I just read a book explaining “nine epic reasons to love Greek” that was so good it was hard to put down. No, really. I did.
“The Ingenious Language” was written by Andrea Marcolongo, a young Italian classics scholar, and translated by Will Schutt. This short volume is very different from most books on language, even the informal ones.
In essence, it is a love story to a language, one that reveals quite a lot about the writer. It is suffused with a sense of wonder and a touch of regret at what Greek has lost.
Greek is the only major European language that never changed into something else. Latin and the Germanic languages all have their offspring, but not Greek.
The history of Greek can be divided into three parts. The first is ancient Greek, which appears after the Greek Dark Ages when they began to write again, and is represented by Homer, Sophocles, and Thucydides.
The second period begins with Alexander the Great and the expansion of Greek through the Mediterranean world. It is called Koine, and it is the language of Plutarch and the New Testament.
The third period dates from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and begins the story of modern Greek.
It is clear that Marcolongo loves ancient Greek most. It had some grammatical features she finds beautiful and touching. Unlike the modern system of past, present and future tense, ancient Greek worked with three aspects. These indicated whether an action is continuing, happens at a moment, or is completed.
As Greek spread across much of the known world, it simplified. Aspect was replaced by tense. She says, “we evolved from how things happened to when things happened.”
She describes other qualities of the language. In addition to masculine and feminine, there was a neuter gender. English and most languages have singular and plural number; ancient Greek had a dual form for things that occurred in pairs.
The book moves quickly. It is like a watercolor sketch, hitting the high points and eschewing long description. One of the author’s chief concerns is to rescue the language from fear and tedium. She is a scholar, but not a pedant. She wants her students to love the language as she does.
Marcolongo shares her own excitement as a child learning Greek, and she recounts some mistakes she made, as when she, innocent and ignorant of the story, translated a passage on the rape of the Sabine women as a passage about the rats of the Sabine women.
The author’s personality is one of the charms of the book. She seems like the kind of person you would love to meet at a dinner party. She’s funny and perky and smart, and her enthusiasm is infectious.
She goes off on a tangent, for example, about her name. “Andrea” is a woman’s name everywhere in Europe except in her native Italy, where it is a man’s name. This was frustrating and awkward for her, but eventually she came to love her name, and the father who saddled her with it.
I’ve never studied Greek. No prior knowledge is required.
Most of the Greek words I know have transliterated into our Roman alphabet. She quotes using the Greek alphabet, with English translations. I finally made the effort to learn that alphabet; a chart is provided at the end of the book.
It is not likely that many readers will be try to decipher Euripides, but interlinear translations of the New Testament allow us to see what the original text says, word by word.
This book is both edifying and entertaining. Really, it is.