Friday, September 21, 2007

For language lovers only

For recreation these days I am trying to learn Homeric Greek. From their reactions some people have let me know just how weird they think it is. Admittedly, I have no practical reasons to do it. I will earn no degree. I will never be a scholar in the field, and it is a virtual certainty that I would never be permitted to teach it, even were I to become competent (which I doubt anyway).

But there are two good personal reasons to keep at it. First, whenever I have listened to or read any classicist who does know ancient Greek or Latin, I have always been jealous and asked myself why I didn’t learn it when I was young (well, actually, I know the answer - I was lazy and almost without any ambition).

Second, the study has been a gold mine of information about the ancestry of the English language. Frankly, that is always what I loved about foreign languages, particularly ancient ones. Seeing the roots of English from 2 to 3 thousand years ago thrills me. It might not affect a lot of people that way, but I have some good company. Tolkien wrote somewhat apologetically to a scholarly son who had imparted some interesting historical tidbit to him, that if a historical fact did not involve language, it really didn’t interest him that much. I can’t go quite that far, as I love history for its own sake, but one of my favorite pastimes is learning the origins of a place or thing name.

While ancient Greek is only one source of English among many, it is an early and important one, perhaps ultimately, the most important (you can argue Sanskrit or Latin to me). Every line of Homer tells me this is true.

Learning it is hard (although not as hard as working out) and sometimes frustratingly so. A graduate student has pointed out to me that because you don't converse in it, it does not stick in your head and you must constantly review. But, I have one advantage over academic students which I continuously remind myself about to quiet my “quit” reflex. I have all the time in the world until I die, lose interest or my eyesight fails (the worst of the three possibilities).

In some senses, learning Homeric Greek (as opposed to other ancient Greek like that of Plato or the Bible) is not like learning any other language. For one thing, it was not a real language. As the editor of the main text I use advised me in an email, no one says that they “speak” Homeric Greek. No one ever spoke it or wrote it except to create or recite epic poetry in the first millenium B.C.

It would make little sense to try and speak this early Greek, as the words are chosen and sometimes actually change according to the meter (huh? I’ll get to it). Homeric Greek is primarily a combination of two formerly spoken Greek dialects (Ionic and Aeolic, with bits of few others too, if you care), that would not otherwise be combined in normal conversation or writing.

There are also aspects of Homeric Greek which are just difficult for English speakers to understand, in particular, the declining of nouns, the length of vowels and the use of accents.

Before the Greeks modified the Phoenician alphabet (itself spun off of an earlier alphabet and so on back to pictograms), there were no symbols standing for vowels. This development has come in mighty handy and is now part of, I believe, most modern written syllabic languages.

No one knows if or when Homer lived, but modern consensus says between 725 B.C. and 675 B.C. if he did exist. By this time, at least, the Greeks differentiated between long and short vowels, as we do, but in a different way. The Greeks did not change the sound of a vowel when they lengthened or shortened it, as in modern languages; they actually lengthened or shortened the time it took to say the vowel.

So, if apple was a Homeric Greek word, and you wanted to lengthen the A, you would really say aa-pul, not ai-pul. Sometimes, in the case of E and O, which were always short in Greek, the letter itself would change when you lengthened it. For example, E, a Greek letter known as epsilon, when lengthened, becomes Eta, the capital of which looks like our H, and the small version of which looks like our small letter n melting into the line below it. With the letters a, i, and u, you have to know the word or understand the very vague rules rules for “scanning” the meter to determine whether it’s a long or short vowel. I know this is really going to sound strange, but I’ve come to really enjoy doing that, although I never would have predicted it when I started.

Those who took French in school are familiar with the accents now used to help us understand ancient Greek, because some languages still use them. They are \, / and ^. Unlike today, though, the Greeks accented a word by changing the pitch of their voice, not the extra stress put on the syllable. So, where our words stress a certain syllable – APple, the Greeks changed the pitch in a way we can only guess at. Even later ancient writers were incapable of explaining what the vowels actually sounded like when the pitch changed. How would they know? The speakers were long dead.

In beginning to learn the language, I started with the alphabet. That’s the easy part because it’s pretty much the same as ours with a few differences. The major ones are the shape of some letters. For example, a capital N was written like our N, but a small n was written v; their P is the symbol for Pi (as in 3.14), and they used what we would call P for our R sound. They also had letters for what we call blends (th, ph, ps, zd, ks) and did not have J, Y, V or C (although they had letter for the two sounds we use for C) today.

