[B-Greek] Learning Greek kills English...

Carl Conrad cwconrad2 at mac.com
Tue Jul 27 16:06:56 EDT 2010

On Jul 27, 2010, at 3:35 PM, Eric Ciampa wrote:

> I have a bad habit of reading old books, books that now sit on old shelves with thick-yellow paper. I just started Edwin Abbott's, How to Write Clearly and came across a few lines that i thought i would share... 
> Boys who are studying Latin and Greek stand in especial need of help to enable them to write a long English sentence clearly. The periods of Thucydides and Cicero are not easily rendered into our idiom without some knowledge of the links that connect an English sentence.
> There is scarcely any better training, rhetorical as well as logical, than the task of construing Thucydides intogenuine English; but the flat, vague, long-winded Greek-English and Latin-English imposture that is often tolerated in our examinations and is allowed to pass current for genuine English, diminishes instead of increasing the power that our pupils should possess over their native language. By getting marks at school and college for construing good Greek and Latin into bad English, our pupils systematically unlearn what they may have been allowed to pick up from Milton and from Shakespeare. 
> This got me wondering how my English might have become worse at the expense of learning Greek. 

I think there is some truth to what Abbott asserts in what you've cited here, although one might also raise the question just how well boys -- and girls as well -- can write long sentences in English without ever having studied any Latin or Greek. What one needs desperately to understand is that Greek and Latin differ considerably from each other in the way they structure complex sentences and that they both differ considerably from English too in the way they structure complex sentences.

One of the more insidious misguided assumptions at work at the lower levels of ancient Greek pedagogy is that reproducing the structure of an original Greek sentence in an English version will somehow convey both the substance and the meaning of what the original sentence meant to communicate. How is that misguided assumption to be driven out of the minds and dispositions of beginning Greek students? One way is to discourage translation of Greek into English and to focus on reading the Greek for comprehension rather than for reconstituting the Greek text in English. Another way -- but, alas, this is 19th-century pedagogy -- would be to encourage composition in ancient Greek with an emphasis on idiomatic Greek phraseology and clausal structures -- while studying the differences between "natural" and "artistic" Greek expression and "natural" and "artistic" English expression. It might be worthwhile too to spend some time comparing good and bad English translations of major Greek writers in terms of which phraseologies are more "natural" English. I always thought that there's a world of difference between what seems to me the excellent Rex Warner version of Thucydides and the stuffy old classic Crawley English Thucydides.

In order to write good and better English, one really ought to study good and better English writers and endeavor to write like those whom one has come to admire. One's English style should NOT, I think, ever derive primarily from the Greek style of an ancient Greek author, however eloquent that author may have been in the Greek.

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

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