[B-Greek] Understanding and teaching Greek (was "Can any good thing come out of Linguistics?")

Carl Conrad cwconrad2 at mac.com
Thu Apr 1 10:39:59 EDT 2010

Don, I'm wondering whether it might not be more useful to pin down matters on which we agree rather than keep on keeping on with the "'Tis so!"-"'Tis not!" banter about the usefulness of  Linguistics to the understanding of how ancient Greek works and how it can best be explained and taught to others.

1. Understanding how ancient Greek works: We seem to be agreed that one who is competent in ancient Greek by virtue of expansive reading in of an expansive corpus of Greek texts (of more than one era) is minimally dependent upon resource grammars and lexica. We never, I think, get to a point where an unabridged lexicon and a good reference grammar are things we don't want to have on hand -- just as those of us who read widely and write regularly in our native or standard language want to have good current dictionaries and style manuals on hand to consult as we read and write in our own language. But I think that we more or less agree that one who is competent in ancient Greek reads it without parsing the grammar or analyzing the syntax. Reading or writing, listening or speaking a language is an altogether different thing from understanding how that language works. The big questions come into play when we start asking (a) HOW our language -- or another language -- or ancient Greek -- WORKS, and (b) what is the INSTRUCTIONAL VALUE of an understanding of how our language, another language, especially ancient Greek works? Do non-speakers and non-readers of a language acquire competence n that language through learning its grammar? Or is the function of grammar in instruction chiefly in clarifying for ourselves complexities that we encounter in what we hear spoken and what we read in texts in the language in question?

I personally don't think that the teaching of grammar as such brings students to competence in a language; it may perhaps help, but the real task to be accomplished by instruction in a language is intimate familiarization with the usages of that language or what we've called "internalization" of the language. I think that an understanding of "how the language works" is useful and to some extent essential to the instructor, but I don't think that knowing HOW the language works plays much role in learning to USE the language.

How languages work or how a particular language works is addressed both by traditional grammar and by the discipline of linguistics. The former is largely a matter of lore rather even if German-speakers might speak of it as a "Wissenschaft"; the latter is a social science and suffers, rightly or wrongly, from all the baggage of statistical methodologies and terminological jargon accruing to the social sciences generally. I personally think there is much of value in both traditional grammar and in linguistics for the understanding of how ancient Greek works, but there are, on the one hand, considerable flaws in traditional grammar and, on the other, terminological and theoretical incongruities in ancient Greek linguistics, not to mention deep mistrust by practitioners of each other by the practitioners of both. 

My own chief concern is less immediately with understanding how ancient Greek works than with improving ancient Greek pedagogy. Insofar as understanding how ancient Greek works has a bearing on improving how it is taught and understood, when helpful, by beginning and intermediate students, I look for whatever can enhance my own understanding of how ancient Greek works.

There are a couple other questions that have been involved in these exchanges: (1) problems in explaining and representing the ancient Greek voice system -- best dealt with separately, and (2) the pedagocial question of what constitutes a good ancient Greek primer. On that latter question it is clear that opinions differ widely and that there's little agreement with those who find Machen a useful textbook (and I know that many do) and those that think it an abomination. Perhaps we will agree that much more than we can measure of successful classroom teaching of ancient Greek depends upon the particular instructor, the particular mix of students, and what actually goes on in a particular classroom. I learned pretty well in my first year of ancient Greek in 1952-3 using a textbook that I deemed at that time and still deem an abomination (Rife, A Beginning Greek Book: Based on the Gospel According to Mark); it too is still in print in a 2004 edition, so it is obviously deemed good by some.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)

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