So how do you go about finding/using words for new-er things in ancient Greek? It’s a conundrum, and it’s more a conundrum in Greek than Latin, but here are a few of my working principles:
- I look at English>Greek dictionaries. Woodhouse, Yonge, Fradersdorff. These usually require trying to think of a 19th century way of expressing something.
- I look at how Latin, especially contemporary Latin, expresses things, using the English>Latin at Latinitium (Smith and Hall, primarily), as well as the Neo-Latin Lexicon. I then consider what Greek words might correspond to the Latin well, including using a Latin>Greek lexicon.
- I look at how Modern Greek expresses the idea or term. If it’s a derivation from an ancient word, I reverse engineer the etymology where appropriate.
- Ask other contemporary speakers of ancient Greek what they are using. I have a few go-to friends who are good for this.
- In all these steps, I’m trying to figure out
- Is there an ancient attested word that could reasonably be extended to represent the new thing?
- Is there an obvious neologism that would be transparent to an ancient speaker, and generally conforms to ancient usage?
- Does modern Greek and/or contemporary Latin use a loan word or calque, and would the same strategy work for a ‘new’ ancient word?
In all this, my principle is basically “be as linguistically conservative as possible”, because I’m still trying to speak an ancient Greek in a modern context.
Apologies too, I couldn’t resist the title.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I don’t have all the answers, but nonetheless I have some thoughts.
So often when we’re in a language context, a context where we are learners, we feel the need to perform. Whether it’s with a teacher, or with other learners, or even with students. We feel this need to show, to prove that we know stuff, and we can do stuff, and importantly, we know and speak better than you.
Which is pointless and stupid. But we do it anyway, don’t we? Did you ever correct someone because you wanted to demonstrate that you knew Greek better? Did you ever stay up late polishing your preparations for a translate-and-autopsy reading class, to show how good a philologist you really are? Did you rephrase a simple sentence into an epic Ciceronian period with a sprinkling of obscure vocabulary you prepped earlier just for this very purpose?
Wherever you are in your language learning journey, that’s where you are. It doesn’t matter where I am. It doesn’t matter where the learner in your class next to you (1.5 metres away, perhaps, or a digital ocean) ‘is’. And if your one of my students, you don’t need to prove or show off to me. And if you’re a teacher, your job isn’t to demonstrate your mastery to your students. What matters is? Is one more step:
The next word, the next sentence, the question and answer. Are they in the language? Are they understandable? Are the communicating? Keep doing that. And you’ll keep progressing. And they will keep progressing. And that way we all win, because we all move along the path.
Language acquisition is a mountain-climbing in a team. And throwing people off the mountain doesn’t help. Supporting and helping each other helps us all.
I’ve scoured my notes from several sources and put together this cheat sheet for Greek Grammatical terms which I use, and which may be of use for others. I’ve culled it from Christophe Rico’s Polis book, Randall Buth’s BLC materials, the Alexandros volume from Cultura Clasica, and judicious plundering of ancient grammarians.
Additions, queries, corrections always welcome.
Last week I brought to a close a 10-week experiment in a Latin-learning-experience, “Latin via RPG”. I offered this as a kind of ‘course’, but as one participant pointed out it might better be called a ‘learning-experience’, since it was not so much a sequence of taught materials, as an opportunity for unbounded use, and acquisition, of Latin (which, is what I am about anyway!).
I’ll briefly describe a bit about the set-up and participants, and then let them ‘speak’, before offering my own reflections on the experience.
I’ve been playing table-top roleplaying games for close to thirty years now. They are one of my favourite past-times, and a source of a lot of fun. The previous two years I also had the joy of playing Dungeons and Dragons in Latin at the two Rusticationes Australianae. I have often mused about how an RPG would be an effective learning environment because it creates a setting that is not the ‘classroom’, but the gameroom, and it calls for learner-investment in personas, and the story, in a way that classroom ‘scenario’ roleplaying does not. It also allows the participants to explore alternate settings, persons, plots, themes, etc.. This year, I felt sufficiently comfortable in my own Latin to offer this as a paid course to learners. I did some preparations, chose a game system (kind of, see below), and each week we played. We had four participants, ranging from someone with 2 semesters of college Latin, through to some more experienced learners (who would still describe themselves as learners).
Okay, what did they think?
I thoroughly enjoyed this class, and It really forced me to become more comfortable in my understanding of Latin grammar and vocabulary. You were a great professor and game master. I hope if you decide to run it again and I can take part. Your use of classical, medieval, and new Latin helped me a lot to enhance my vocabulary and learn more about Latin as a developing language.
The Latin RPG was fun and good practice. Since it was more student-directed, this led to a very different kind of environment and required a different kind of speaking, and I think that’s good. … Regardless, I enjoyed it.
A thief, a strongman, a necromancer priest of Jove, and a terrible hunter walk into the woods in search of a mysterious temple. Which turns out to have been taken over by crocodile monsters. And that’s only the beginning. What’s not to love?
Latin RPG was completely fantastic! Everyone was supportive and creative, and there were lots of funny moments. You made everything so clear and so interesting. If you run it again I’d enroll in a heartbeat.
My only regret is that it didn’t last longer!I had a tremendous amount of fun playing an RPG in Latin. I came in as a second year student and gained so much confidence in Latin, hearing and learning how conversational Latin works and sounds. It was such a great experience that I’m glad i was able to be a part of, and I will definitely be continuing it in my future schooling. It was difficult, and new, and such a cool learning experience that I would recommend to someone looking for a different way to interact with Latin. Confidence is my main takeaway from this, not vocab or grammar, but experience and confidence.
I always felt comfortable saying I didn’t know a word or didn’t understand, and I went from understanding about 30% to 50% of all the words to about 90%+ through the term.
Thank you for hosting this, thank you for keeping me in, and thank all the other participants, I had an unprecedented experience and will do it again.
Back to me…
I had originally thought to run a game built upon the Fate system, because it seemed very rules-light, and I wanted this to be as accessible as possible. We spent the first session talking about game concepts, developing characters, and just getting acquainted. From there each session was mostly a free-form kind of role-playing – I come from a very story-driven, free-form kind of ‘school’ of roleplaying anyway, and this seemed to work well. Certainly as we went on, our participants became more adept at communicating in Latin, and even moreso at understanding. RPGing requires a fairly large cognitive load on the storyteller/GM, and that’s increased in Latin, so if you felt less confident in doing that, then a more scripted adventure/style might work better.
I altered two things as we went that I think were invaluable. Firstly, I went from doing Fate as a behind the scenes system, to an even more ‘loose’ version of it. Essentially I would roll dice for anything that seemed to require dice, and make adjustments based on the characters’ stats. This reduced all game mechanics to a single dice roll + GM fiat. I think in a different setting, I’d be very happy with a more rules-on version, but this worked fine for us.
