Five Tools For Advanced Greek

My ancient Greek courses this year were a big change from the previous two years (See here and here). This year, we left the beginner books behind and moved into translating the primary texts. I should stress here that these weren’t adapted texts, whereby an editor adjusts the language to be a bit easier. No, no, no, no, no. These were the real deal.

And they were so difficult! Well, at least for someone who hasn’t translated these sorts of works before. My first semester, we tackled Herodotus’ Histories. My second semester was devoted to Homeric poetry. I had great professors for both courses, but with languages, a lot of your performance is simply up to you.

In order to really do well at the upper levels of Greek, you’ll need a few tools with which to work with the material. Below, I’ve outlined five things which I found completely indispensable to my studies, so that those of you embarking on a similar journey can prepare yourselves accordingly!

1. Time

My first year of Greek I spent two hours a day studying. My second year I spent three. This year I stopped keeping track, though I would estimate I spent an average of five hours per day on Greek. When there was a big project, I would spend the entire day working on material. I’m talking 12-15 hours on nothing but Greek. Hard core!

Unfortunately, they have not yet developed a way to “Matrix” languages into your head, so you’ll need to spend some hard, physical time studying. Plan your schedule accordingly.

2. A Lexicon

I spent most of my time this year looking up words. It was pretty tedious, but unavoidable. The standard is the LSJ, which comes in three flavours according to their size. I have two—the “Middle Liddell” and “Little Liddell.” Personally, I found the “Little Liddell” more than adequate, and my paperback version has a larger font, which is much easier on the eyes than other editions of the LSJ.

2.a A Note About Perseus

Whenever possible, I looked up my vocab in a lexicon. I found this to be a good exercise, since it really forces you to diagnose the word in question. (Is it augmented? What stem is this? Is the accent affecting the meaning?) That said, I turned to Perseus more frequently than I anticipated, and certainly more than I would have liked. Simply put, there was so much vocab that it became logistically impossible to look up every single word by hand.

For those who don’t know what Perseus is, basically, it’s an online database which links the words in a given text to its lexical entry. It is very quick and easy. It is also flawed. Sometimes really flawed. Here are a few tips to use it somewhat reliably:

  • Look up the full entry.
    Open up the full lexicon entry in Perseus, rather than settling on the definition at the top. Sometimes, the word you need is buried far down in an LSJ entry. So give yourself a few options and consider the context of the passage when making your decision.
  • Don’t always trust the “most likely” selection.
    Read the definition, but if it doesn’t make sense, you probably have the wrong word. Have a browse at the other options. If things broke down at this point, I would turn to my lexicon, which I found the most reliable.
  • Use your Brain.
    Don’t fully trust the entry given. For example, I saw ὁ ἄνθρωπος given as the feminine ἡ ἄνθρωπος, which is not as common. If you’re unsure, get a second opinion from your lexicon.

3. A Grammar Book

This is the time to start applying all that grammar you spent the previous couple of years learning. The good news: you get to start working with the material and seeing how it works in real life. The bad news: There is a ton of grammar and you’ve probably forgotten half of it by now. One of my professors recommended a small grammar book, which I found really handy, A Primer of Greek Grammar by Abbott and Mansfield. This slim volume is a quick reference for all those paradigms you learned, with a bit of stuff on other material, like prepositions.

However, the definitive grammar guide is Smyth—a burgundy hardcover with an exhaustive run-down of the Greek language. I turned to Smyth all the time to suss out weird grammatical constructions, or just brush up on what the dative case does. It’s a bit intimidating when you first get it, but indispensable once you start working with it.

4. Your Pome Pony

At this point, I need to admit that much of this list is nicked from one of my professors, who recommended a lot of the material you see here. Including this recommendation for a pony.

Basically, a pony is a text of the work you are translating, which has already been translated! Now, some of you may be thinking, “Sweet! I will just copy that!” But don’t do that. Your pony is there to keep you on track and for checking your own work!

A good pony will get you familiar with the story, providing the crucial background necessary to make sure you don’t start rewriting history! It is also the place to turn for super-tricky passages, as it can provide much-needed clues to grammatical structures, and so on. I used Oxford World’s Classics editions this year, and found them very good.

5. A Tutor

I found the transition from textbooks to primary works very difficult. I think everyone does. Unfortunately, there were holes in my understanding which were holding me back from performing at the level I expected of myself. I had hit a wall, and worse, felt like I was moving backwards.

After several days of crying after class in the bathroom, I decided it was time to get help and approached my professor about getting a tutor. After a wonderful pep talk, he quickly set me up with a super-smart grad student at University of Toronto, with whom I began meeting with on a weekly basis to work on the areas which were giving me trouble.

Working with a tutor became the single best thing I did for my studies. She helped me to grasp difficult concepts, and ensured that I took the time to understand the grammar rather than settle for a lazy translation. My understanding of the material quickly improved, as did my confidence and performance. (Not to mention that it helped to have someone else on my team who understood what I was going through!) I highly recommended getting a bit of extra help, if you find yourself stumbling or want to bring your work up to the next level.

All in all, I found my third year of Greek really challenging and much different from the previous two years. Not only did the materials change, but the tools I used did, too. While some sound like no-brainers (Lexicon? Duh.), some of the items here weren’t obvious to me when I began the school year, but have since become indispensable to my tool-kit. While there are certainly many more things that could be on this list, I’ve found these are the bare necessities for conquering ancient Greek and every serious student should have them on hand.


Photo by Sunsurfr.

2 thoughts on “Five Tools For Advanced Greek
  1. The word for a translation that keeps you on track as you make your own translation is “pony”, not “pome”. Sounds like the small horse; you mistook the n as m. !!

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