Ancient Greek 101

With the school year ended (finally!), rather than give you an over view of my classes, I thought I would share my experience learning ancient Greek. This language course was both the most exciting part of the school year and the most work-intensive. Since many magical and esoteric texts are composed in this language, those of you considering picking up Greek might wish to take my experience into consideration.

I originally planned to take this course last year. But since the 2010-2011 school year was my first year back at university after a ten-year hiatus, I (wisely) decided against it. Though I was mentally prepared to take the course this year, I will say that if you aren’t fully committed to learning the language, your best bet is to wait until you are. I say this based from observing my classmates (about half dropped out) as well as on my own experience.

To be honest, despite feeling ready to tackle Greek, I was somewhat naïve about what the course would entail. I figured my professor would teach the course, and I, the student, would learn the material. Piece of cake. To paraphrase my old karate sensei, I thought I could “just show up” and things would fall into place. That was not to be. I had some indication of this when I purchased the book and the first lesson was entirely in Greek characters. Seriously, This is the first page that isn’t a table of contents: I turned to The Husband and said, “Surely, the professor will teach us a whole bunch of things before we get into this stuff.” I mean, look at that page. It’s completely unintelligible. Our first class, the teacher gave us the alphabet, went over what the letters sounded like and said, “Learn the alphabet over the weekend and translate the first reading.” (Yes, that one up there.) In other words, figure out that big mess of text. Um, sure.

Personally, I was torn. I really, really wanted to learn Greek, if for no other reason than for grad school. On the other hand, these were some massive expectations. This is the point where I realized that learning ancient Greek would require more than showing up for class and doing the exercises. It would require work. Steady, regular, brain punishing work.

Rather than give up the first day (believe me I thought about—if only for a second), I decided to double down and attack this monster. It took me a half-hour to read aloud the first reading, and probably an hour to translate it. This alone is enough to defeat your ego—struggling with your own voice to maneuver through a passage where every word is a stumbling block in terms of both meaning and pronunciation is killer. But it can be done. Obviously, or I’d be writing you about something else right now. Probably about donuts or other snack food. Mmmm…snack food.

ιου, ιου! Test scores from L-R: 98.5%, 96.5%, 99%, 103.6% (!!!), 100%

My personal goal for the course was not just to do well, but to really master what we were learning. To accomplish this, I put in over an hour of study time each day, including weekends and when I was sick. Often, I put in two hours. But rarely—Rarely!—less than one. As the class made its way through the readings, what started out as a small stack of flash cards to learn the alphabet, turned into pile and piles of 4″x6″ index cards scrawled with the latest vocabulary and grammatical notes. If you are considering taking Greek, I suggest getting “interactive” with it. Make cards. Make your own grammar book. Practice out loud translating readings and learning new terms and word styles. Get a notebook and decline a noun several times in a row. Ditto for verb endings. And then do it again the next day. Studying in this way really forces you to learn the material, as opposed to just glancing through the book and forgetting it later. Plus, you’ll get a good sense of where your strengths are and what areas need more work.

By the end of the semester I was averaging 100% on my tests (for real!), and earned an A+ for the course. But it was not without a ton of hard work and regular practice. That said, I found this class the most rewarding of my courses because I was able to see my progress and tangibly realize the results of my efforts. The only downside is that, even after a year, we’re only about half-way through the basic grammar, which means my comprehension is still severely limited. Also, since it is a dead language, I can’t do things like go to Greek Town and order a beer. Which is important. I can order a beer in three languages. Αncient Greek, however, is not one of them.*

I highly recommended learning ancient Greek. If you’re up for a challenge and enjoy working hard and learning new things, you will love it.

*If you know how to order a beer in ancient Greek, help a sister out and post in the comments below!

7 thoughts on “Ancient Greek 101
  1. Congratulations. I am even now wrapping up my own first year of studying Greek. It’s been a blast, but I’ve often felt clobbered by the language.

    My class used Donald J. Mastronarde’s “Attic Greek”. Which textbook did you use?

  2. Congratulations! I envy you. Learning Ancient Greek is something I really want to do, but it’ll be years before I’ll be able to tackle it.

    Good luck with part two!

  3. Gideon: Thank you. If you can find the time, I highly recommend it. I think that you will especially will find it useful for ritual purposes.

    Congrats to you as well–you know its not an easy feat! Our class used the JACT “Reading Greek:” series which focuses on getting right into reading text so the grammar lessons are interspersed with readings. What did you think of the Mastronarde book?

    1. Overall, the books been very good. Mastronarde is a linguist, and likes giving fun bits and pieces about the history of the language and the grammar. Unfortunately, his particular teaching style doesn’t work well with my personal learning style. His examples and exercises tend to be fairly random, rather than thematic; this forced me to rely exclusively on brute memorization rather than giving me context-clues or familiar themes to build on.

      (Language learning is not something I’m good at: I have previously failed to learn both German and Japanese. This past experience, however, does give me a very good idea of what I need to do differently this time.)

      Would your recommend the JACT?

    2. Keeping in mind I have nothing else to compare it to, I found the JACT method pretty good. We used two books, one grammar and one with readings, and they reinforced each other. For example, when a new verb tense is introduced in the grammar, the corresponding readings utilize the new material. The bonus is that the readings, which are based on actual texts, do not advance beyond the corresponding grammar. So you are able to get used to reading Greek right away.

      However, I still found there was a ton of “brute memorization” work. The readings are easier to translate if you know the vocabulary, and one must simple memorize the various noun and verb endings, etc. Also, the further one goes in the book, it is assumed that these skills have been memorized and integrated. Like math, it builds upon the previous lessons.

      But, you might want to check it out as the JACT method does seem to avoid the randomness you describe with the Mastronade method.

      Reading Greek Grammar:
      Reading Greek Text:

  4. Congrats on your studies, I’m looking forward to taking Latin myself (not this fall, but the next). I had it in high school, but that was 30 years ago.

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