Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Greek -- Eek!

For a while now I've felt a need to learn Greek. Ancient Attic Greek, mostly, but Homeric Greek, too, and other ancient varieties. I've been reading things written in Latin, and Latin seems to pull one strongly in the direction of Greek. The culture and mythology of ancient Rome borrowed very heavily from those of Greece. Classical scholars go into raptures about how beautiful Greek is. One of them, I wish I could track the quote down, once said that Latin should be taught to all children, and Greek saved as a special treat for the brightest ones.

So these and related inducements to learn Greek have been building up for a while. But recently the urge has become a significant step stronger, because I read Sein Und Zeitby Martin Heidegger, and although I am quite bewildered by the book, I am also quite fascinated, and Heidegger says that there are things to be learned from the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers on the question of being, a question, Heidegger says, which has been neglected since the pre-Socratics. Hermann Diehls collected a volume of the primary materials by and about the pre-Socratics.Some wrote little or not at all themselves, and most of what they did write has been lost, but still, the fragments of their writings and the oldest descriptions of their writings fill up Diehls' fairly large book, a recent edition of which, I gather, is still regarded by some as the definitive one.

So I've been looking at Diehls' book, and it is so tantalizing, because, you know, I can't read Greek. I'm not even sure what one particular lower-case letter is. I think it's theta, and that German-speaking Classical scholars write lower-case theta differently than English-speaking Classical scholars, but I'm not completely sure about that yet, although it has been preoccupying me for a couple of days.

I've been learning languages on my own for the past couple of decades -- Spanish, Italian, Latin, now dipping my toe into Greek -- after having learned German and French in college. Spanish, Italian and French are all related to Latin, and German is related to English, so that helps with learning. Greek belongs neither to the Romance not the Germanic sub-family of the Indo-European languages, although it is Indo-European, and hence not so completely foreign to one such as me as Finnish or Japanese would be. Still, I'm almost 50 years old, which is an unusual age to be learning a new language, and the thought of it makes me tired. Also, if I continue learning autodidactically, I continue to have the problems of autodidactic learning. I don't really know how fluent I am in Latin. No one is giving me grades, there are no other students around me with whom I can compare myself, I have no one to speak or hear the language with. Learning a new language is very, very difficult for almost all people, most certainly including me. There are a few linguistic geniuses who can pick up a new langugage as quickly as Mozart learned to play an instrument. Not me. But alongside the difficulty there is a delicious fascination in linguistic study for me, and this fascination and pleasure grows ever stronger.

I don't know if I'll ever get very far with Greek. I do know I'll be spending some time on it in the immediate future. And there are classes available for such things, if I ever decide to supplement my self-teaching method. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Heraclitus, Aristotle... Hesiod, Homer... And of course, the farther back one goes in Greek history, the larger do loom Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the lost languages of the Hittites, for example, and let's not forget the lost Etruscan language, someone has to decipher that, too, it's not going to decipher itself is it? And so forth, endlessly. Eek, he cried weakly, but with a smile on his tired old face.

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