher and a study group.

If you're still a student in Toronto and you aren't going to be overloaded with other things this summer, go to UT: "Summer Introductory Latin and Introductory Greek courses will be offered at the University of Toronto this summer 2006, with first classes starting the week of May 15th and the exam period ending August 18th. ... Non-University of Toronto students are most welcome. These are full year introductory courses that proceed intensively, with eight hours of class time per week (4 classes per week). They will provide any interested student with an excellent preparation for further work in Greek and Latin."

If their schedule doesn't fit your schedule, look into other local universities and adult education centres for a place where you can get some coaching and meet other self-learners. If you get a good start that way (learning pronunication and other basics), you can then teach yourself everything you need to know.
posted by pracowity at 3:02 AM on March 7, 2006

This has been a pretty good thread so far, and I second the recommendations made by Inerlingua for texts. But as a fellow amateur classicist, let me address the point he makes in his last paragraph concerning maintaining motivation, particularly as it looks he's joined MetaFilter to answer your question. And welcome, Inerlingua.

Reading ancient Greek as a hobby is something taken up in earlier times, as recently as the Victorian age, by thousands. Like model railroading, or telescope making, it is eminently "doable," but it is an avocation that will draw the determined, and weed away in short order the dilettantes.

The trick as Inerlingua says, is maintaining motivation. The model railroader or medium sized telescope maker faces this too, but as hobbyists, they have the physicality of their efforts before them always, as both encouragement and reward of effort, and as recrimination and reminder for lack of work. So you may find it helpful to make your study of Greek like a model railroad, in that you have a place of study devoted to that task, which you can look forward to doing, some hours of each day, as relaxation. There you will keep your texts, your maps, your notebooks, and your pictures, and you will work there on these materials with a plan which is firm, but regularly reviewed and tailored as circumstances dictate, as if you too were laying track, and installing wiring and miniature trees and tunnels, with some view to a greater whole.

Like the railroader, you will plan your purchases of hobby materials carefully. In your case, you will get books and materials that are not only informative, but a treat to handle and a pride to own. Maybe you'll buy a few good reproduction statutes, to give face and focus to the men whose thoughts you admire, and are working to better understand. You will organize a decent reading lamp, a comfortable but supportive study chair, a small desk, and maybe a bookcase into a pleasant study carrel, and you will get into habits of reading and breaking, that are as serious as your student study habits, but which also incorporate greater periods for reflection and integration, as you are doing this activity primarily for pleasure and understanding. You will keep written notes, as a guide to your reflection and review, and you will refer to them, and tease out answers to questions you have raised for yourself as you are able, and make note of those, as well.

You will recognize that it is difficult or impossible to learn a language as just a set of abstractions to be substituted in translation. To really understand a language as different as ancient Greek is from modern English, you have to learn that culture, too. So, you have to begin to think of yourself as an amateur classicist, and see that your hobby activities include learning the history of the ancient world, its geography, politics and science, too, as well as its languages and philosophy. You'll choose to spend appropriate amounts of time studying maps, to become familiar with the ground, as we see it, and as the ancients must have. Along with tackling Plato, you'll look into what is known of Pythagoras, and Euripides, and you'll bump heads with the frustrating teachings of the sophists who distrusted all writing, as if they intended to block you personally, the amateur railroader, tunneling back to them from your distant present.

But you will, I hope, persevere, a few deliberate hours a week, finding small victories in nuggets of knowledge you find you have that you didn't formerly possess, and also find, in each of these small celebrations, reward for your efforts sufficient to make you wish to continue. And suddenly, some years from now, if you have continued in your avocation, you will be reading something, finger under words on the page, as you try to push meaning into them, syllable by syllable, when, almost without realizing it, your finger relaxes, and your eyes push along a line or two, and you know what is meant! Perhaps you too will smile a little, and stand and stretch, and sit back down, adjust your book, and go again into the past, with a gladder heart, and a finer spirit.

Good luck, and good reading.
posted by paulsc at 3:51 AM on March 7, 2006 [7 favorites]

I have to agree with: ghiacursed. What will getting a deeper understanding of plato get you? Plato was certanly not the zenith of human intelectual achivement.

