On Studying Ancient Greek

I have been working on Ancient Greek for over five years, starting in late 2006 with Mastronarde’s Attic grammar. Now, having just read this useful, instructive post on Textkit, I want to reconsider my own approach to learning. In brief, that guy, “Chad,” recommends a detailed, methodical approach, with a goal of reading Attic texts “straight through.”

(Digression #1. So far, I have not been able to achieve anything like that level of fluency, i.e. to be able to read a Greek text like an English-language newspaper. I have been content with the approach that Chad calls the traditional “textbook + commentary + dictionary, translate” approach. … He challenges that, but readily admits that his method is aspirational, rather than an accomplished fact. Nonetheless, I’ll accept his view, or accept his goal as a worthwhile one, toward which I should aim my studies.)

I am reluctant to jump in feet-first and adopt someone else’s approach, especially one which sounds like a tremendous amount of rote memorization. Rather, I would like to define my own methodology, suited to my own schedule, age, way of thinking, etc… With that in mind, here is a list of what has worked for me, and what hasn’t, in five years of study:

1. Filling up index cards, spreadsheets, and notebooks, with information that I then never look back on is almost useless.

2. Using a composition book to jot down notes, diagram sentences, and other temporary devices is perfectly fine and useful. Just not a permanent reference.

3. For rote memorization, Memory Palaces and half-size index cards (i.e. flashcards), are useful, at least for vocabulary, and, at least, for the short- and medium- term.

4. Learning by osmosis, i.e. just spending the hours with the Greek texts, works, to some degree. But is it most efficient? Would I learn faster and better with a more disciplined approach?

5. The hand-made illustrated dictionaries are fun to do, and fairly useful, especially for nouns.

6. Focusing on a specific dialect, a specific author, or even a specific text for an extended period (and making resources just for that dialect, or author, or text) is useful.

7. Online study groups and blogging become a diversion, ends unto themselves. Time is better spent working individually. Similarly, writing notes by hand is more convenient than using the PC, mainly because accenting the vowels is such a pain.

I recently started Xenophon’s Hellenica, now starting Book II, and am using one of the old “College Series of Greek Authors,” which is heavily annotated, and does not have a facing-page English translation. It’s a great text and edition to use in a more disciplined approach. Also, I am definitely moving over to Attic Greek, after 3-4 years of reading Homer. Homer is great; it’s just time for a change.

The open questions are two-fold:

1. What is the best structure? Chad’s ten points? Or should I construct my own? This may not be too critical a matter. Any structure worthy of the name will require a detailed understanding of Attic Greek.

2. Whatever the structure, I need to refer back, and study, the aids I develop, the notes I take. This fact leads to the matter of format: index cards, flash cards, diagrams, word lists, paradigms, etc.

Next Steps:

1. Take a fresh start with Attic Greek
2. Review & organize existing vocabulary cards.
3. When reading, note the “stalls,” especially grammatical (Chad’s 4-10), in an organized way. Review them and build on them.
4. When I find a solution to a stall:

  • Verbalize it (say aloud the words or phrases involved)
  • Visualize it (draw a picture or diagram)
  • Generalize it (find or compose analogs, not just the one)
  • Memorize it (review, repeat, use mnemonics, whatever)

Chad’s Rules
1. inflection – you would need to know all the grammar/morphology used in the text, not just the most frequently used forms
2. vocabulary – you would need to be able to determine without looking up a dictionary/looking at a footnote etc. the meaning of every single word as you read it (not just the most frequent lexical items)
3. you would need to have an understanding of all the “antiquities” behind each word (a term i personally use to designate all the background knowledge you need to understand a word beyond its dictionary definition)
4. syntax – you would need to understand all the syntactical constructions used in the text (simple sentences, cases, use/meaning of verb forms, participles)
5. you would need to have an understanding of the typical word order (i.e. at the intra-clause level) and how it is/is not reflected in each sentence
6. complex sentences – you would need to be comfortable with all the different types of sentence structure used (i.e. at the inter-clause level); (clauses, conditionals, relatives, indirect discourse, negatives)
7. you would need to know at a minimum all the rules of accentuation that give a clue to the meaning of a word/its function in the sentence
plus you would need to be comfortable with what i call the three “p”s:
8. particles
9. prepositions
10. pronouns (not their morphology, but what they are referring to in each case – this is not advance knowledge but the skill of consciously concentrating when you get to each pronoun to determine what it is referring to)