Secondly, I asked participants to write up a short description, in Latin, of each episode. This achieved 3 purposes – firstly, it let me know what they understood to have happened. It was invaluable in seeing what people had heard, and what they had missed, or misconstrued. Secondly, it gave them a non-timed chance to output, in a non-pressured way. I encouraged them to use English wherever they needed to. Thirdly, it gave me a chance to reshape and supply back Latin outside the sessions. I could provide vocabulary, structures, idioms, etc., in a less direct feedback manner. I think this was an invaluable addition.
I think I will run something like this again, though probably not in the immediate short-term. I think it was a valuable learning experience in active Latin usage among us all, and it was also a tremendous amount of fun.
I’m very excited to tell you about the upcoming courses I’ll be offering, starting in July. All my courses are taught primarily in the target language and aim at a communicative approach. Here are some details and descriptions for each:
(students with a particular interest in Biblical Greek will be supported to develop Koine specific vocabulary and structures)
Greek 102 will be a continuing course, picking up with Athenaze (English or Italian) chapter 6, working through to chapter 10, with additional content along the way. USD$210, Mondays 9pm US Eastern.
Greek 104 will be a continuing course, picking up with Athenaze (English or Italian) chapter 17, working through to chapter 21, with additional content along the way. USD$210, Sundays 7pm US Eastern.
Greek 111: Intensive Greek A, is a 2hrs a week x 15 week course, starting August 2nd, Sunday and Tuesday nights at 9pm US Eastern. It will cover all of Athenaze volume 1, as well as a considerable amount of additional material, and represent a full college-semester’s worth of Greek, taught in a communicative mode. If you’re starting Greek from scratch and want to learn it well, and spoken, this is it. USD $725.
Greek 213: Greek Patristics 3. An intermediate course in which we’ll read and discuss (in Greek), some 3rd and 4th century Greek Patristic literature. USD $210, Mondays 7pm US Eastern.
Greek 271: Intro to Conversational Greek for post-beginners. This course is designed for those with a year of college Greek or equivalent, but aimed at developing a beginning proficiency in spoken ancient Greek. Ideal for those who have done Greek but never spoken it before. USD $210, Thursday 9pm US Eastern.
Latin 103 will be a continuing course, picking up with Lingua Latina, Familia Romana chapter 23. USD$210, Mondays 8pm US Eastern.
Latin 213: Theological Latin through the Ages 3 (1000-1400). An intermediate course in which we’ll read and discuss (in Latin) some Christian and particularly theological authors from the later medieval ages.
If you have an interest in any of the following possibilities, I’d love to hear from you, because I could offer a few more things if there were people willing and interested:
- Latin 101 (beginning Latin from the start, with LLPSI)
- Latin 111: An intensive, semester-long Latin course
- Greek 2xx : An intermediate reading class in a Biblical book (LXX or NT)
- Latin 201: An intermediate reading class in Latin starting with Roma Aeterna and supplements
- Anything else you think would be fun and you can think of at least a 2nd person to come along.
Feel free to leave me a message about any of these courses.
Recently I have been writing and semi-publishing a series of texts with the title ‘A Spartan Tale’. You can see the first two here and here, via my patreon. I will, at a future point, provide a more stable means of accessing the text.
In this post I talk simply about what I am doing, why, and where it’s going.
A Spartan Tale is designed as a series of interconnected narrative texts that provides a story that parallels and complements the narrative found in the popular Athenaze textbook series. Especially in the early stages, the text follows the grammar and vocabulary in that textbook closely, with some variation and expansion. It can be used as a supplement to anyone using that textbook, or as a standalone source of reading.
How does it differ?
A Spartan Tale tells a very different story of ancient Greece. Instead of the tale of Philippos, an Athenian boy who hears of the great exploits of Athens, is inculcated in the values of Athenian democracy, and faces the challenges of the oncoming Peloponnesian War, we follow instead the story of Elena, a Spartan helot and female enslaved person. I don’t want to give away too many details of her story, but it provides both a different perspective on the events of the era, as well as the shared past of Athens and Sparta. Elena’s story is unAthenian, female, and centered on a non-citizen in ancient Hellas.
It also differs in using Doric Greek as its primary dialect. This is challenging on multiple levels. We don’t have that much Doric. Doric was limited in its literary production, and then transitioned into being a literary dialect used by other Greek writers for specific literary purposes. Doric itself was still spoken, and seems to have survived to become modern Tsakonian, a critically endangered Greek language spoken today.
So, writing in Doric is a considerable challenge. It’s also a challenge to read! Most students get inculcated into either a high-register Attic, or else a broad-register Koine. Adjusting to Doric is possible, but not straightforward. However it is worth it. It provides a linguistic alternative to the literary hegemony of Athens.
Where is it going?
I have planned out roughly 25 ‘chapters’ which will follow the sequence and scope of Athenaze, but tell an entirely fresh and new tale. There will be points of parallelism in content and grammar, as well as vocabulary, which make it an ideal reader for those who have used Athenaze previously. At the same time, it’s a completely new story that introduces you to a different Greece. A mostly historical one. And it expands your enjoyment and your knowledge of ancient Greece and greek language.
Recently the Australian government released a statement signalling its intentions to drastically alter the way it costs, funds, and charges for studies in Australian universities. Now, many of you readers are not Australian, so let me explain a little briefly. Undergraduate (Bachelor) students (and others) are here able to defer their fees under a government loan scheme (HECS) to pay off when they begin earning money, through the taxation system. That debt is linked to CPI, not to interest. It has, for a number of years, distinguishes ‘bands’ of subjects, and Arts/Humanities subjects have been the cheapest. Under a carrot/stick approach, the government intends to decrease the costs for some ‘job critical’ areas, and increase the costs for others, including a 113% on the current cost of (most) Humanities subjects, raising the cost of a 3-year Arts degree to $45,000. A price that I suspect few are willing to take on.
Apart from the politics and economics of this, it started me thinking again about the courses that I teach, and what it would take to become some kind of accredited provider. And this started me thinking again about,
What would it look like to teach an academic series of subjects treating Latin and Ancient Greek as living languages?
The rest of this post is a proposed draft curriculum, so that you can start dreaming with me.
The first year
So, what if you took a different starting point, and started with the premise that the aim of a foundational series of courses was to bring students up to a proficient ability to talk/listen/read/write in the languages. And so, consequently, you were going to base your courses not on covering grammar and teaching translation, but on developing a range of communicative competencies. With goal of seeing students at the end of 2 subjects with a CEFR A2 ability, and at the end of 4 subjects in a language, with a low-to-mid B1.
- Latin 1001 + 1002 – Introductory Latin. CEFR Goal: A2
- Greek 1001 + Greek 1002 – Introductory Greek. CEFR Goal: A2
You could teach them as double courses in a full-time program, so that would be semester 1 for a full-time student. To give an idea, Latin 1001+2 would cover all of Familia Romana plus additional exercises in reading, writing, listening, etc..
A second semester or block would cover intermediate courses:
- Latin 1003 + 1004 – Intermediate Latin. CEFR Goal: Low B1
- Greek 1003 + 1004 – Intermediate Greek. CEFR Goal: Low B1
Again, to give an idea, 1003/4 Latin would cover all of Roma Aeterna plus other authors, alongside a communicative-driven curriculum. Greek would do similar. So you have a great deal of reading to do, and yet the focus of the rest of the teaching is squarely on conversation. You assess across speak/listen as well as read/write skills. All subjects would have a minimum of 4 contact hours.
In a full-time mode, that would be a year. In part-time, however long it takes. You could do a single language, but you’d have to take the first year part-time.
The second year
This is where it would get fun. 4 subjects per language, in which the content was language/literature/history. You would deliberately de-centralise the ‘classical cannon’, to give students a diachronic perspective on the interaction of language, literatures, and history. The classes and primary readings would be entirely in target language. You’d set some secondary reading in English, etc., but ask students to write summaries and do presentations in the respective languages, as part of a project to develop an in-language wikipedia that supported these very subjects.
- Latin 2001 Post-Augustan and Late Antique (up to 550)
- Latin 2002 Medieval (550-1250)
- Latin 2003 Late Medieval and Renaissance (1250-1600)
- Latin 2004 Neo-Latin and Contemporary (1600-2020)
- Greek 2001 Hellenistic and Roman writers (330BCE – 330CE)
- Greek 2002 Late Antiquity (330CE – 900)
- Greek 2003 Medieval (900 – 1500)
- Greek 2004 Homer and his reception
The CEFR benchmarks you’d aim for would be High B1 > Low B2 > High B2 > Low C1. So by the end of a second full-year sequence you’re aiming to have students functioning *around* a high B2, low C1 level. Assessments, such as it is, or summative learning tasks, would involve long form writing in the language, as well as oral presentations (monologue, dialogue, etc).
The third year
If you added a third year to create a Bachelor’s degree, you’d open it up to a range of electives that focused on topics, or genres, with a broad historical perspective, or else in-depth studies of particular times. Here’s my conjecturing possible electives:
Latin 3001 Rhetoric: from Rome to Now
Latin 3002 Philosophy through the Ages
Latin 3003 The Latin Church Fathers
Latin 3004 The Western Church in its Latin tradition
Latin 3005 The Latin Play throughout the ages
Latin 3006 The Latin novel throughout the ages
Latin 3007 Latin Epics
Latin 3008 Latin Lyrics
Latin 3009 Latin Historical writing
Latin 3010 Latin, speakers, identity, and reception
Greek 3001 Homer, in depth
Greek 3002 The Attic Orators
Greek 3003 The Second Sophistic
Greek 3004 The Attic comedies
Greek 3005 The Attic tragedies
Greek 3006 Greek Historians throughout the ages
Greek 3007 Greek Rhetoric throughout the ages
Greek 3008 The Greek Bible
Greek 3009 The Greek Church Fathers 1
Greek 3010 The Greek Church Fathers 2
Greek 3011 Greek Epic, beyond Homer
Cross Language Courses
Utriusque 3001 Comparative Epic
Utriusque 3002 Greek and Latin Sci-Fi
Utriusque 3003 Epigraphy utraque lingua
Utriusque 3004 ‘in the wrong language’ – Greek texts in Latin and Latin in Greek.
The lists could go on. You’d expect significant amounts of time reading original texts at this level, doing written and oral discussion in language, and long form writing.
The Honours Year
An Honours year I’d compose out of three elements: electives, academic writing, creative work. You could elect to take a combination, where you write an honours thesis worth 2 or 4 units (and appropriately long), in the target language, a creative work of similar length and weight (prose, poetry, film, etc.), and then the possibility of taking 3000 level units but with more significant demands in terms of research and outputs.
There is, of course, no humanly possible way that I could teach all that myself. Firstly, I know that I do not have the language proficiency currently to freely teach those imagined upper level courses. Nor do I have the time to teach full academic courses across multiple levels with significant contact and preparation hours. But this is the dream, and I am working to make it all one-step-closer, by building those first level courses, and early cut-down versions of level 2 courses. And hopefully the vision will grow, and others might join the journey.
I often find myself coming up with analogies and illustrations that help students understand not only how a particular piece of language works, but how languages, and language learning, works as a whole. Here’s one that I think is good, but a little bit odd.
Think of your language ‘knowledge’ as a kind of cubic tower. And you’re trying to build it. And there are three factors in this analogy that you can work on. Firstly, you can build up. The tower gets taller. This is adding grammatical understanding of syntax, and morphology. You pick up your textbook, read about feature X in the language, find out how comparisons work, or indirect statements, etc., and the tower gets taller.
Now, a lot of textbooks in the grammar mold, they’re prime aim is to get you through ‘all the grammar’. That is, to get your tower up to a minimum specified height, as quickly as possible. Yes, you need a bit of vocab along the way, but that’s mostly secondary to them. And this is the premise of all titles that talk about ‘teaching you all of X language’, they mean ‘all the grammar’. But tall towers are very flimsy.
Secondly, then, you can acquire vocabulary. And in this analogy, that’s extending the breadth and depth of your tower. It’s thickening the diameter, extending the sides. Maybe your cube is actually a triangle. Maybe it’s a cylinder. Whatever. maybe it’s an odd shape because you have extensive breadth in only a few specific domains of language use. Who knows. The point is, vocabulary doesn’t scale up, it scales out. Think of every piece of vocabulary as an individual piece of the cube, but they are posts, bars, planks, etc.. So, build a broad tower that’s not so high, it’s still pretty useful. You can talk about lots of stuff, in simple language. Build a broad, high cube, now we’re talking.
But there’s a third feature to the cubes we build. And that’s the spiders. Imagine the spiders are semi-autonomous robot spiders, and what they do is they shoot across your whole tower with spiderweb, linking individual ‘chunks’, morphological chunks, syntactical chunks, and vocabulary chunks. They jump from low to high, from near to far, up, down, sideways, and everytime they do they are making a connection, and those connections are thickening the cohesion of your language inside your mind. It’s this that creates the structural integrity that let’s the cube-tower rise higher and higher, and get broader and deeper, without all falling apart.
And this is why I’m never in a rush to add too much height or too much breadth to learner’s language-systems, too quickly. Slowly, slowly, we can add more words, more morphosyntactic structures, but the real question for me is how much time are we spending exposing your brain to messages in the language. That’s what is going to keep making those connections, and binding in the new elements, the new vocabulary and new structures, into the Cube.
I was incredibly intrigued lately to learn that Iain MacGilleathain, lesser known brother to Somhairle MacGill-Eain, had produced a translation of the Odyssey into Gàidhlig. There being a veritable dearth of information on John, I ordered Iasad Rann, which is a collection of his verse (and a few prose pieces) in Gaelic, Latin, and English, either written by himself, or translated from Gaelic, Latin, English, or ancient Greek. Today I share with you some thoughts on Catullus 85:
Catullus 85 is one of Catullus’ best known poems. Here it is:
ōdī et amō. quārē id faciam fortasse requīris.
nesciō, sed fierī sentiō et excrucior.
The short elegaic couple opens with a powerful juxtaposition of two emotions, I love and I hate, delivered with short verb forms, and placed on an equal footing. It is this opposing, yet simultaneous, experience that sets the poem on fire. The lack of any transitive objects intensifies our focus on the emotional states in view. The poem then softens, ‘why do I do this, perhaps you ask‘, moving us to the question of the poem – why? The poet externalises this question, invites the auditor into a dialogue, while fortasse (perhaps), lessens the intensity. The second line of the couplet continues in a softer or weaker vein, I don’t know, which resolves in an entirely unsatisfactory manner the question just introduced. And yet therein lies the knot of the poem’s experience. The play of vowel sounds in the second line, almost entirely e-i-o, produces a cohesive assonance. The final thought, but I feel it [to be so], and am tormented. The poem ends as strongly, and painfully, as it begins, with the visceral impact of excrucior.
Here is MacGilleathain’s Gaelic rendering:
Tha gaol is gràin
am chàil-sa ‘n-nochd;
cha tuig mi ‘m fàth,
‘s tha ‘n cràdh gam lot.
Iain’s version maintains the juxtaposition of the Catullan original, with gaol (love) and gràin (hatred) placed side by side with a simple and succinct conjunction is. Since Gaelic typically uses these nouns to express the verbal ideas of love and hate, the transformation from verb to noun forms is entirely appropriate. What’s lacking from MacGillleathain’s is the sense of the interlocutor, the question of “perhaps you ask why I do this”. We have instead am chàil-sa ‘n-nochd, indicating the kind of voracious vigour and appetite of this/these desires (assuming my own understand of the Gaelic is correct!). But what our second line does achieve is raising the intensity of the emotions in line one.
Line three, though, combines the Latin 1b and 2a into a single thought, “I don’t understand the reason”. fàth here being the cause or reason. The inexplicability of the tormented experience of love and hatred remains the same. The final line, as with Catullus, returns us to intense feeling, expressed as pain, with cràdh. This time gam lot. The word lot most likely recalls ‘lot’ in the English sense, allotment, share, portion, though it can also mean an injury or wound. This homonymy plays well here, the translator-poet evoking our sense of agony (cràdh), both in the woundedness that is love, and the woundedness that bestirs hate, as well as one’s ‘lot’ (echoing Catullus’ unspoken idea that certainly we don’t choose to feel this way!).
The Gaelic rendering has a fairly simple iambic dimetre, as I hear it, and you can hear it too, in the translator-poet’s own reading. The assonance of a/o sounds, and some consonance throughout the lines, as well as the rhyme of gràin/fàth, and nochd/lot, round out the poetic treatment here.
longe absit a me, to make any poetic judgment on MacGilleathain’s rendering, but it’s a fine rendering in my view, and preserves the powerful sentiment of the original, in a new linguistic vessel.
Chapter 2 of Aubrey’s thesis looks at the Greek middle in the context of other languages and their voice systems. How does the Greek middle, and the Greek voice system, ‘fit’ in comparison to other languages and their voices systems (23) rather than the traditional approach which begins from an active-passive contrast and goes from there.
Aubrey begins by distinguishing derived and basic voice systems. English is a derived system, because it is traced from a source, Greek is a basic system because it is not. To put it more simply, the passive in English takes the active structure and “remaps the participants” (25). Greek middles do not work like that – they do not presume the priority of the active and then go about remapping the participants in the event. Other languages are similarly basic or derived, and not all exhibit the same sets of systems (cf. anti-passives, inverse systems, etc. (24)).
Let me give an example (different to Aubrey’s) of that remapping
- Michael wrote (b) the tweets.
- The tweets were written (a) by Michael.
Here the agent (a) is remapped (demoted) to an optional oblique phrase, while the patient (b) is promoted to the subject of the verb. A consequence of having a derived system like this, Aubrey says, is that they can be no passive-only verbs – passives only arise by being derived from actives (26). Secondly, only transitive clauses (i.e. with direct objects) can be passivized. Intransitives cannot.
Thirdly, Aubrey points out that voice alternations in derived systems are “expected to be semantically neutral” (26) that is, switching patient from object to subject does not normally change the meaning of the verb, only the alignment of the participants.
Well, what about a basic middle system? Aubrey’s work here appears to draw primarily on Klaiman and Shibatani. So, in contrast, middles are not derived from their active counterparts – there is no ‘mesofication’ process that turns an active into a middle clause. The agent is still the subject, the patient remains the object. The alternation between active and middle rests in a semantic alternation (27).
Because (θ)η type middles are not ‘passive’, they overlap with -μαι type middles, and they are not derived from active prototypes. Because -μαι and (θ)η type middles are basic and not derived, one doesn’t need to explain middle-only and passive-only verbs. There is no ‘deponency’ problem.
Related to this, because the active-middle contrast is not about syntactic transitivity (e.g. rearranging agent/patient subject/object positions), it means that the middle voice is not restricted t a single set of transitivity. Hence, you find middles with one, and two, arguments. This is an important difference from the derived system, where going from active to passive involves losing an argument:
Michael (1) wrote the tweets (2)
The tweets (1) were written.
In the derived system, one cannot require a second argument. But middle systems can appear as transitive or intransitive, with 1 or 2 arguments .
Thirdly, in contrast to the derived system were a voice alternation is semantically neutral, in a basic system, they are not – shifting between active and middle is a semantic shift, not merely a syntactical rearrangement (30).
Aubrey concludes this subsection, “the descriptive problems in the Greek middle are due more to a misguided use of a derived passive system than to Greek voice operating differently than typologically expected in a basic middle system.” (31) Or, in simple terms, your problem all along was that you kept trying to fit Greek middles into an active<>passive mould, but when you look at Greek middles in light of other active<>middle voice languages, it’s not weird at all.
