Greek for ‘that’s interesting’…

There’s two types of modern expressions that present difficulty for speaking ancient languages:

  • names for things they didn’t have
  • expressions for things they didn’t say

In many cases (1) isn’t so bad. You just have to neologise. How do you say helicopter, television, mobile (=cell) phone, etc etc..? Even coffee, tea, present problems, but not insurmountable ones. For Latin, with its longer continual history, it’s often easier. For speaking ancient Greek modernly, various strategies can be used: adapting an ancient word with a similar meaning; using the Greek equivalent to a Latin word used for the same modern thing; deriving a (sometimes entirely fictive) ‘ancestor’ form for a contemporary Greek word.

The second issue is much more problematic. Consider the expression, “It’s interesting…”. In Latin, we can use phrases involving studiumstudium me tenet, studium me excitat, and the like. Greek is, it seems, more tricky.

I asked my good friend Στέφανος about this, as I often do, and he proffered a few suggestions:

διαφέρει — it’s important

ἄξιον σπουδῆς — something worthy of zeal/esteem/effort

προσέχω τινὶ τὸν νοῦν, τὸν νοῦν ἔχω πρός τινα – expressions for paying attention to something.

 

None of these, as he recognised, quite fits. We want something for “here is a thing that is worth paying attention to/thinking about”.

But perhaps we can build off these. ἄξιον + infinitive makes a good impersonal structure for “worth doing X”. So…

ἄξιον τοῦ τὸν νοῦν προσέχειν – worth paying attention to

ἄξιον διαλέγεσθαι – worth talking about

ἄξιον ἐπὶ ᾧ νομίζειν – worth thinking on,

ἄξιον μελετᾶσθαι – worth contemplating

 

Take these out for a spin, let me know what you think.

Podcasting: my process

We’re now six podcasts deep, and I thought I’d write a little this week about what it looks like for me to put together a podcast.

1: An idea

It takes a while for me to come up with ideas, which maybe isn’t a good sign! It needs to be something moderately interesting, and moderately within my speaking ability. I try to draw from things going on in the rest of my Greek-oriented life. So far that’s working okay.

2: ‘Practice’

Depending on my schedule, I spend some time talking to myself ex tempore on the topic, in Greek. Either while driving, or in the shower, or wherever. It’s often at this stage that I stumble across things I want to say but can’t. I make a note (mentally, usually) to address that.

3: ‘Practice’ part 2

On a Saturday or Sunday evening I sit down at the computer; I have some rough notes for the intro and outro, I get a Latin>Greek dictionary open, and I fake-record first. That is, I open up Audacity and hit ‘record’ and talk for around 10 minutes. The first version is always terrible, but it allows me to do what I did in the step above, but with more focus. I generally use the Latin>Greek dictionary to figure out things I don’t know (it’s easier and better than English>Greek).

4: Recording

I try not to do too many fake recordings if only because I get bored of myself. Usually 1 or 2 is enough, and then I record a proper version. I accept, immo, embrace the fact that it’s still well-short of perfect, but that’s okay, that’s part of the deal here.

5: And send

I rarely relisten to them, I will only get overly critical. So I just fill in the details and upload them directly.

 

And that’s it. Nothing marvellous or magical, just a very stripped-down process to get Greek audio out my mouth and onto the internet.

On neglecting, or choosing not to learn, new languages

I always marvel when scholar X talks about ‘picking up a new language’ like it’s nothing. Or even like it’s something. Perhaps I’m actually bad at languages. (I don’t believe that people are good or bad at languages, aka language aptitude).

For myself, I made a conscious decision to not continue investing in more languages. I’ve written previously about my experiences, learning (to one degree or another) some Japanese, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Mongolian, and Scottish Gaelic, and superficial dabblings in French and German.

I’ve reached a point in life where I know that I do not have the time, either week by week, or long term, to truly learn French of German to a useful point. I have largely abandoned them. My Hebrew is… rusty. 3 years of grammar and exegesis at seminary were indeed useful, but the apex of my Hebrew ability is gone.

And yet, I do not mourn these, except insofar as I mourn the opportunity lost of many good things in this life. But my choice is not a passive one, it’s a very intentional and active one.

It’s the choice to pursue few languages deeper. I want to know Greek, Latin, and Gàidhlig really, really well. ‘Superior Speaker’ well. ‘Read any text with relative ease’ well. Converse with comfort well. And that takes a lot more focus, dedication, and narrowing, than ‘learning’ 15 languages would, or worse, 15 grammar + dictionary usage abilities.

I’ve been at these three a long time now. And not always efficiently. Well, not always optimally. The longer I’m in this game, the better I understand the game itself, getting better at learning languages, and learning these three better.

On a kind of return to classics…

Most of my classics background involved a 4 year stint as an external student working almost entirely on Latin. I took intro Latin as an adult, and then 3 years of text-based classes. I wish I had kept better notes! It was still being done with postal services when I did it. But I did cover the gamut – Vergil, Cicero, Ovid, Horace, Lucretius, Tacitus, Lucan, Seneca, Livy, Pliny.

Since then, I haven’t had occasion to read extended selections of Latin, or even classical Greek, texts. But starting in a couple of weeks I have two high school students headed into their 12th year (I guess, Senior Year for you Americans), one in 2019, one in 2020. That means, as their tutor, I’m gearing up to cover:

  • Livy, Book V
  • Tacitus, Agricola
  • Vergil, Aeneid 1
  • Horace, selected Odes
  • Catullus, selected poems
  • Cicero, Pro Archia
  • Homer, Iliad 3
  • Euripides, Electra
  • Thucydides, Book IV.

(I should mention, almost all of these are ‘selected portions’, but they are substantial portions in most cases).

That’s a fairly solid list! I’m looking forward to it, as it will force me to read some genuine literary Latin and Greek; I’ve never read extensive portions of Homer or of Greek drama really. Also, I really do enjoy reading texts. Who knows, maybe I’ll acquire some more private students along the way! Or maybe I’ll do some recordings or videos. Or blog post. Or… we’ll see.

(Italian) Athenaze Supplement Project

I’m keen to revisit my idea from some time ago, about a collaborative project providing English-language supports for using the Italian edition of Athenaze, for those without any Italian.I’ve set up a Google Drive folder, and it’s basically ready to go. I have in mind particularly the following three (non-copyright-infringing) tasks:

1. vocab list per chapter with English glosses

2. commentary style notes on constructions, references to page and line.

3. grammar explanations that map to the chapters but do not translate the Italian material

If you’d be interested in helping out/getting involved, send me an email and I’ll send an invite.

Can you bootstrap a speaking ability when you have limited communication options?

Yes, but its (very-)sub-optimal, hard, and the results might be less than stellar.

But you might also have not that much choice. There are few Latin speakers in Australia. A few Gàidhlig speakers. Less ancient Greek speakers. Opportunities for communication events are limited. And what if your situation is even less tenable? The last native Manx speaker died in 1974, but there are an estimated 1800 speakers today? Plenty of indigenous languages have <10 speakers, and some are actually dead but well-recorded. I’m not even an educated amateur on language revitalisation, so I’m going to stick to talking about Greek in this post, but I suspect the principles are generalisable.

Comprehensible Input is still king. If you don’t have speakers giving that to you in conversation (and even if you do), you need to get as much rich , appropriate, language content as you can. So, read everything you can, work within your abilities as much as possible and resist the desire to tackle difficult texts unless you have to; rad aloud, to get your mouth moving. And get as much audio as you can – conversation material is best, soliloquies are okay; written literature being read-out is good but arguably not the best thing; oral exercises aren’t the worst thing either. Listen, comprehend, listen again.

Learn the basic of question and answer. This is easier than you think and the pay-off is great. If you can construct questions, you have a means of turning any text into a conversation piece. All you need is to get used to asking questions: start with sentence-type questions, then move on to the interrogatives (In English: who, what, where, when, why, how; Greek: τίς, τί, ποῦ, πότε, τί (διὰ τί, ἵνα τί), πῶς; and others…). Questions can be done in Greek, at the level of story, paragraph, sentence, even clause. This lets you (a) have a conversation with yourself, (b) have simple conversations with others, (c) compose simple sentences and stories that build off texts you’re already working with.

If you’ve come through a traditional grammar-translation curriculum, it’s also not that taxing to learn basic grammatical terminology, especially for Latin or Greek, since they are almost all Latin terms anyway and the Greek forms basically are equivalents. And that permits you to have grammatical conversations about texts too, if that’s what you love.

If you have friends, ahem, students, then start inflicting spoken Greek on them. Start easy, simple, and fun. Prepare well – script up as much as you can before hand so you have phrases to mind/hand. Doing some of the WAYK universal speed curriculum is a good way to do this. When I first did this, I would keep a cheat-sheet handy. It’s no shame to say, “hey, we’re all trying to do this thing, and this little reference sheet is to keep us speaking Nice Pure Attic not some degenerate barbaric language, ahem, Koine.”

