Some Resources for Learning Ancient Greek…

I wanted to comment on some great resources for learning more Ancient Greek that I found but never got the change to write about and share as I try to learn some. I thought this would be a good time to share these with those interested in Ancient Greek :)

If you’re really serious about learning Ancient Greek, or Latin for that matter, the Latin/Greek Institute at Brooklyn College in NY offers a 10 week or so intensive course meant to cover two to three years worth of college courses in the language! It runs each summer, and while notorious for being extremely hard and time consuming, many participants felt rewarded by going there. I never went, unfortunately, but it sounds like a great resource for those who live nearby and can jump at the opportunity! I’d love to hear if anyone reading this went or knows someone who did! A description on their website says:

The Latin/Greek Institute offers total-immersion programs in Latin or Ancient Greek that enable students to master the material normally covered in two to three years in a single summer. Founded in 1973 as a collaborative effort between Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, the Institute is the most intensive summer language program of its kind. All programs are team-taught by experienced instructors. Hourly rotation of faculty provides for exposure to a variety of approaches, and faculty closely mentor and advise students. Our graduates typically return to their home institutions prepared to excel in advanced or upper-division reading courses and to pass graduate departmental translation exams.

An article written by someone who did go details his experience of the program- What I Learned About Myself While Learning To Translate Ancient Greek.

For those who don’t have the opportunity to travel all the way to NY and devote the entire summer to that “linguistic boot camp” as I would call it, some helpful videos explain much of Ancient Greek vocabulary, grammar and learning techniques:

This video demonstrates a learning technique called “Where are your keys?”. The object of the game is to learn through relating words to the objects and contexts and slowly working your way up to understanding more complex questions using what you learned before as the foundation. It is also complete immersion in the target language, no native language or other languages allowed. For example, in this video, the teacher introduces what each object is. As the videos progress on his YouTube channel, he asks questions such as if the object is what he says it is, and even negation is taught when the answer is not what he just said. repetition is used frequently so the concept of what he is trying to convey sinks in. This game emphasizes more “natural learning” as children do their first language, rather than memorization of complex grammar rules and tables. It also uniquely, uses some ASL for hand gestures to communicate some rules in the game, as to not break the total immersion bubble. You can learn a lot by following along to the game!

This video shows a different technique called “Total Physical Response”. Like WAYK (Where are your keys?), it emphasizes the more natural, intuitive learning children use to learn their native language versus complex grammar rules. The idea is similar to “Where are your keys?” in that you have to figure out what is being said to you, only this time, it’s much more “physical” hence the name where you move your body around to demonstrate verbs and a sequence of actions. Both can be used to teach many complex grammar concepts, in a more natural way versus a more artificial way like the traditional classroom set up of memorizing grammar rules or translating words using your native language as the middle man, so to speak. This too is also complete immersion in the target language. By watching the video, you can start to learn to associate the verbs used to command with the action, as well as the nouns featured in the commands.

This video shows a similar method to both WAYK (Where are your keys?) and TPR (Total Physical Response) where you answer questions in a story in the language. Same idea about immersion leading the way to language learning. The teacher can circle around by cycling back to details in the story by asking questions about them then asking multiple ways to drill the ideas and details from the story in your head. You can learn new grammar concepts by modifying the details in the simple story, such as making everything in the past tense, or adding plurals, or negating statements, for some examples.

The pros of these methods, are a more natural way to learn a language, cutting out the middle man of one’s own native language and artificial grammar rules to memorize. However, for me at least, using some more traditional methods helps speed things along when there’s confusion in the immersion environments. Sometimes, it’s good to know a general rule, so you can apply it to other situations beyond what is immediately being learned. You can gradually pick up on patterns learned the more “natural” way, but it is nice once in a while to be told straight up what the rule is! More abstract concepts, like the subjunctive for instance, can be harder to convey through acting out alone.

This video is helpful for beginners like me to learn the sounds of the alphabet! I like they give example words to see how the language sounds. Some videos are obvious they have an American or English accent versus a more native sounding one, but this one sounds more authentically Greek!