The Greek alphabet also had, very early on, what is called vau or digamma, which looked like our F that has fallen halfway through the cracks, and pronounced like our W. It was a widely used letter but mysteriously disappeared by Homer’s time. Strangely though, this letter's vau’s former presence could still affect the meter, spelling and accent in words it had previously been in. Likewise, they used a letter called koppa or Kwoppa, which looked like a lollypop. Koppa, which stood between the Greek versions of our P and R, and also fell out of the Greek language, but was reintroduced as Q in the Latin alphabet (think about it when toasting the Queen or staying at the Quality Inn; we almost had no Q).

After all that, you’ll be surprised and possibly disappointed to learn that the ancient Greeks did not really use the same alphabet we now use to represent their language, although something resembling it. The Greek alphabet we use comes from Byzantine scholars some 2000 years after Homer wrote, who used their form of the alphabet(which is still being used in Greece). There are actually no known existing copies of the Iliad or The Odyssey in the alphabet Homer would have used, just as we do not have ancient Hebrew Bibles preceding the Greek ones. The Byzantine scholars were writing far closer to our time than to Homer’s and, fortunately for us, introduced Homer to the West just prior to the end of their Eastern empire in 1453 A.D.

We know from written fragments that do exist from classical and pre-classical Greek times that Homer (if he existed and if he could write – another mystery) used only capital letters, probably had every other line heading in the opposite direction, did not have breaks between words and used no accents or breathing marks. By breathing marks, I mean a little mark which tells you whether to make an H sound before an initial vowel. The marks were another invention of the Byzantines; the Greeks just knew where to breathe, just as we know where to accent words in English without using any marks. The small letters, spaces between words, sentences going in one direction, breathing marks and accents were all Byzantine devices. Only very recently (I believe 1982) has modern Greek officially done away with breathing sounds and multiple accent marks.

If I’ve learned one thing about Homeric as opposed to other Greek, it’s that the meter is King. In other words, whatever grammatical rules there are, they are secondary to and designed for servicing the meter. So, if my word ends in the letters ew, it would normally be pronounced eh-aw (two syllables), unless the meter called for one long syllable in that spot, and then it would be pronounced as one long blended ehaw. Why? Because the meter is king, that’s why. It couldn’t have been easy to constantly come up with a word that fit the meter, even with two dialects to choose from, so the grammatical rules as to vowel length had exceptions to make it easier.

It’s not just the difference in long or short vowels that makes it difficult for us to understand Homer. It’s also word order. Suppose you wanted to write – “Achilles walked down the path and took a bite of the apple.” Depending on where it fell in the metrical pattern, you might have to write - “walked apple bite took and down the path Achilles”, or, “Achilles and path the apple down walked bite took.”   

Making the meter king is not that strange to us, really. Modern poets and song writers do it all the time in stretching a syllable to make something rhyme (Homer did not rhyme), and Homer (if he . . . blah, blah, blah) was writing or singing poetry.

Still not done with the problems yet though. In ancient Greek you declined nouns, pronouns, prepositions and adjectives just like we conjugate verbs (which they also did). Take the Greek word for plan, of which the root was Boul-. Depending on the contents of the sentence, you might write (transliterated) boulae, boulaen, boulaes, boule, and so on. Declining is still found in many modern languages from Serbian-Croatian to Korean to Romanian and even German. Personally, I think life is a lot easier without declension (even though we need to use extra words to compensate), but, I presume that whatever you grow up with, sounds best.

Without any doubt the greatest pleasure in this study comes in seeing Greek roots for modern English words or grammar rules. It would be a little tedious to discuss the grammar (something I dreaded even more than math in grade school). Still, it is a trip to notice that many of the elements in our language were already there thousands of years ago – subject, object, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, participle, tenses, etc. But, for now, let’s just look at some of our words which have roots in Homer.

In just the very, very beginning of the Iliad, the story of a wild few weeks near the end of the Trojan War (but not the end), I have come across the Greek roots for the following English words:


That’s 27 English root words in just twenty-one lines. For this American nerd, that's a pot of gold.

Although I have admitted that this is a strange hobby, I can’t possibly be the only one interested. The Perseus project on the web seems to have all of the ancient Greek works that you might ever want online with almost every single word linked to various dictionaries, lexicons and grammars. The Blue Letter Bible does a similar thing for the Old and New Testaments. These are enormous projects, obviously the work of many people for years, and somehow, I doubt they did it just for me.


