How to Learn Greek and Latin
by Sean Gabb
I have been invited to teach Latin to the older children at a local primary school. Since the Latin taught will be very basic, and since I have already agreed what textbook I am to use, I will take the same approach as I might if teaching French or Spanish to children. The fact of the engagement, though, has prompted me to various thoughts on how adults can most efficiently learn either or both of the classical languages.
Now, the first point to discuss is why anyone should learn them. Perhaps the only language nowadays worth learning is English. This is the language of science and technology and the main language of communication. It is also the language of two wealthy and powerful nations, with a shared great literature and with separate but equally instructive histories. If you are not a native, this is the only foreign language you need to learn or perfect. If you are a native, you may find it useful to learn another language to live or do business in a foreign country. But why bother with Latin or Greek?
There are three main answers to this question. The first is that learning either language immerses you in the only civilisation comparable in its achievements to our own. Indeed, in several respects, it was superior to our own. It is worth studying purely for itself. Second, that civilisation is the basis of our own. We cannot fully understand who we are, and where we are, without a close knowledge of the Ancients. Third, there is a practical value for those of us whose first language is English. Our language is deficient in the obvious distinctions of grammar. Most nouns have only singular and plural forms. Most verbs have only four or five distinct forms. The present participle, the gerund and gerundive all share the suffix -ing. All tenses beyond the present and past perfect are formed by compounding with auxiliaries. It is the same with the various moods. For this reason, English grammar is best learned by comparing it with that of a more inflected language. German has shed many of its inflections. Greek uses a different alphabet. That leaves us with Latin.
This being so, I pass to the question of how to learn the ancient languages. Until recently in England, the custom was to give boys in the better kind of school a text by Julius Caesar or Cornelius Nepos, and to have them go through it sentence by sentence. In class, they would take turns to construe the text, and the teacher would explain the grammar and syntax of the language. Class preparation involved memorising the declensions and conjugations and using a dictionary to make sense of the text. It was the same with Greek, only the boys were expected to know Latin, and the preferred text was by Xenophon. The first five years of a traditional course could be difficult. A few hundred years of experience had shown that the best way to keep the boys attentive and willing to learn was to threaten them with violence.
It was not an ideal mode of instruction, and our modern softness of our manners has removed the chief incentive to learn. It is also not suited to girls or to adult learners. It has nowadays been replaced by giving students specially-composed passages, and providing each of these with a full vocabulary and just enough grammatical explanation to make sense of them. These passages run in complexity from something like Amelia est puella..., to simplified extracts from the classics.
This is the method I shall be using in my class. It works with children. Even a few months will give them some Latin and improve their English. The problem is that, unless the ascent is very steep, it can take years before a student is able to read a classical text. And it is still not suited to adult learners. If you want to learn Latin, how long will you put up with stories about trips to Eboracum to buy brooches and waxed tablets?
I have no training in linguistics, and am at best only an occasional teacher of Latin. But my suggestion is to ignore every instruction course presently on the market. If there are some that cannot be avoided, many of the difficulties involved in learning a language can be avoided or reduced. In saying this, I speak from experience.
I decided when I was eight that I wanted to learn Greek. I had come across the Roger Lancelyn Green retelling of the Iliad and Odyssey, and begun my love affair with the Greeks. So I hurried off to the local library and took out a self-instruction course. Having been taught no grammar, I found it hard to understand. I did learn the alphabet, but got no further. Instead, I found a text of The Odyssey and pored over it all afternoon with a dictionary and a translation. I did puzzle out the meaning of
ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
There, however, I stopped. I failed to see that ἄνδρα πολύτροπον were an accusative noun and adjective, and that, in an inflected language, there was no reason for them not to be separated, or that μοι was the dative of ἐγὼ. This is a shame, as I had nearly got to the right way of learning Greek. But I took my difficulties to my teacher at school. Her response was a patronising lecture in front of the other boys, who now were given another reason to be horrid to me. So I stopped.
When I was twelve, I decided I wanted to learn Latin. That involved another trip to the library and another self-instruction course. This time, I told no one else, and got about half way through the course, and learnt more grammar than I got in the whole time I served in a dreadful comprehensive school in South London. By the time I ran out of steam, I was able to follow some of the Latin in the Loeb classical texts. I should have finished the course. But I was worn down by the silliness of the made up texts I had to read.
Then, before I went to university, I found a copy of the Latin Vulgate in a second hand bookshop. I could read it. The Latin was mostly simple. I often knew the text in English. Otherwise, it was easy to look up the English equivalents. I now had the key to success that I had nearly found ten years earlier. Indeed, this was a better key. The pagan classics are always loosely translated. You will not get far as a beginner by comparing the original with a translation. The Bible is different. It is invariably translated out of the original tongues by men who believe it is the revealed Word of God, and that the original must be followed absolutely. St Jerome made as literal a translation from Greek and Hebrew as his language allowed. So did the commissioners appointed by King James. Each version corresponds with the original. Leave aside slight variations between the originals, and each version corresponds with the other. And I had no need of a dictionary – often more confusing than useful for looking up meanings in a language of multiple and often irregular inflections and compounds.
In a few weeks, I read through Matthew and Acts and both Corinthians. From there, it was still a long jump into the classics. But I got there. I did it by memorising one poem of Catullus at a time, and thinking out its meaning as I went about my business. When I was done with Catullus, I moved to the Sixth Book of The Aeneid.
None of this was without effort. Even with The Bible, I still had to spend hours with Kennedy’s Latin Primer. But the mass of declensions and conjugations, and all those rules of syntax were much easier to digest when taken in small chunks, and when they related to practical difficulties. Yes, I taught myself Latin.
After university, I decided to take up Greek again. This went badly at first. With letters after my name, I sneered at the chaotic approach I had taken to Latin, and I decided I would learn Greek “properly.” So I passed several weeks of construing apparently random sentences about youths dancing in a village, or how soldiers loved their horses while sailors loved their ship. By now, I had a full time job, and it was more enjoyable to sit down in the evening with Cicero or Gibbon or Macaulay.
Then, once again in a second hand bookshop, I found a copy of the New Testament in Greek. Once again, I found I could more or less follow the text. This time, a light came on in my mind, and never went out. I spent the next six months going one verse at a time though Acts of the Apostles in Latin and Greek. I could have used the Authorised Version again, but I knew Latin, which is structurally similar to Greek. Each is much closer to the other than English.
Take, for example, the end of Acts 26. St Paul has been examined before Festus and Herod Agrippa. He thinks he has talked his way out of trouble. However, once they are in private,
Then said Agrippa unto Festus, This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar.
This wonderfully ominous line in Greek is:
' Ἀγρίππας δὲ τῷ Φήστῳ ἔφη Ἀπολελύσθαι ἐδύνατο ὁ ἄνθρωπος οὗτος εἰ μὴ ἐπεκέκλητο Καίσαρα.
St Jerome translates this as:
Agrippa autem Festo dixit: dimitti poterat homo hic si non appellasset Caesarem.
We have here the same order of words and the same case endings, and a close similarity of moods. If you have trouble recognising Ἀπολελύσθαι as the perfect passive infinitive of ἀπολύω, you have the more easily recognised dimitti as a guide.
The jump from St Luke to the Attic masters is far wider than from St Jerome to Cicero. Even today, I struggle with Thucydides. But, so long as you have a student’s commentary on the text, Homer is surprisingly easy. Lines like
ἦμος δ' ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς
present no difficulty. I really wish I had pressed on when I was eight.
So my advice, if you want to learn either of the classical languages is to put away any instruction courses you may have bought, and to start with The Bible. If you are Jewish, you may prefer one of the narrative books of the Old Testament rather than something from the New Testament. You will not need a dictionary. If you have any prior knowledge of your chosen language, you will be able to work out most of the grammar for yourself. Some years ago, one of my universities decided to go up market by offering its undergraduates an evening course in Latin taught by me. I used Acts of the Apostles with my students. It worked for me. It worked for them. It will work for you.
I wish I could claim I had made an original discovery. Until recently, I thought I had. I now find, however, that it is a discovery repeatedly made and used to advantage in the past. Most notably, it was recommended by John Locke. In his Thoughts Concerning Education, he says that, if a teacher cannot be found,
...the next best is to have [your son] taught as near this way as may be, which is by taking some easy and pleasant book, such as Æsop’s Fables, and writing the English translation (made as literal as it can be) in one line, and the Latin words which answer each of them, just over it in another. These let him read every day over and over again, till he perfectly understands the Latin; and then go on to another fable, till he be also perfect in that, not omitting what he is already perfect in, but sometimes reviewing that, to keep it in his memory. And when he comes to write, let these be set him for copies, which with the exercise of his hand will also advance him to Latin. This being a more imperfect way than by talking Latin unto him; the formation of the verbs first, and afterwards the declensions of the nouns and pronouns perfectly learned by heart, may facilitate his acquaintance with the genius and manner of the Latin tongue, which varies the signification of verbs and nouns, not as the modern languages do by particles prefix’d, but by changing the last syllables. More than this of grammar, I think he need not have, till he can read himself Sanctii Minerva, with Scioppius and Perizonius’s notes. [s167]
Also, it was a popular method with adults in the nineteenth century. If you dig around on Google Books, you will find any number of editions of the pagan classics with literal interlinear translations. You start by reading the English line, and move to trying to understand the original. After a while, you place a sheet of paper over the English and try to understand the original by yourself. Sometimes, there are extensive footnotes on grammar and complexities of language. I still prefer The Bible for its simplicity of language. But I see nothing wrong in itself with interlinear editions.
To conclude, if you want to learn the classical languages, but have always thought they were beyond your ability, here is the proper way to go about learning them. Of course, if you believe that the ability to read Greek and Latin is a worthless accomplishment, you will probably not have read this far. Otherwise, there are Greek and Latin Bibles all over the Internet, and today is a better time to start than tomorrow.