Sometimes, it’s good just to listen to how the language is supposed to sound like spoken, and not just read about:

This comes from the New Testament, and is read completely in Koine Greek… I love it’s in this cool cartoon form!

I love the way the reader reads it so smoothly! I found out he’s a native speaker of Modern Greek, so that must help a lot. Many videos people make sound very stilted in speaking Ancient Greek, so it’s rare to find it treated more like a living language.

Lastly just for fun :)


Posted in Ancient History, Linguistics and History, Reviews | 1 Comment

“What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?”: Rightful Acknowledgement or Western Supremacy?

There’s this Monty Python sketch from The Life of Brian where one of the Jews asks the question in the title above, as the Romans were their “oppressors” in Roman Palestine at the time of Jesus (and Brian). Another comically responds with Roman achievements like great literature and aqueducts as some examples of “what the Romans did for them”. The asker of the question tries to deflect and downplay these achievements, to much humor as more keep coming and coming, good ones too!

The reason why this came into my mind recently were several articles written by this blog dedicated to Classical studies called  Eidolon which while having some interesting and engaging articles, also has a bit of a left leaning political bias. In the articles that grabbed my attention, they claim that it is mistaken to say that Greco-Roman culture was a foundation to the identity of Western Culture today. Also, that it’s an insufficient reason to study Classics at all. Now, I thought most people thought that, and it was mainstream knowledge, so I’ve never heard it challenged before. The arguments for this against the grain claim piqued my interest greatly:

The main argument I got from reading articles from Eidolon was that Classical Studies has a history of white supremacy and Western imperialism. They say their focus was too much on “dead white men” and glorifying Western Culture and trying to justify cultural supremacy as well as White supremacy. They cite the fact some alt-right white supremacist groups and Neo-Nazis have misappropriated the culture and writings of Ancient Greece and Rome and twisted and oversimplified history to suit their own agenda and use it as propaganda for white supremacy. In addition, they also say Classical Studies was always fraught with that sort of bias towards white men and women and minorities were treated as outsiders, the “barbarians” of the Classics Department so to speak!

Historically, they argue much of the Classical World around the Mediterranean was quite diverse and cosmopolitan, with peoples from all sorts of races and ethnicities interacting and living amongst each other, especially after the Roman conquests expanding the empire from Hadrian’s wall in England, all the way over to Palestine! Even the Greek empire had some diversity. Different cultures, technologies, religions, ideologies, material goods, literature and more intermingled all around the Mediterranean building off of and influencing each other. Much of the Greeks’ and Romans’ ideas actually predate them, such as Pythagorean theorem being discovered on a tablet from ancient Babylon, for example. The Romans borrowed many local gods in cults like Mithraism in the East in Persia, or even Christianity from the Middle East and North Africa! The Glory of Greece and Rome was not made in a vacuum, others had a hand in helping it happen.

However, both of those arguments, historically, and issues pertaining to today, I argue, are not strong enough grounds to dismiss the title of “Foundation of Western Civilization”. First of all, while it is certainly true that the Classical world had help from “outsiders”, and there were certainly more than “dead white men” roaming around the Greek and Roman empires, the culture of Ancient Greece and Rome did influence the future of Western Europe greatly. There are countless examples of how Western Europe adopted elements of culture from both civilizations, but first, going into a little history:

Since Rome conquered much of what is now Western Europe, many into late antiquity thought of themselves as Romans. They were Romanized and Roman citizens for many of them and grew up speaking “Latin”. I put “Latin” in quotes because later on, their “Latin” drifted away from actual Latin and evolved into our modern day Romance languages like French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese among a few others. They only realized their “Latin” was corrupted when Irish Monks who came to convert them actually did study real Latin, and told them they were wrong! Point being, people from Western Europe saw themselves as subjects of the Roman Empire for quite a while! Even Charlemagne in the 800’s was emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire”! To say they have no claim to a Roman heritage would be incorrect, as they thought themselves Romans and spoke “Latin” to their knowledge for a long time! Even so, after they stopped being officially “Roman”, many European Law codes, including Canon Law of the Catholic Church is based on old Roman law! Roman law has influenced the legal system in many places throughout Europe, even here in the US! Christianity, a big part of what is “Western” now should credit its rise to power by being adopted by the Roman Empire as the official religion later on by Constantine in the 4th century. Without Rome’s influence, the West might have regarded it as one of those exotic “Eastern Religions” of the Middle East and North Africa. The Catholics church I’d argue, is somewhat of an extension of the Roman Empire, with a Pontifix Maxiumus, bishops, its own little state that once wielded great political power, built near the site of the old pagan temple and has Latin as an official language in Vatican City! Not to mention of course, Latin was the lingua franca of scholars in Europe for much of history, and many words in English have Latin roots today. Mottos for many things too are in Latin to sound sophisticated. Point is, Roman culture is still deeply entrenched in ours!

The Greeks of course, too had just as much an impact on Western culture. The great Philosophers and scientists, like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, playwrights like Aristophanes, historians like Herodotus and Thucydides for examples, are people we still read works by today! The sophistication of the Greek intellect in many areas inspired the Romans too, who were influenced by the Greeks and modeled themselves to be like them too. Greek was the language of scholars like Latin was for the Romans, and another scholarly language for Europe too. Let’s not forget too, there were many Greek speakers in the Roman empire, especially the Eastern half as Rome conquered Greece. The New Testament, foundational to uniquely Christian doctrine, was written in Koine, the average Greek of the day. Plenty of English words have Greek origins too, and even many loan words, like Kudos (κῦδος), for instance. Even the word “Moron” coined by psychologist Henry H. Goddard came from the Greek word for a dullard! ;) In educated circles, a respectable scholar knew his Latin and Greek, and was familiar with many Greco-Roman myths and other literature.

Even then, it would take many volumes to document all the ways Greece and Rome influenced our culture! Sure, we must not forget other influences, such as the Golden Age of the Islamic world bringing much of the Classics to Europe again, but can’t we also acknowledge the glaring influence Greece and Rome had on the West directly as well? I do not see it as cultural supremacy to confirm the great influence the Classical world had on us. As for the arguments pertaining to the prejudiced history of Classical Studies, or the prejudices of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, why dwell on the past so much, and how does that change the evidence for the great influence of Ancient Greece and Rome? If you want to say Classical Studies had a prejudicial biased history then fine, it’s okay to remedy that and make it more inclusive to others who want to study it beyond white men. The issue is, why do we then have to change and deny history claiming it’s biased since it doesn’t serve some social justice agenda? Just because white supremacists misappropriate history for their own damaging agenda, it doesn’t mean we have to rewrite what is true about it, that it’s the foundation for much of Western Culture. Saying the Classical World was one of the pillars supporting our culture does not in itself, assume cultural supremacy, only that our culture had a rich history, like many other cultures in the world. For civilizations that dominated the lands all around the Mediterranean, it would be quite a shock if they didn’t have immense influence far and wide!

Eidolon however, is not swayed:

When you hear someone —be they a student, a colleague, or an amateur — say that they are interested in Classics because of “the Greek miracle” or because Classics is “the foundation of Western civilization and culture,” challenge that viewpoint respectfully but forcefully. Engage them on their assumed definitions of “foundation,” “Western,” “civilization,” and “culture.” Point out that such ideas are a slippery slope to white supremacy. Seek better reasons for studying Classics. (Eidolon, How to be A Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor)

All I have in response to that is why? Why is it bad to be interested in classical studies because it is the foundation of our culture? And why is it a “slippery slope to white supremacy” exactly? They don’t elaborate on why exactly, that point of view is wrong either, in most of their articles. Are they saying too, that there’s no such thing as Western Culture either? That, unfortunately, they don’t address, just imply. They go further to state this in conclusion:

It is time for Classics as a discipline to say to these men: we will not give you more fodder for your ludicrous theory that white men are morally and intellectually superior to all other races and genders. We do not support your myopic vision of “Western Civilization.” Your version of antiquity is shallow, poorly contextualized, and unnuanced. When you use the classics to support your hateful ideas, we will push back by exposing just how weak your understanding is, how much you have invested in something about which you know so little. (Eidolon, How to be A Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor)