I was very interested, and a little surprised, by the recent announcement by the Gaelic Algorithm Research Group about a Gaelic Linguistic Analyser which performs Part-of-Speech tagging, lemmatisation, and syntactic parsing. Surprised, because I knew of the work that had been done previously on automatic PoS tagging, but did not realise that things had developed considerably from then.
For quite a few years, I used Foreign Language Text Reader with my Gaelic reading, allowing me to tag and store glosses and other data for individual words, and multiword expressions. When migrating to a new computer recently, I sadly lost all my stored data on FLTR.
In the work I have been contributing to the Greek Learner Text Project, and in the many discussions I’ve had with James Tauber,, a lot of our shared interest comes back around to a set of a few questions:
- How do you help learners read more text, more easily?
- How do you select appropriate texts for readers?
- How do you build a platform that overcomes the difficulties of reading
Those discussions often involve a cyclical movement from pedagogy to interfaces to data. I think in an ideal world, you would have a reading interface/platform that (a) gave pop up information on all the words and phrases you needed help on, (b) had accurate tagging and data on all the words in lots of texts, (c) tracked words (and structures, syntax, etc. etc) that you were exposed to (e.g. not just a binary know/don’t know, but number of exposures, times you’d needed to click for help, time since last exposure, etc.), (d) could suggest new texts that required minimal steps of new vocab (or structures), e.g. ideally to keep you reading with a 98% recognition level.
This requires both a tools, such as those being developed for the Greek Learner Texts (which are generally language-independent), and a platform, such as being developed for Hedera, and it requires a corpus with relevant data, and/or the ability for learners to import their own texts. There already exists some a digital corpus for Gaelic texts, DASG, though it does not appear to be open access at all, nor is it clear what data is associated with it.
All of which is to say, I think we’re at the point where there is enough of a convergence of tools and resources that creating something like a learner-oriented Gaelic reading platform, and a database of texts, is more within reach than ever before. However, two particular obstacles remain: firstly the POS tagger is 91/95% accurate, depending on whether using a full or simplified tagset. This could be improved by hand-curating tagging, and feeding manually corrected tagging back to the GARG would probably be able to improve this over time. For the meantime, starting with computer tagged texts and correcting them remains necessary. I had previously made a small start on hand-tagging some texts, but it is very laborious, correcting computer-tagged texts should be a lot faster. Secondly, the copyright status of texts is an issue. For Ancient Greek, our great advantage is that texts were authored millenia ago, and many print editions are out-of-copyright. Providing contemporary Gaelic texts will require specific permissions. It would be great to see producers of publicly available material (e.g. LearnGaelic.scot) include licensing permission for reuse of texts for a project like this.
For my part, I plan to make use of the new Linguistic Analyser to start analysing some texts and producing some curated datasets of my own, to then test and integrate with tools from the Greek Learners Text Project.
If you’d be interested in collaborating on any of this from the Gaelic side, please do get in touch: thepatrologist @ gmail.com
Carrying on with our read-through of Rachel Aubrey’s thesis on the Greek middle. Part 1 here. Numbers in brackets are page references.
The rest of chapter 1 provides an overview of approaches to the middle. Aubrey commences this by highlighting two issues – (i) the semantic basis of the middle is unclear, (ii) its “formal expression is uncertain” (5). Traditionally (6) voice is treated “as a relationship between subject and verb” (6).
Active: the subject does the action as agent.
Passive: the subject suffers the action, as patient.
The middle shows such a diversity of semantic relationships that it is difficult to summarise it. It is also often treated as equivalent to a reflexive. However that tends to belie an important distinction – the middle typically occurs with things that are customarily done by people on themselves (hence the ‘bodily grooming’ verbs), the reflexive structure (e.g. ἑαυτόν) involves both active and middle verbs, that are not customarily done to oneself. Other categories of middle-type verbs fit even less well in the ‘reflexive’ notion (9). Aubrey goes on to work through a number of other different categories or types of action generally found or treated as middle, which traditional schemes have tried to abstract as a single overall ‘middleness’ : “self-interest, personal involvement, participation, special focus, or subject-affectedness” (10). She notes that the problem with all these is that they are so abstracted that they fail to capture the variety of middle functions, as well as how the middle relates to voice alternations.
The second challenge has to do with “the formal expression of the middle”, especially morphosyntax. For example, the existence of active-only verbs that lack middle-passive forms, as well as middle-only verbs that lack active forms. Similarly, the existence of the -(θ)η- middle-passive perfectives. Traditionally, this means that imperfective (‘present’, ‘imperfect’) forms are presented as an opposition between active and middle-passive, and perfective (‘aorist’, ‘future’) as a tripartive alternation between active, middle, passive. But perfective -θη- often does not conform to expectations that it is properly passive semantically (13).
Aubrey’s interest is bringing the analysis around to transitivity. These two things (voice, transitivity) have not traditionally been treated together, voice being a relation of subject and verb, transitivity of verb and object. Voice, Aubrey says, “entails distinctions in process, regarding how an event transpires” (14). By considering event structure – how an event is understood to unfold, voice distinctions allow us to view, and portray, an event unfolding in different ways.
In particular, a semantic approach allows us to consider three parameters (drawing on Shibatani):
- how events unfold in the flow of energy: how they begin, progress, and end
- how participants are related within event development
- how their involvement affects the relative salience of participants (15)
What does that mean? In short, we consider where, how and whom events start, and end. We consider the roles that various participants take in the event. The middle re-orients out understanding and placement of the subject, in a way that differs from the active.
Aubrey’s approach to transitivity more generally, then, treats it as a continuum, from a prototypical transitive event “where a volitional agent purposely acts on a distinct patient, causing a physical change of state/location in the patient” (18). The middle is a voice alternation that departs from that presentation. It may depart from it in various ways though. Generally though, the origin and endpoint role of a middle event is filled by the same participant (19).
Aubrey summarises, or subsumes, the three parameters (above) into two motivations for how we portray events (and thus choose to use or not use middle forms): energy flow (a and b above), and focus of attention (c above) (20). This also deals with, or subsumes, ‘subject-affectedness’, by also treating a participant as more or less affected by the event, and their nature as an endpoint.
Thus Aubrey’s treatment is to view “the middle as a multifunctional category grounded in human cognition” and this “allos us to engage the construal process and the nature of event categorization” (21).
In our next post, we’ll look at chapter 2, which considers the Greek middle into a cross-linguistic typology context.
