How Far Has My Ancient Greek Come, and Where Is It Going?

In September 2019, for the first time in a decade, I plunged into Ancient Greek. (I can hardly believe I spent a whole decade away.) Though I never spelled out my goal, it’s obvious in hindsight; not being able to pick up a book and simply read in Ancient Greek irritated me. I wanted to read Ancient Greek with the same ease as I can read modern Chinese.

A year and a few months later, I still can’t read Ancient Greek as well as I read Chinese. By now I know my Ancient Greek will never rise to that level (despite studying Ancient Greek years before I started learning Chinese). The reasons are twofold.

First, I can’t create an equally rich environment for Ancient Greek as I have for Chinese. By ‘learning environment’ I don’t mean moving to a place where Ancient Greek is spoken as an everyday language (though that can count). I mean having many ways to experience the language: chatting with people, listening to radio programs in Ancient Greek, watching movies, that kind of thing. Even the variety of reading material available in Ancient Greek is infinitesimal compared to what’s available in Chinese.

Second, I’m never going to pour as much time into Ancient Greek as I have into Chinese. Technically, I can devote as much time to reading Ancient Greek as I have for Chinese (assuming my demise is not imminent). Practically, it’s not a high enough priority in my life. Since Ancient Greek is harder than Chinese (despite the drastically simpler writing system), getting my Ancient Greek reading skills to the same level as my Chinese reading skills would take more hours than it took to get my Chinese reading skills there.

Recognizing that I will not reach my original goal feels bittersweet.

My Ancient Greek reading skills are now way ahead of where they were a year ago. In fact, my Ancient Greek is now sharper than ever. I can’t casually read a book in Ancient Greek the way I can with books in Chinese. But I can read them if I have lexicons, commentaries, and the patience to re-read them. The only gap between my original unarticulated goal and my current proficiency is that I read texts much more slowly and need commentaries. I have made peace with never being able to read Ancient Greek texts casually (except texts I’ve already read carefully).

If that’s where I have arrived with Ancient Greek, where am I going?

First, I want to read many more works of Ancient Greek literature. It will take me years to read every text which interests me, and that’s assuming I don’t take another decade-long break.

Second, I’ve recently gotten new ideas for applying my knowledge of Ancient Greek. The most obvious is something I’ve already done – writing. I’ve written a few blog posts inspired by my readings in Ancient Greek. I can write more. Maybe I will not just write casual blog posts. I might write formal essays and submit them to publications in the ‘wisdom inspired by ancient philosophy/history’ genre. If they get rejected, then I’ll have more blog posts ready to publish.

I could also start a podcast. This is big. I have never, never, NEVER aspired to produce a podcast before. Podcasts seem exactly like The Kind of Thing I Don’t Do. But this year I’ve had the pleasure of listening to an audio recording of Agamemnon in Ancient Greek directed by David Raeburn and produced by Oxford University. I wish there were more good dramatic recordings of the dramas in Ancient Greek available. Just a few weeks ago, I realized… I could make those recordings. Yes, whatever I produce would be full of flaws, but flawed recordings beat nonexistent recordings. And it would address why reading these texts in the original language matters: the translations sound wrong. I know most people will never learn Ancient Greek and thus remain forever clueless of how outstanding Aeschylus is (IMO Aeschylus is the best of the extant Attic tragic playwrights, yet he’s currently more obscure than Sophocles and Euripides). If people listen to a dramatic recording with English subtitles, maybe they will appreciate the poetry of the original, even if they don’t understand the original words.

Long ago, I memorized the opening lines of Prometheus Bound (which most scholars nowadays think was not composed by Aeschylus, but I don’t care). After a decade of ignoring Ancient Greek, I was shocked when, without review, I recited those lines once again. After ten years of not uttering them, they still tumbled out of my mouth. Therefore, I shall end with that passage rendered in the Roman alphabet.

The following words may be familiar to educated English speakers: tēlouron (far away, as in telephone or telegraph), Skütēn (Scythia), Hēpaiste (the god Hephaestus), epistolas (in this context it means orders/commands, not letters), patēr (father), petrais (rocks, ‘petrified’), adamantinōn (really hard, unbreakable, adamant), pantekhnou (all-making, as in ‘pan-technic’), püros (fire, as in the word ‘pyromaniac’), klepsas (stealing, as in ‘kleptomaniac’), hamartias (mistake/sin, as in ‘hamartiology’), teois (gods, as in ‘theology’), dounai (give, as in ‘donation’), didakhtēi (teach, as in ‘didactic’), Dios (Zeus), türrannida (tyranny), pilantrōpou (human-loving, ‘philanthropic’), pauestai (stop, ‘pause’), and tropou (turn, inclination, ‘trope’). Though this translation conveys the semantic meaning well, I can’t imagine any English translation capturing the beauty of the original:

khtonos men es tēlouron hēkomen pedon,
Skütēn es oimon, abroton eis erēmian.
Hēpaiste, soi de khrē melein epistolas
has soi patēr epeito, tonde pros petrais
hupsēlokrēmnois ton leōrgon okhmasai
adamantinōn desmōn en arrēktois pedais.
to son gar antos, pantekhnou püros selas,
tnētoisi klepsas ōpasen; toiasde toi
hamartias spe dei teois dounai dikēn,
hōs an didakhtēi tēn Dios türannida
stergein, pilantrōpou de pauestai tropou.

3 thoughts on “How Far Has My Ancient Greek Come, and Where Is It Going?

  1. Nice ideas. I look forward to listening to your podcast if you start one!

    Re: an environment for practicing ancient Greek, would you consider practicing modern Greek? I imagine there’s a similar relation between ancient and modern Greek as between classical Chinese and modern Mandarin.

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