You would get a lot more out of reading other philosophers (apologies if you have already). I asked this question a couple months ago and picked up some of Bertrand Russell books. His "Problems of Philosophy" was fantastic.
posted by delmoi at 7:13 AM on March 7, 2006

Shit, Paulsc, after that description of how to go about this, I want to start learning ancient greek!
posted by mikel at 7:45 AM on March 7, 2006

But why do you think you will get more out of Plato in Greek?

I'm not the poster, but the obvious answer is: because you're reading what he actually said rather than some translator's attempts to convey it clumsily in another language. Or are you under the impression that translation is a clear pane of glass through which "meaning" is perfectly revealed? A great deal of Plato's meaning (as with any Greek author) is conveyed through sentence structure, in particular the constant use of Greek's large stock of sentence particles, which is literally untranslatable. If you want a vague idea of what Plato "had to say" (knowledge good, dictators good if guided by philosophers, &c), sure, you can read a translation, or better yet, the Cliff Notes. But don't delude yourself into thinking you've read Plato.

You would get a lot more out of reading other philosophers bla bla bla

This comment was pure noise, having not the slightest relation to answering the question, and has been marked as such.

maxreax, your comments are uniformly knowledgeable and helpful; I'm glad to have you around.
posted by languagehat at 8:10 AM on March 7, 2006 [2 favorites]

Thank you to Sid for asking this question, and for all those who have answered so far. I've been thinking of doing this as well, and this information is very helpful.
posted by alms at 8:12 AM on March 7, 2006

I was a Classics major in a former lifetime (B.A. in Classics), although I focused primarily on the Latin side of things. I did the standard introductory series in Classical Greek (a year and a half, 5 days a week), and it is HARD. (I cannot make that word bold enough) An hour of instruction time every day, plus 2-4 hours of homework, memorizing vocabulary, grammar rules, and eventually some rudimentary translation.

But why do you think you will get more out of Plato in Greek?

You will absolutely get more out of any original text than the translation, assuming of course that you have sufficient vocabulary, grammar, cultural (social and literary) context, etc. I did not get to this point with Greek. Latin, yes.

Reading literature in its source language is incredibly satisfying and rewarding, but also insanely hard at times. I would not have been able to learn what I did if I had not been in an intensely academic, almost cloistered, environment with other really really smart people. Latin is much more approachable for English speakers -- the jump from Latin to Greek was a big challenge for me -- you have almost zero linguistic clues to help you get your footing.

Good luck!
posted by misterbrandt at 8:52 AM on March 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

languagehat: I fully agree that any translation is not a clear pane of glass. A translation is one more layer of interpretation on top of the writing, itself. (All I mean by that is even reading it in the original greek cannot be a clear pane of glass to Plato's thoughts, though obviously it would be closer.) I do suspect there have been enough very intelligent people who have translated Plato thoughtfully and provided more than simply a vague idea of the philophies he was trying to convey.

My question was only meant to determine what is more important to sid: the philosophy or the greek. If there is time enough to pursue both, I think that is very admirable.
posted by ghiacursed at 8:59 AM on March 7, 2006

My question was only meant to determine what is more important to sid: the philosophy or the greek.

I really don't see why that's so hard to figure out. Here, let me reprint a salient chunk of the post to help you decide, with added bold for clarity:

I want to read Plato in the original Greek. Unfortunately, I don't know any. I want to gain sufficient reading skill in ancient Greek to be able to tackle Plato and Aristophanes. I have read a couple English translations but my thinking is that nothing quite beats the original.

As far as I know, Aristophanes was not a philosopher. Furthermore, there's no mention of philosophy in the post. It seems pretty clear to me (though I could always be wrong) that the guy wants to learn Greek. Which is, as you say, admirable.
posted by languagehat at 10:22 AM on March 7, 2006

I personally wouldn't study a dead language, when there are so many fascinating live languages that will contribute a lot more to your life -- books, music, travel, websites, people to talk to, job opportunities, etc.. The main problem is that if you don't use it, you lose it. So you're going to spend a few long and hard years learning it, and eventually you might end up forgetting it.

While reading the original is best, reading several translations is just as good or even better. In many cases reading several different translations lets you understand things that often you wouldn't have understood if you read the original text, and much more so if you it's not your mother tongue. Effectively you'll still be be doing translation between ancient greek into "Greeklish", and you probably won't do a better job than a professional translator.

I estimate that in the same time it will take you to master ancient greek, you could study modern Greek and Spanish, for example, read the translations in those languages, and enjoy the other benefits.
posted by Sharcho at 10:46 AM on March 7, 2006

Yet the title question was "Should I even bother trying to learn ancient Greek?" It sounded to me like it was (for sid) a question between engaging the scholarship of the fields those authors contributed to and the language, itself.

Upon rereading it, you are correct that he never specifically mentioned philosophy, though. I am also not aware of Aristophanes writing philosophy, but think that was clear in my first post.

I was not attempting to disuade sid from pursuing greek. (I think that is evident by my attempt to provide the names of some resources for him, however pale those may have been in comparison to more learned contributors.)

I apologize if I misread the nature of sid's question.
posted by ghiacursed at 11:00 AM on March 7, 2006

Yeah, it's a long-term undertaking. You're not going to be able to do it unless you really, really want to. I would highly recommend taking a class if you're serious about this, at least an introductory class to help you find your way around the grammar.

If you decide to go it alone, this is a good textbook for beginners.

Good luck, and happy conjugating.
posted by 912 Greens at 11:45 AM on March 7, 2006

Response by poster:

I'm overwhelmed! There are far too many good comments here to pick one as best. Paulsc, thanks for reminding me that a serious hobby takes some real planning and organization, mental and physical.

My desire to learn ancient Greek comes from several impulses. Firstly, I would like a greater understanding of the classic texts. Perhaps it would be more practical to learn German and read Heidegger or learn Russian and read Tolstoy, but I have no particular affinity for those texts at this time. Secondly, I want to learn a language to understand another people's worldview. What I find fascinating about the ancient Greeks is that their worries, values, and pleasures are so similar to our own.  Beyond the inherent pleasure in learning a new language, I hope that learning Greek will give me a better understanding of our own language and culture.

The question was phrased the way it is because I had no idea if such an undertaking was doable for an amateur with no support from an academic institution.

I realize that this is an enormous undertaking. I don't know if my focus and motivation are up to the task. I almost feel like learning a less challenging language to 'work up' to it. But I imagine the rewards will far outweigh the challenges.
posted by sid at 12:40 PM on March 7, 2006

While reading the original is best, reading several translations is just as good or even better. In many cases reading several different translations lets you understand things that often you wouldn't have understood if you read the original text... I estimate that in the same time it will take you to master ancient greek, you could study modern Greek and Spanish, for example, read the translations in those languages, and enjoy the other benefits.

You really have no idea what you're talking about, do you? Just about everything in your comment is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I apologize if I misread the nature of sid's question.

And I apologize if I was coming off as attacking you; really, I appreciated your helpfulness, but I found the emphasis on philosophy a little odd. I probably should have just let it go, though.
posted by languagehat at 1:36 PM on March 7, 2006

languagehat, in the same way that translating Spanish->Chinese would be more lossy than translating Spanish->Portuguese, I expect Ancient Greek->Modern Greek to be let's say about 95% close to original, compared with Greek->English which would be let's say 85% close to the original.

Let's say after 2 years of learning modern Greek, you'll be able to achieve about 98% comprehension, and after 2 years of learning ancient greek, you'll be able to achieve about 80% comprehension.

So you'll still probably get a better understanding from reading the modern greek translation than reading the original.

I see often people spend years studying a language, and a few years later they end up forgetting it because they don't use it.
posted by Sharcho at 7:10 PM on March 7, 2006

Disclosure; I am a classicist, though I mainly teach Latin and modern Greek, I have been seen working with Ancient Greek late at night.

It's doable, it will be difficult, especially since you plan to do it on your own, but it is not impossible. (I know someone who did it, he learned ancient Greek on his own in eight months. All right he studied it full time and never ever went for a drink with us, but it goes to show, it's doable!)

I don't know how much language and language learning techniques you know, but it will take time. My advice is to set a part an hour or two at least two or three times a week for the studies, make it once and you forget too much inbetween session. Make set day, hour and place, don't make excuses. It's difficult, I know, but you have to pencil it into your week plan just as other weekly happenings.
Monday 1900: Someotherhobby
Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday at 2000: Greek
As for a time frame I'd say a couple of years. I used about a year, full time Greek-only studies, to make it to Plato level.

I also think pracowity's suggestion to find a summer / online course is a good idea, either as a starting point, or as a goal, along the lines "I will learn enough Greek this year that I can take level 3 next summer", learning and motivation in one neat package!

