greek is hard

January 28, 2009 at 11:10 pm (school) ()

I know that’s maybe the wimpiest title ever for a journal entry, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the truth. But, to my credit, I think old Hansen and Quinn’s Greek: An Intensive Course makes things a little bit harder than they need to be.

For example, their explanation of contract verbs is beyond ridiculous. For the non-Attically inclined, here’s the deal. Once upon a time, Greek verbs that had stems that ended in a short vowel existed in a long forms that had ridiculous amounts of vowel sounds in them. For example, the verb τιμἀω ends in a short alpha, which makes its uncontracted forms in the present tense look something like τιμἀω, τιμἀεις, τιμἀει, τιμἀομεν, and so on. Over time, the vowel sounds contracted and did something to the original vowels, so τιμἀω becomes τιμῶ: the alpha and the omega combine to form an omega with a different kind of accent. So what. So anyhow, there are predictable patterns to how vowel sounds contract. Hansen and Quinn give us eight distinct patterns, such as “alpha followed by an epsilon becomes long alpha, alpha followed by epsilon iota becomes long alpha with an iota subscript,” and so on, for eight impossible to memorize (at least for me) rules. In reality, there are only three real paradigms you need to know to predict the vowel contracts for short alpha contract verbs. Three! And they’re simple as sin if someone like your professor just makes a damn handout. Which, thankfully, mine did.

Anyway this long boring intro is leading up to my story for today, which revolves around another feature of Hansen and Quinn: they include passages from actual Greek texts at the back of each chapter so that you can practice with real Greek writing. All the little translations I’ve been posting come from there. I’ve been doing alright with them in general. Yesterday, however, I decided to try my hand at  a passage from the chorus from Aischylos’ Persians, included at the end of a chapter I did last semester. No problem, I’m thinking. I’ve done tons more complicated stuff since then.

Holy crap. I stared at it for hours, trying and trying to understand what the heck was happening. I ended up turning in a translation I suspected was utter hilarity. This was confirmed when my professor handed it back to me today, covered in ink. I had most of the words right but had the agency of the verbs all wrong. Fortunately for my sanity, however, I happened to look at the bottom of the paper where I had written “I’m not really sure if any of this is even close, for some reason it left me quite befuddled.” My professor’s response:

“In part this is because they didn’t tell you that this passage is not Attic Greek. It is the highly-stylized Doric dialect used in tragic lyric. Many of these words are neologisms.”

Well. OK then. It was kind of not really the language I’ve been trying to learn for the last six months. Good. Hansen and Quinn did provide me with some information, like that the play was produced in 472 B.C. (very helpful for translation, guys), but not that it was not really Attic Greek. 

So, apparently I don’t suck as badly as I thought. Which is nice to know. Hansen and Quinn did, however, give me an awesome cautionary tale to translate as part of my exercises this week:

“Whenever you did shameful things for the sake of your beloveds, o daughters, you were not honored by the prudent and the just because of your reputation. Be thought well of, therefore, by doing just things.”

OK then! Thanks, guys.

More interesting: Jeff Vandermeer asked his readers to post synopses of their current projects, so Jesse (my collaborator) and I put up a few things about Pharmakoi. Check it out, and the projects of other hard-working writers out there!


  1. Selena said,

    Yeah–I decided since you guys were speaking up, I would speak up. Eek. But that intro was really great. I’m dying to read the rest of it…it has a nice balance of poetry.

  2. Jesse said,

    See, poetry! People like it! The Simile stays! Also, I like the “possibly related posts” at the bottom, becuase, you know, if you think Greek is hard, medieval wolfmen might shed some light on the subject.

    Selena: Give us dirt on necrophiliac workshop. Details are to my brains as brains are to zombies.

  3. molly said,

    Selena, I second the request of my cohort to tell us about your workshop! Thank you for the sweet praise on Jeff’s blog, as well. We need to set a date for our workshop ASAP. Do we want to do a theme or just anything we have lying around?

    And Jesse, just because people like poetic language doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to shame Clark Ashton Smith with the most purple prose this side of Hyperborea. You know this. The simile is cut off like the hand that sins. Use it in something that doesn’t have my name attached to it. You know, like Grossbarts 2: The Re-Grossbarting.

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