We first meet Dikaiopolis in the popular textbook, Athenaze, reading 1α. He is an αὐτουργός, that is – he owns a small farm allotment and works it with his own hands. He is by no means rich, but he is at least wealthy enough to own one enslaved person. We are also treated to a characterisation of Dikaiopolis. He πολλάκις στενάζει and bemoans his lot in life, but we are also told
ἰσχῡρός ἐστιν ὁ ἄνθρωπος καὶ ἄοκνος· πολλάκις οὖν χαίρει· ἐλεύθερος γάρ ἐστι καὶ αὐτουργός·
That is, he is strong, unshirking [in his labours], and therefore [also] frequently is happy. The basis for his happiness – freedom and economic self-sufficiency.
Because we are introduced to Dikaiopolis first, we have initial identification – here is the protagonist of the story that we are to identify with. He is male, free, and a worker. Although Athenaze works within the tropes of Attic comedy, we must nonetheless recognise that we are being brought in to Athenian society through a particular lens – that of male citizens.
In the second chapter, titled Ο ΞΑΝΘΙΑΣ, we meet the enslaved. We are told immediately about him:
ὁ Ξανθίᾱς δοῦλός ἐστιν, ἰσχῡρὸς μὲν ἄνθρωπος, ᾱ̓ργὸς δέ·
Xanthias is an enslaved person, a strong human, but lazy. The name is drawn from Attic comedy, and represents a distinct facet of slave-naming – Greek (as with Roman) slaves are typically named for their origin (‘the Syrian’) or a physical feature (‘the yellow one’). Whatever name they bore before is erased by a name given by their enslavers. Xanthias is described as ‘strong’, ‘but lazy’. This characterisation represents Dikaiopolis’ perspective, without doubt. We are further told that Xanthias doesn’t work, unless his enslaver is present.
The text, probably unintentionally, provides immediately the opportunity of a critical reading. Is it laziness, an essentialising characterisation of an enslaved person, that causes Xanthias not to work? Or is this a form of resistance? Xanthias sole task in his enslaver’s eyes, and his value, is his ability to πονεῖν, to do rough toil. Toil that benefits his enslaver. Within the small degree of agency that Xanthias has, we might rather read this as a consistent strategy of the enslaved to resist the coercion and alienation of his own labour.
The chapter goes on, with Dikaiopolis the enslaver summoning Xanthias, who responds slowly, and castigating him for being lazy. Dikaiopolis retorts with surprising candour, “Why so harsh, enslaver? I am not lazy but am already hurrying”. If we accept the narrator’s description of Xanthias’ actions here and elsewhere, Xanthias does move slowly (repeatedly, we must question whether this is laziness, resistance, or the unspoken effects of physical punishment), which Xanthias reframes as “I am hurrying”. Within the same pericope, Dikaiopolis says “come here and συλλάμβανε (help)”. Again, we must ask, is it right to consider the coerced labour of the enslaved as ‘help’? The extraction of πόνος from Xanthias serves Dikaiopolis’ benefit, not a common (συν) good.
I’m asked more and more often (surprising to myself), how one goes about getting an active/communicative/spoken competency in Greek, Koine or Classical. And I was asked again today, and I thought I would write up for more general consumption what I would recommend in the current setting:
Athenaze (Italian): Athenaze (2 vols) is the best current existing textbook adaptable for an acquisition based approach. It has a connected narrative, reasonably good sequencing of grammar and vocabulary. Far and away, you should attempt to obtain the Italian version, even if you don’t know Italian. It has about twice as much Greek text, and Ørberg style marginalia and illustrations. Athenaze isn’t a natural method text, but it’s the best thing we currently have.
Randall Buth and BLC: Randall Buth and the BLC have been doing a communicative approach for a long time. Their intro curriculum is pretty solid, and they also run immersive courses in Israel, as well as online classes these days, and a new spoken Koine curriculum to be released soon. My only experience is with their current ‘Living Koine’ materials, but my general outsider perspective of the rest of their products is very high.
Polis Institute and Christophe Rico – Rico is another pioneer of spoken Greek. The Polis Institute in Jerusalem teaches Koine Greek as a living language to a very high standard. You can take a full two-year course there leading to fluency. There is also a textbook, holiday intensives in various places, and currently some online options, for both summer intensives, and now a commitment to online offerings going forward.. I have used the first Polis book, and I have spent time working on my Greek with a couple of Polis alumni.
Other spoken immersion options:
There are a growing number of other immersion opportunities. SALVI, primarily focused on spoken Latin in America, have recently started doing occasional Greek events. A couple of conventicula in the US are also Greek oriented. In Europe, there is some Greek at a few events, though I am less familiar with them.. Vivarium (AVN) is offering its summer program in an online mode this year. I believe the Schola Aestiva Posnaniensis, and also some of the Spain-based meetings have spoken Greek. Lots of these are now virtual thanks to the covid-19 pandemic.
If you’re in Canada, Briarcrest Seminary and College are one of the few seminaries I know where they have switched to a communicative methodology, and offer an intensive. See the comments below.
WAYK: I’ve spoken a fair bit about Where Are Your Keys. Thing of WAYK as a set of techniques for meta-gaming and short-cutting language learning and teaching, and side-lining English. WAYK as an organisation is mostly involved in language revitalisation work, which I value highly, but you can pick up a lot of ideas from their website(s) and adapt it to Greek.
TPRS: Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling is an approach to teaching languages focused on, primarily, story-telling and related techniques. It’s a great way to get a set of techniques applicable to teaching Greek as a living language.
Q&A and Circling: One thing that is very easy to pick up from TPRS and take and run with, is just learning to do Q&A in Greek, on Greek texts. I do this a lot in my own teaching. You can start very simply, and build from there. Learn your question words, and use them to construct the simplest of questions for easy texts, then build slowly. Circling refers to focusing on the same basic unit of language – a sentence, for example, and working it over and over for repetition.
Websites and Courses
KoineGreek.com : Benjamin Kantor is incredibly industrious over here, producing all sorts of Koine resources, especially audio and video. Check it out and stay up to date. There’s even an interview with me up there.
Biblingo : Is a very new offering, asynchronous video and related learning materials. I don’t have any direct experience with this, but it does seem like some good work going on here.
Omilein : Online and some in-person instruction, with Jordash Kiffiak. I don’t know Jordash directly, but everything I hear is good, and there are some recommendations here from people I do know. Would recommend.
David Ring – Magister Circulus is producing A-grade video and audio material. Some on youtube, some on his patreon. Tends to use a classical pronunciation but you should never let pronunciation get in your way.
Seek out conversation – conversation is vital for developing the ability to interact and engage in real time with Greek.