Another idea, at least when you have mastered the basics is to find or make a reading group. I don't know how big a city you live in, but in my town 250.000 I know of at least three groups meeting once a week/fortnight to read something together. And if there's a Catholic church somewhere near chances are there are someone willing to read something with you. Don't snub them because they want to read the Church fathers, they can be fun too, and it's good practise, many of them writes Attic Greek, not koine.

Truthfully, I have read Plato in Greek. It didn't make sense. I understood the Greek (eventually), but I didn't understand Plato, he's very difficult and not the one to start with. The first year of Greek we read much Lysias (speeches) and Xenophon (his Symposion is way easier than Plato's and with 60% more wine!) Also you can start reading Homer early on. As soon as you master his dialect (not too difficult) he's fairly easy. The sentences are confined in one or two lines of verse and not half a page long, like in Plato. Also, it's fun. Barbecues and fighting! (I read the first books of the Iliad on my own after half a year of Greek studies, with a good commentary it went fairly well.)

Good luck! It will be fun!

And even though the OP probably agrees with me, I have to say, learning modern Greek if you want to read ancient Greek is useless. You might as well read Plato in a language you truly know, made by a translator who knows both the original and the target language. Modern Greek has it's own awards, Plato is not one of them.
posted by mummimamma at 2:00 PM on March 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've dabbled in a couple foreign languages, and it was much, much easier to get a good start and stay motivated afterwards when I took some courses. Teaching yourself is doable, if ambitious, but I absolutely agree that you should take an introductory course at least.

UC Berkeley has an excellent summer intensive program in Ancient Greek; recommended for philosophy students who aren't classicists but want to specialize in the ancient Greeks. It's hardcore but top-notch, so look into it if you decide to go ahead. (I didn't, but observed it in progress. It appeared to involve lots of agony and wine.)
posted by xanthippe at 7:23 AM on March 9, 2006

(Warning: Long, but hopefully also Helpful.)

I studied ancient Greek for approximately three semesters in College. This was at St. John’s College, which has only the “Great Books” course of study. We studied Homeric Greek, for obvious reasons; and Attic to read most of the rest of the classic texts; and implicitly Koine, in which the New Testament is written, a lingua franca dialect of Greek which is very simple. By the end of the first semester students are translating Aristotle; second semester students are translating Homer; and third semester, books of the New Testament, which most were able to simply be read without too much trouble. I was very bad at Greek, probably because I am lazy and resist memorization, but even I could read some of the NT books with no trouble at all.

The reason that folks above questioned studying Greek for the purpose of reading Plato is because Plato’s Greek is for the most part uncomplicated, being what are presented as relatively casual conversations. In contrast, Aristotle is a very “dense” writer, saying a lot with few words and frequently using technical language. I found Homeric to be more difficult than Attic—my memory (15 years hence) is that Homeric had some forms and whatnot that Attic lacked, agreeing with my general impression (perhaps incorrect) that languages often simplify as they age. Languagehat will probably disagree with everything I’ve asserted in this paragraph—he’s a well-read, highly intelligent linguist so you should pay attention to what he says.

Whether and how much a class includes speaking the language is mostly left to the discretion of the instructor; more importantly, ditto with writing the language. This limits the aims of study considerably, concentrating on translation and reading comprehension. No doubt this seriously limits one’s general comprehension of the language, but there’s only so much allotted time in SJC’s program for accomplishing certain goals with regard to Greek.

This limited degree of comprehension of Greek with regard to reading and translation is both good and bad. I’ll provide an example of how it can be bad not by my experience, but my sister’s, who studied Koine as a part of her Christian education. We had a conversation one day about what she had learned, and we discussed the word, logos. This is a hugely important word in the Greek language; but for her it simply meant “Word of God”. Even in the context of reading New Testament books, logos is not always going to connote that idea; and so here you can see that, as so often is true, learning a little may be worth less than learning nothing. That’s the bad side of not truly being fluent in Greek. The example of the good side of it is, as you would expect, when you recognize the general connotations of a word that a translation doesn’t provide or when a translation is simply wrong. My favorite example of this is eudamai, which is important in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. Some English translations choose “happiness” as the translation of this word. But I think that is highly misleading. A better translation, also commonly seen, is “well-being”. Aristotle is talking about how being ethical has a positive effect on a person. The English word happiness strongly implies pleasure, while well-being may include happiness but doesn’t necessarily require it. What’s good for you may not always be what is pleasant. Another example of the benefit is reading the New Testament, specifically the King James version. The KJV is a awesome piece of English literature, but as a translation it’s not that good. Even with my stunted facility with Greek I could easily spot mistranslations in the KJV.

How important is it to read a work in its native language? It depends upon your purpose. At St. John’s, at the establishment of the “Program” in 1939 or so, students initially learned both Greek and Latin in the first two years, and French and German in the last two years. This proved too difficult, and Latin and German were regrettably dropped. Greek and French allow a significant portion of the books in the Program to be read (with difficulty) in their native languages—but of course a great many others works are not. So, is it the case, as languagehat asserts above, that if you haven’t read a work in its native language, you haven’t read it—and therefore we didn’t “read” the Latin, German, and Russian texts we thought we did? Yes and no. St. John’s is a “big picture” school. Either you think there are such things as the “big picture”, or you don’t; or, at least, you value the “big picture” or you don’t. The negative view of this kind of learning and thinking is that it amounts simply to bullshit, or, slightly more generously, dilettantism. The positive view sees the big picture as the primary point.

I disagree with languagehat at least in the case of Plato because, as others do above, I think that you can get a good understanding of Plato by reading him in translation. The language isn’t relatively complicated and specialized—the context, at least superficially, is casual conversation. If you tend to view knowledge as more an accumulation of facts than anything else, then your preference for learning and values will emphasize a strong attention to detail. Every idea that Plato writes about will, in your view, only be understood if you have the context to truly understand the words he uses to describe it. For me, what is always most important is the gestalt of things—everything becomes an abstraction (practically, Idealistic, but rigorously Formal) that interacts in various ways with other abstractions. I don’t necessarily trust language in the first place to do that great of a job describing these things. I believe that we have a lot of shared experience which builds our abstracted comprehension of things; because it’s shared, we can trust that for the most part we’re talking about the same things, roughly, though our words may differ in particular or in language. This is, for practical purposes, an absolutist point of view. Many people are more inclined to the relativist point of view and will thusly deeply distrust any assumption of a shared comprehension. For them, assuming very little, one needs to look deeply at the language to discover the context in which an “idea” is presented to understand anything at all. (These are caricatures—most of us believe both these things, about most things.)

When laypeople talk about language, they generally (in my opinion) tend to invoke a relativism in the form of what is called the Sapir-Worf hypothesis. SW is controversial because from the point of view of linguistics, its popular formulation is certainly untrue and violates a core belief in linguistics. (Roughly, linguistics sees human language, in general, as innate and in specific an expression of what is innate. So, in this sense, all languages are “similar” and thus an extreme relativism is not possible.) The urban folklore expression of Sapir-Worf is often the hoary “Eskimos and Snow” assertion. The problem here is that, obviously, different languages have somewhat differing points of view—but not any possible different views, they’re much more alike than different. A modern linguistics demonstration of this is the universality of color terms.

Something about Greek that made an impression on me was the aorist verb form. English doesn’t have anything like it (as far as I know), and it seems to me to be a strong indication of how the Greeks thought. An aorist verb is, um, past-universal. It’s technically a past tense; but it’s a past tense that implies timelessness, something existing out-of-time. It’s something THAT HAPPENED. Here is an example of how having some grasp of the language will facilitate the comprehension of larger things. Within the context of a specializing, technical pedagogy or epistemology, of course the language is important—it’s most important. But within the context of a “big picture” point-of-view, it may not be all-important, but it’s still important.

However, I feel that I have a relatively strong sense of how the ancient Greeks understood the universe that was not primarily the effect of studying the language. Rather, it came about by a sort of Greek-immersion study—the first year of St. John’s, in every class, we are studying the Greeks. In Language, in Math, in Seminar, and even (partly) in Laboratory. I value the perspective provided by such a (relatively) comprehensive experience of Greek thought more than I value the acquisition of a minimal facility with Greek language. (And, by the way, a lot of us sort of fall in love with the Greeks—to my mind, what’s beautiful about them is that they has a sort of unity of comprehension, where we quite often have dichotomies and dualisms.)

Even within the limited context of learning the language for the purposes of translation and some reading, Greek is still quite difficult. Most of the previous commenters have asserted this, and I agree with them. But it will be much easier for you if you already have multiple languages, or a strong natural facility with learning foreign languages. For some people, it’s easy. (Languagehat is one who asserts that it’s easy—but one would expect a linguist to have that perspective.) So to decide whether or not you’re going to tackle Greek, you need to evaluate what you wish to accomplish by way of learning it. The degree to which you’re more a “technicalist” (pardon my neologisms), is the degree to which it will be important for you to really learn Greek. And that will be very difficult. If you’re more a “gestalt generalist”, then the combined project of learning some ancient Greek and reading the classic Greek works becomes more attainable and worthwhile. (And, by the way, once you’ve studied even a small amount of Greek, English provides many new probably unexpected discoveries.)

Also, the previous comment reminds me that a significant minority of johnnies take a summer program in Greek between freshman and sophomore years. Personally, I think it would have helped more before freshman year. :) Certainly, if you can find somewhere to take some Greek classes formally, that'd be best.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:02 AM on March 12, 2006 [2 favorites]

I recommend checking out the site for Harvard's Center for Hellenic Studies. They have some free lectures and discussion groups online. Granted, they are not courses in learning the language, but in the discussion groups you will likely connect with people who share your interests. And if Gregory Nagy's online lectures are anything like his classes, you will get a rudimentary introduction to key Greek words and concepts. It's one place to start. The center doesn't offer a Plato discussion group at the moment, but it wouldn't surprise me to see one there in the future.

If you want a nice resource for listening to greek while looking at the text, here is a link to Mr. Nagy reading selections from the Iliad online.

Good luck, and I'm glad you asked this question - I'm gonna check out those free lectures!
posted by sophie at 1:08 PM on March 12, 2006

Everyone should learn ancient Greek. It does take motivation and discipline—if you can afford the time and money (and if, preferably, you have some decent background in grammatical concepts like participles and direct objects), the intensive summer workshops can be great. They do require 100% life commitment for 10 weeks or so. There are programs at CUNY, Berkeley, U of Chicago, and elsewhere. Of course regularly paced Greek at the nearest college or university should be considered.

Miscellaneous comments: Wilding's Greek book, mentioned above, is a fine beginning, but in my opinion you'd need to then supplement with some study in a more advanced book to be ready for reading. Athenaze, which I have not liked teaching from, is however worth mentioning here as fairly painless and inductive (focus on readings), having an answer key available, and building up to a nice presentation of some unadulterated Aristophanes, which you're interested in. Actually, even though for my different purposes as a teacher it's low on my list, I'll go ahead and say I think it's easily your best choice for self-study (unless you are a really hard-core grammar fiend who will resent the friendly fuzziness of more inductive methods).

Another possibility is to decide to learn Homeric Greek first, for which there's an active and friendly online learning community at (FWIW though reading Homer in Greek is one of the big pleasures of my life, I'd say that Homer is more translatable than either of your two favs, Plato & Aristophanes.)

why do you think you will get more out of Plato in Greek

(1) Because he is one of the greatest prose literary artists in world lit. Many people who aren't trying to technically dissect and criticize the philosophical arguments have memorable experiences reading Symposium, Phaedrus, etc.

(2) Because translations are an inadequate basis for understanding his philosophical concepts and arguments. I mean, it's not some kind of academic conspiracy that virtually all of the philosophers who have interesting things to say about Plato know enough to look at the original Greek. This is even generally true of the driest analytic philosophers who are frighteningly uninterested in the existence of a cultural context. And Plato was a philosophy intensely interested in his culture!
posted by Zurishaddai at 8:48 AM on October 19, 2006 [2 favorites]

UT Austin hosts this droolworthy collection of lessons for numerous dead Indo-European languages, Classical and Koine Greek among them. They take a text-and-annotation approach, which you may find helpful as it is naturally biased toward the most common forms. The Greek annotations were done by Winfred P. Lehmann, a talented Indo-Europeanist. Depending on your Unicode facilities or lack thereof, you can read the lessons in romanization, Unicode 2.0 (Greek letters plus combining diacritics), or full, glorious Unicode 3.0, now with the untamed beauty and Hellenic zestiness of polytonic!
posted by eritain at 7:13 PM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

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