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Ancient Greek: the ingenious language

“The ingenious language: nine epic reasons to love Greek” is a nifty, engaging and educational book. It consists of less than 200 pages and the style throughout is snappy and pleasingly peppered with a jokey tone.


Sean Sheehan


This helps make it an easy read despite its erudite subject matter:  a dead language that is understood by a tiny minority of any country’s population (and that includes modern Greece).

The first of the nine reasons is the aorist verb form. This is the grammatical category that is called aspect. It is the intellectually most intriguing feature of the ancient Greek language, primarily because there is no exact equivalent in English or a number of other modern languages.

Aspect is not a tense. It challenges the common assumption that grammar is based around temporal distinctions: past →present→future. Aspect refers instead to the quality of an action. It references a process that is not anchored  to any time-based measurement.  Tenses allude to the time of an action but aspect indicates something intrinsically unrepeatable and, in a sense, without consequences.  It can only correspond to the simple past in the indicative mood.

“There is something spectacular and

heartbreaking about the aorist: the certainty of having lost something forever and a blurry regret

for that  mode of being.”

The ancient Greek language, which has given us Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, is now a silent language.

We cannot know for sure what it sounded like; we can’t hear it as it was spoken some two thousand years ago.

The third gender -the neutral- has disappeared from all the Latin-based Romance languages. Not Greek: it is used for some abstract concepts and body parts and this makes some sense. Trees are feminine – and that’s OK too – but their fruits are neuter.

Diminutives of masculine and feminine words are neuter; a ‘boy’ is masculine but a ‘little boy’ is neuter. The Greek word ‘praxis’ – the practice of doing – is feminine but the outcome of that practice – ‘a thing done’ – is neuter.

Ancient Greek is a deeply inflected language and, unlike English, word order in a sentence hardly matters. The five Greek cases are explained and readers with no knowledge of the language will grasp its importance.

The formal learning ancient Greek, in the UK at least, is largely confined to private schools and grammar schools of the exclusively posh kind.

Not surprisingly, then, most classicists are political reactionaries but  honourable exceptions – like John Gould and Edith Hall — count as the most insightful academic voices in their field.

Learning to read ancient Greek is now open to all through The Open University — and an online search will throw up various other options. As a stimulating starter for anyone with an interest in languages and/or ancient Greece,  “The ingenious language: nine epic reasons to love Greek” is the way to go.

“The ingenious language: nine epic reasons to love Greek”  by Andrea Marcolongo is published by Europa Editions

(Photos: Pixabay)

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