  1. Anonymous12:20 PM

    competent, NOT competant. Sort of sucks the air out of a treatise on language when the author is troubled by his native tongue right at the beginning of the piece. That said, we do share the "nerd" bone, as strangely, I understand your attraction to your hobby.

  2. Thank you, oh great proofreader. I'm going to have to start sending you these things first or remember to spellcheck.

  3. Anonymous11:24 AM

    Back in Homer's day writers were real men;they didn't have wussy programs like spell check.

  4. Are you still studying Homeric Greek? I have been listening to audio unabridged versions of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. I've listened to the Fitzgerald translation and the Fagles translation of the Odyssey and there is a substantialdifferencein tone. The Fitsgerald translation has a staid almost regal tone whereas the Fagles translation is more exhilerating. Both are very enjoyable.I imagine that similar stylistic differenceswould have existed between different singers in ancient Greece. You have probably read it but the introduction tothe Iliad in the Fagles translation by Bernard Knox has afascinating discussion about meter andHomeric language andthe idea that patterns of words used in these poems were standardized (my word) phrases, descriptions, etc. to facilitate the singers ability to improvise and put his individual style into his performance while preserving the meter. Also the Fagles translation of the Odyssey is read by Sir Ian McKellan soits kind of likelistening to Gandalf read Homer.

  5. Actually, yesterday marked my second year anniversary of studying Homeric Greek. As I'm a self teacher, using an early 20th century text book by Prof. Clyde Pharr, which, thankfully, The Univ. of Oklahoma Press still publishes, I have trouble estimating my progress, but there has certainly has been some. Since Homeric Greek is a poetic language and one really only reads, not speaks, Homeric Greek (although, there are guesses at how to pronounce it and you can recite it if you want), it is somewhat different than learning other languages. As it is the age of email, I decided to write the modern editor of the book, John Wright, who has been very kind in answering a few questions I just couldn't figure out in Pharr, which was really written for teachers, not students, and presupposed Latin. Even in a century some of Pharr's English translation has become a little archaic. I have also been communicating on occasion with Paula Debnar, another Greek professor who has been re-editing Pharr for the U. of Ok. Press to make it more accessible to modern students (including, too late for me, making the tiny little print much bigger, but also including usuable workbook assignments). My discipline has been 6 days a week, 2 hours a day (and I regret my "vacations" the first year). Although at the beginning in particular, without a teacher (I met with a grad student 3 times too) some of it was a real struggle, but it has been wonderfully rewarding for me, and probablly the best use of my time in my life. A few other authors on Greek studies also weighed in the early days about whether learning Homer or Attic Greek first was the best approach. I chose to start with Homer (against most of their advice) because I love Homer and that is what inspires me (as Clyde Pharr and Tolkien both understood). I'm not sorry. Since I don't have a degree, no school would ever let me teach anyway, so who cares what I do. My plan is one more year concentrating on the Iliad, and then start with Herodotus and head on until I finally end up with Common/Biblical/Koine Greek. Of course, that's a plan and there's that saying about the best laid plans . . .

    I agree that the essay in the beginning of Fagles Iliad is quite good, as you state. Greek students and teachers these days seem to prefer Richard Lattimore's translation though. Although there is certainly a great value to his work, I don't agree. Over and over again it seems to me he added words here and there that I can't justify in the text at all. Although he admits to taking some poetic license to make it more readable, as a student I just don't like that approach. I have many translations I work with, but by far my favorite is A.T. Murray's, now revised by his great nephew, William F. Wyatt (1924), and still published in Harvard's Loeb Classical Library. Murray also uses a slightly more archaic English, which I prefer for aesthetic reasons. I also think Murray stuck closer to the text than Lattimore, and, best of all, it is published as a handbook with the ancient Greek and English on parallel pages, making it the most convenient text to use.

    To my surprise, I began to really enjoy the metrical aspects (prosody) of the work you speak of in your comment once I learned enough to figure most of it out by myself, but the connection between Greek and English some 2700 years or so apart is still the most gratifying part for me. I constantly sit up and say something like - "Holy cow! It's still the same word," like the other day, when I came upon the root word for "touch" or "lay hold of," which, believe it or not - is "tag". That the word is preserved in a children's game just makes me happy.

    I actually have another post I'm thinking about on ancient Greek(not likely anytime soon though) which will probably start like this -- "My historical nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, wrote . . .". If I'm not careful, I'll start writing it here.

    Thanks so much for your comment, Nina.

    p.s. Ian McKellan is a great choice to read Homer on an audiotape.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .