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Zuntz: The Greatest Grammar You Never Knew

The other day I mentioned Zuntz, and I realised later that many do not know about this wonderful text. So in this post I’m going to introduce/overview it for you.

Günther Zuntz (1902 – 1992) was a phenomenally gifted classical philologist and scholar. You can read about his life here in the Proceedings from the British Academy.

He also wrote a Greek primer, originally in German in 3 volumes. An English translation was done by Stanley Porter, and released as a two volume work, “Greek: A course in Classical and Post-Classical Greek Grammar from Original Texts”, and published by Sheffield Academic Press. It’s very difficult to track down, but you do find it in libraries. Online it will cost you an arm and a leg.

The text consists of four sections:

1. Greek Lessons: These are a series of texts, all taken from original texts covering a fairly full range of Greek literature. In the early stages, some texts are very, very minorly adapted. Zuntz is no fan of composed, non-original Greek, and thinks you should learn from original texts as much as possible. This makes part 1 a delectable smorgasbord of carefully selected Greek. It is followed by an Anthology of readings, and the Fasti Graeci, which gives dates and facts to grant historical contextualisation.

2. Exercises: As valuable as part 1 is, the exercises complement this well. Firstly, Zuntz writes, “Language is speaking” (20), and the first section of each lesson’s exercises consists of material for oral practice. The second, also, aims towards oral practice, but in questions and transformations based on the readings. Only section 3 turns to “conventional” exercises: parsing, paradigms, translation.

3. Vocabulary: a running list of vocabulary to help render each lesson intelligible.

4. Grammars. The grammar is divided into a running Appendix Grammatica, with grammar explanations for each lesson, and a Summa Grammatica at the end.

Now, what to say about this 1000-odd page “Primer” in Greek?

Firstly, it has peculiarities you will not find elsewhere and may not enjoy. Zuntz, for instance, prefers students to learn texts with iota adscript instead of subscript. (i.e. instead of θεῷ you will regularly find θεῶι). However, these are mostly excusable on the grounds that you will survive them. Secondly, Zuntz explains things no one else does. His grammatical explanations constantly compare with Latin, and then give reference to (Proto)-Indo-European, and you are just left with answers to questions you always wondered (or didn’t know to ask). For example, I have always simply accepted that α-stem feminine nouns always accent as -ῶν in the genitive plural, but it took Zuntz to explain that it is because the form was -άων and that contraction has occured, fixing the accent regardless of where it occurs in other cases.

So Zuntz leaves no stone unturned, which make for a “rigorous” course. However, it’s not for the faint-hearted. In the introduction he says you can get through the whole and still have time to read Plato’s Apology, in a year with six lessons a week. Provided that you also follow 2 hours private work for each hour of class. So that’s (assuming 1hr lessons?) 18 hours a week for 2 semesters.

One shouldn’t mistake Zuntz for a traditional grammar-translation textbook, that’s not how it works and not, I think, what he envisioned. But neither is it an inductive reader. It’s more a traditionally grammar-driven anthology of hand-picked texts to initiate you into the big, bad, wide world of Ancient Greek, with a second course of orally-drive exercises that ought to be done in a communicative fashion to make you a modern Demosthenes, and a third course of classical philology on steroids so that you’re not only well-versed in ancient Greek, but properly drenched in why Greek does what it does.

Don’t go rushing out to buy a copy, you’re looking at $200 minimum if you can even locate a real copy. But do check your library. It’s never likely to get another print run, and so sadly never likely to get much classroom use either. The best thing that could happen to this wonderful primer is to see an open-access high-quality pdf of it released to the Internet.


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