Related to the above, develop a habit of note-taking when you are trying to say something and can’t find the right word or structure. And then after a session of whatever, take that list and figure out how to fill in the gaps. I use English > Greek, and Latin > Greek lexica for that, or go away and find the right syntax structure, or ask a friend.

Talk to yourself about whatever you can. If you don’t have other people to talk to, and even if you do, you need to talk to yourself. Why? Because you’re the conversation partner who is always available, and who always understands what your trying to say. Talk about things around you, talk about things you have vocabulary for. Just get talking.

Lastly, look and pursue opportunities to talk with others, or at least listen to others talking. There’s audio resources (not much, let’s be honest), videos on youtube, there is spoken Greek out there to listen to. There’s also a weekly online chat that is freely open: https://latinandgreekchats.weebly.com you don’t even need to speak. I’m never there (alas) as it’s a terrible time for my schedule. And lastly, yes, you can sign up to classes. CKI, which I mentioned in the last post, also I see that BLC is starting to run some classes in Koine not just Hebrew. There’s also some conversational Greek offered through Telepaideia, again terrible for my schedule so I can’t tell you what they’re like from experience.

I don’t have a repository of links for communicative ancient Greek; there’s one here (http://www.latinteachertoolbox.com/ancient-greek.html) but it’s a little out of date. Perhaps its time to make a repository, there’s not lots of material, but there’s stuff out there, and its often a matter of scouring the internet for it….

 

How did I get to this point of speaking Greek?

Our friend James helpfully asked:

Did you ever have communicative Greek training with a more fluent speaker? If not, how did you get to this point? Do you have a post on what you did? Despite the apparent contradiction, do you think it’s possible to therefore get to a certain point of speaker fluency on ones own?

Firstly, let’s remind ourselves that I’m not that great a speaker. I’m past the Tarzan stage, but there’s plenty I can’t do with the language. But I can hold soliloquies with myself on familiar topics with familiar vocabulary. And I can have basic conversations about texts or concrete things.

So, I don’t want to overplay the experience I’ve had with others, but nor do I want to underplay. I had to think this over, and I did do about 50 hours all up in group classes with Halcomb over at Conversational Koine Institute, about 5 years back now.  I do think that was incredibly useful for me, but I don’t think it contributed a huge amount overall to reaching this level of speaking. It did show me something of what was possible, about the same time I was experimenting in Mongolia with some basic Where Are Your Keys approaches, and trying my hand at an ill-fated Ørberg conversion.

Other than that, I did work through the self-study materials by Randall Buth at the Biblical Language Center. That I did, prior to the above work with Halcomb, and I found it helpful to (a) transition my pronunciation mostly to a restored Koine, even if I have vestiges of Erasmian or a lingering overrealised aspiration problem. It also (b) helped me to cement down quite a few fundamental phrases.

Thirdly, I do do some regular online chats with a more advanced speaker. That too probably didn’t get me to this point, and we’ve only clocked about 10 hours together, but it’s incredibly useful to me. I think there’s great advantage in speaking to people above you and below you in communicative proficiency.

Fourthly, though, there’s just a long familiarity with the language and with Koine texts. I started learning Koine in 2003, and can’t think of a year since when I haven’t been doing something with the language. And since at least 2007 I’ve been advocating, exploring, researching, and experimenting with more active/communicative/living approaches to historical languages. And I’ve had the experience of learning other languages as ‘live’ ones, and working on speaking Latin, and this all is fuel for the fire. Even if a tonne of my language exposure has been to written texts, it’s still exposure, and to the extent that that has been sufficient input for acquisition, it can create spoken output.

Fifthly, apart from the language I’ve gotten from being a student of others, I’ve worked at speaking more Greek to those under my tutelage, as best I can and as much as possible. This, too, is a context for learning how to speak, even if I am not learning more language per se. The more I can speak with students, both (a) the more I get to put my own communicative competencies into practice, and (b) I realise the gaps in my own language. Gaps that can be filled by going away and figuring out what to put in them (perhaps ironically, in the heat of conversation my brain regularly reaches for a Latin expression if it doesn’t have a Greek one to hand).

Do I think someone could get to a certain point of speaker-fluency on one’s own? Yes, but with considerable difficulty, non-ideally and non-optimally. It’s taken 15 years for me to get to this point, and I reached the point where I could teach certain classes in Mongolian in 2, and preach in 2.5 years (not in anyway linguistically or literary sophisticated, but genuinely Mongolian sermons composed in Mongolian idiom). It shouldn’t take 15 years to get to this level of spoken Greek. I do hope that I will get a lot more fluent a lot more quickly in the years to come. And I hope it won’t take the next generations of learners as much time or effort to reach the level that I have so far attained.