Latin discord – discord isn’t a social scene for everyone. The Latin discord is one of only two decent places to engage with some people in text-chatting, or occasional voice-chatting, in ancient Greek.
Latin and Greek chats – mostly held bi-weekly via zoom. Attendance varies but you only need a few good speakers for a nice chat. Lurkers generally welcome.
Did I leave somebody out? Probably. Do you think you should be here? Umm, send me a sneaky note and I’ll surreptitiously add you.
Me: Yes, I’m doing a thousand things but a lot of these are oriented towards teaching Ancient Greek for acquisition. My online courses in Greek at a beginner level work with Athenaze (in either English or Italian editions) and other materials to give a text-based course that works primarily in Greek. My intermediate classes are text-based reading-and-discussion groups. I’m at work on writing LGPSI, which will be a full-fledged graded reading text with direct method principles. I’m working on a stand-alone video course. And other things, best not to get too far ahead of myself. I also do private tutoring and, in a world without viral lockdowns, would come and do immersion workshops with you.
This is a series of posts blogging my way through the very recent MA thesis of Rachel Aubrey on ‘HELLENISTIC GREEK MIDDLE VOICE: SEMANTIC EVENT STRUCTURE AND VOICE TYPOLOGY’ available here. I’m not a linguist, but I do my best to help non-linguists understand linguistic content. In this post I cover only the very first introductory section.
Aubrey’s introduction neatly highlights the problematic approaches to the middle voice in Greek (the thesis focuses on Hellenistic Greek, understandably, and I will shorten this to ‘Greek’ throughout except where other periodisations are required). Primarily, the middle voice is ‘multifunctional’ (1) and so resists attempts at ‘simple generalizations’ (1). In particular, standard approaches in traditional NT Greek grammars are rooted in a classical (and grammarian) tradition (not a linguistic one). Two problems in particular stand out: portraying the middle in terms of an active-passive dichotomy, and focusing on morphosyntax as a descriptive (and even diagnostic) framework.
The consequences of such an approach, Aubrey writes, are a neglect of a typological approach; an oversimplification of middle semantics, either by (a) discretely compartmentalising usages, or (b) too simplistic generalisations). The outcome of these consequences, in turn, is a dual failure of NT Greek grammars in both typology and paradigm.
Aubrey’s approach (2) is (a) typological, (b) contrasts active-middle counterparts, (c) uses ‘semantic transitivity’ as a lens to understanding.
What’s semantic transitivity? At least so far as I understand it, the analysis is going to consider transitivity as a ‘scale’, rather than the binary that English oriented grammar often works with (transitive vs intransitive), so that we are considering transitivity as a spectrum of ‘action directed upon an entity’. In particular, we are interested in transitivity as encoded in the meaning of verbs, and the presentation of event types, rather than the morphosyntax per se.
Aubrey then moves on in the introduction to outline the thesis structure itself. That is, a review of current approach to the Greek middle (chapter 1), language typological considerations (chapter 2), a diachronic perspective (chapter 3), before presenting her own unified approach (chapter 4).
She also highlights in the introduction some of the benefits of this work. In particular, a much better framework for putting to rest (6 foot under), the notion of deponency, but also providing a language-specific account which handles the idiosyncrasies of the middle voice, in a way that reflects languages with middle voices, not the framework of an active-passive voice language.
Personally, I’m really looking forward to reading this thesis in depth. Having read both Kemmer and Allen’s work on the middle voice, and having heard enough hints about Aubrey’s thesis, I strongly expect this to be the newest and hottest treatment of the middle voice in Greek, and if widely read, set to reshape the way we understand, and teach, voice in (Hellenistic, at least), Greek.
Reading on in Camus’ The Plague, one has opportunity to reflect more and more upon the portrayal not only of the plague and its effects on Oran, but also upon the humans.
I spoke last time about the way in which Camus treats the quarantine as a form of exile. Exile in which we are at home. And that exile changes hue over time. We are, here, perhaps in the third week of quarantine? What will it feel like after two months, four, six? Longer? Camus writes of how the plague, ‘would seem to them like the very shape of their lives and when they would forget the existence that they had led in the days before’.
One of the other things Camus speaks about, is the way that the plague is an abstraction. It lacks concreteness. It cannot truly be ‘fought’, it doesn’t submit to reason. It doesn’t yield to love. It just is. Not that this causes, or should, call for a resignation. In the end, it is just another sickness. It robs us of futures, of hope, of life. But it is a madness or a cowardice to simply resign to it. This, perhaps, plays into to Camus’ heroic-anti-heroism, e.g. in the character of Dr. Rieux, who does nothing but his job, conceives of doing so as nothing but simple what one does, and yet understands that his ongoing fight is a series of temporary victories, in fact an ‘endless defeat’ (in conversation with Tarrou). Camus and I differ, of course, at a profound level on theological convictions. And yet, there is much I appreciate here. All the victories of hope and life in this world are temporary in the face of death. There is, for me, only one victor over death.
How does one fight plague? Here, perhaps, there is both a parallel and disjunction between Camus’ Oran, and our world. We are living in a global pandemic which exists in a globalised world that has more communication (in the sense of ‘traffic’) between place and persons than ever before. The level, breadth and speed, of international exchange is unparalleled in history. At the same time, we understand covid-19 far better than anybody understood most epidemics throughout history. We have a fairly clear grasp on how it’s transmitted. Even the plague of Camus’ Oran is functionally mysterious to most people. So our public health measures are logical. Abstract, but logical. Social distancing, globally, on this scale, has never been practiced before.
And yet, even as we’re socially distancing, the level of communication we are capable of, via electronic means, is also unprecedented. Camus writes convincingly of the way in which, at first, people forget the ones they miss and love. At first they are shadows, but ‘they realized later that these shadows could become still more fleshless, losing even the details of colour that memory kept there’. We lose both memory, and hope. For most of us, we are connected, via text, audio, video chat. It is possible to sustain those relationships.
I want to propose, though, that our experience is a different form of ‘cut-off’. And that is because we are still very much incarnate beings. We have and are bodies. And while mediated communication is a good, it is also a mediated good. We communicate through glass and wire. Our exile has become the ache of staring and talking through a pane, hands pressed against the glass, never touching. Perhaps this will make the ache greater, not less.
Pandemic is endlessly boring. It’s not heroic. And it’s not defeated by heroism. Perhaps you’ve seen the quip on social media, that treating front line health workers as ‘heroes’ lionises them as ‘self-sacrificial martyrs who are choosing to risk their lives for the rest of us’ while obviating the need to pay them decent salaries and provide them with decent conditions. How correct. Ask them, and they don’t identify as heroes. They’re just doing what any human would do in their shoes. Which is the only thing to be done. And the only thing to be done for the rest of us is… follow protocols, stay at home, do the mundane, go on living, and refuse to surrender to despair. This is how we minimise how many die. Without a resurrection hope, that is our endless temporary victory, our series of repeated defeats. For myself, there is a hope beyond death. For Camus, there is a hope despite death. An unheroic heroism.
There’s an excellent Latin<>Latin dictionary available online, Forcellini. But there isn’t a good Ancient Greek one.
There is Emiliano Caruso’s Monolingual Dictionary of Ancient Greek, which is hard to get, and expensive, but good from all I hear. But also entirely physical.
So, there’s a gap here, isn’t there. It would be useful, incredibly useful, to be able to provide Greek definitions of Greek terms, especially for learners wanting to use more L2 and less L1.
I’ve done some work on this piecemeal before, but now I’m tackling it a bit more systematically, to fit in with both data work with James Tauber, but also teaching with Athenaze. So I’m working through the Italian Athenaze, trying to generate slides for vocabulary items, that include (a) pictures, (b) a Latin gloss, (c) English gloss, and (d) Greek definition.
But how does one write a Greek definition?
Here’s some of my tricks:
(1) Getting a good sense of the word, using GE (Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek), LSJ.
(2) Looking at a number of comparable English terms in the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary. And seeing how they compose simple definitions.
(3) Making use of Latin>English and English>Greek lexica to get a sense of other Greek words I’ll need to write a definition.
(4) Checking on the usage of those other Greek words, to make sure I’m not misusing those in the definition.
(5) Writing the definition.
Here’s a very brief sample of the kind of stuff I’m working on, just on the definition side of thing:
|βίος||ὄνομα||τὸ ὑπάρχειν ζῶντος, ἢ ἀνθρώπου ἢ ζῴου|
|οἶκος||ὄνομα||τόπος ἢ οἴκημα ἐν ᾧ ὅστις οἰκεῖ ἢ βιῶ|
|ἥλιος||ὄνομα||ὁ ἀστὴρ ὃς τὴν γῆν φωτίζει τε καὶ θερμαίνει|
|σῖτος||ὄνομα||σπέρμα τι ἐκ οὗ ἄνθρωποι ἄλευρα, ἔπειτα ἄρτον, ποιοῦσιν|
|γεωργός||ὄνομα||ἄνθρωπος ὃς τὴν γῆν γεωργεῖ ἢ κλῆρον ἔχει ἐν ᾧ ἐργάζεται|
|κλῆρος||ὄνομα||(1) ὃ κατὰ τύχην νέμεται. (2) μέρος χώρᾱς κατὰ κλῆρον νέμεται|
|ἀγρός||ὄνομα||μέρος τῆς χώρᾱς ἐν ᾧ ἄνθρωπος σῖτον ποιεῖ ἢ ζῷα φύλαττει|
|αὐτουργός||ὄνομα||ἄνθρωπος ὃς αὐτὸς κλῆρον ἑαυτοῦ γεωργεῖ|
|λίθος||ὄνομα||ὕλη ἢ σύστασις σκληρά, ἣ ἐν τῇ γῇ κεῖται|
|πόνος||ὄνομα||τὸ ἐργάζεσθαι, χαλεπῶς καὶ πολὺν χρόνον|
I try to, in general, avoid just plugging things for the sake of plugging them, but I want to take the chance to promote the works of two acquaintances of mine who are doing some great audio-recording work, and really encourage you to consider supporting them if it would help you in your own Greek studies.
Firstly is David Ring, aka Magister Circulus
He has been doing some great video work on his youtube channel, including some excellent videos of my own LGPSI (I made a short playlist of the first four that he has done so far). Over on his patreon account, he has posted a lot of great audio CI material, including starting work on Athenaze material – read-throughs of each chapter, including with circling, paraphrasing, vocabulary pre-teaching, question and answer exercises. There’s only a couple of chapters up so far (2, 3, 17), but no doubt there will be more.
Secondly, the ἄοκνος Luke Ranieri
Apart from recording lots of Latin material, has also been doing some Greek. This includes some Koine pronounciation recordings of LGPSI, as well as Koine recordings of Athenaze, as well as Attic videos of Athenaze on his youtube channel.
As someone who has done some Greek recording, and is also trying to produce various materials, I know that it’s hard work, the feedback and reward is low, and time required is considerable. But these are two great sources of audio materials, to which I’d both direct you, and suggest considering supporting them if you can.
I’ve been re-reading Albert Camus’ The Plague and I wanted to share some thoughts.
Camus begins by establishing the very ordinariness of Oran. Indeed, the mundanity and blandness of its existence is brought to the forefront. And it takes a bit of a slow build before the plague itself breaks out on the novel. But when it does, it comes quite rapidly in the end. How accurate to our own times, perhaps to most times, the slow accumulation of evidence, the reluctance to call it a plague by authorities, given all that that name invokes, and the general malaise of attitude.
What has most struck me, upon re-reading, is the way Camus captures the very moments that the ‘shutdown’ takes effect.
There have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars , yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared
However much we foresaw covid-19 coming upon us, and some saw further than others, collectively it came as a shock. Even a week before we started laying down severe public health measures, it was possible to think of it as something distant. And in fact, we go on trying to think of it as ‘distant’, even when it is very present. A plague, or a pandemic if you prefer, it hard to fathom, and so we fail to fathom it.
A pestilence does not have human dimensions , so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end. But it does not always end and, from one bad dream to the next, it is people who end…
It’s also very interesting the way Camus portrays the feeling of being in quarantine. He describes it as a kind of exile, or being in prison. And I think this is accurate. Exile as the exclusion from the places where we once where, places us in a new ‘place’, away from the past. Exile too, stretches out before us, while at the same time cutting off the future. Exile is an interminable state, in which one does not, cannot know, whether return is possible. He writes:
In short, from then on, we accepted our status as prisoners; we were reduced to our past alone and even if a few people were tempted to live in the future, they quickly gave it up, as far as possible, suffering the wounds that the imagination eventually inflicts on those who trust in it….
People give up trying to think or imagine when it will end, because once you have that fixed idea, “oh, it will last 3 months”, and then begin to realise that there’s no reason to suppose that it will, indeed it could last 9, 12, 18, 24, 48 months, or in fact change human society indefinitely, your original fixed-time hope is shattered, and the resolve it gave you washes away like sand castles in the tide.
Thus they endured that profound misery of all prisoners and all exiles, which is to live with a memory that is of no use to them. Even the past, which they thought of endlessly, had only the taste of remorse and longing
We must adapt to live in such times. In exile,
But, though this was exile, in most cases it was exile at home.