They claim to be addressing the radical white supremacy cohort, which in that context, I totally agree with what is being said. I too of course, do not stand for cultural supremacy of any kind, nor the twisting and oversimplification of history for propaganda. However, the idea alone that asserting Classical civilizations are a foundational part of Western culture supports the “ludicrous theory that white men are morally and intellectually superior to all other races and genders” does not hold up in objective scholarship. As historians, we aren’t here to make judgments about any of this. Sure, some biased people may be invested in one interpretation of how our culture came to be, or some assertion of supremacy based on biased propaganda of their making, but that should in no way hold all of Classical Studies hostage and afraid to acknowledge the greatness of Ancient Greece and Rome and the cultural legacy they left behind for us.

No, we are not the direct cultural descendants of Ancient Greece and Rome. We are not merely an extension of the Roman empire here in the United States, we do have our own culture formed by our own peoples, and so does Europe as well. We have many different values, customs, attitudes, and traditions apart from Greco-roman influence. The Ancient Mediterranean was not “whitewashed” by any means and had influences from many places, it wasn’t any one homogeneous picture like many do think either. However, the evidence is clear they laid the bedrock on which we could build our own culture, our own identities, rooted in the core ideas they gave us. I think that quite a fine reason to study Classics! :) What have the Romans (And Greeks) ever done for us? Help build who we are today…

This sounds a lot like the critics of the idea that Ancient Greece and Rome were foundational to Western Culture…. ;)

Posted in Ancient History, Issues in History, Opinion Piece | Leave a comment

Helping Make History More Interesting: Mary Beard and Joyce Reynolds

As a huge history buff and passionate about the study of history and related disciplines, like linguistics, comparative religion, archaeology, anthropology etc., it is inspiring and immensely fascinating to learn more about prominent scholars in various fields. I’ve covered some scholars, like Douglas Owsley in the past, but have not as of late, covered many of the inspiring scholars I’ve come across and read about. However, I’ve discovered two famous scholars of classical studies who were very interesting to learn about.

The first one, is Mary Beard, a classicist from England. She teaches classics at Cambridge in England and has been in the field since at least 1979 when she started off lecturing at King’s College in London, and at Cambridge since 1984. Beard earned her PhD 1982. What is notable about her, is that in England, she is highly popular by lay people as well Image result for mary beardas scholars. She has been described as an intellectual and serious scholar, but also laid back and approachable, often more unconventional than the stiffer culture of academia. She has also written on other subjects, such as feminism in her book Women in Power, which was influenced by her experiences with sexism within her discipline. Her research interests are mostly around Ancient Rome, and her dissertation is entitled The State Religion in the Late Roman Republic: A Study Based on the Works of Cicero. Beard is also known better to the general public for appearances on documentaries about Ancient Rome by BBC. These got more notoriety when some viewers criticized her in the documentary, attacking her personally and her looks, but Beard stoically chalked it up to sexist men being threatened by an intelligent woman. While Beard said she did not like to hear such harsh things, she has not backed down from addressing her critics head on. Indeed, she became immersed in a twitter firestorm over the thesis that immigration caused the downfall of the Roman Empire, comparing it to immigration today in Britain. Beard said that was incorrect, which led to much criticism, but remarkably, was able to sit down to lunch with her opponent in the debate Aaron Banks, saying people ought to be able to do this, even when they have a spirited disagreement. Beard’s scholarship was summed up by fellow scholar Clifford Ando in two points:

  • she insists that ancient sources be understood as documentation of the attitudes, context and beliefs of their authors, not as reliable sources for the events they address
  • she argues that modern histories of Rome be contextualized within the attitudes, world views and purposes of their authors. (Wikipedia)

My impression of Mary Beard is of a serious objective scholar, but also approachable outside the ridged culture of academia. She has had much influence, at least in Britain, of making the classics more accessible to lay people, not just academia. However, the most notable thing that makes her inspiring in my mind is her objectivity and fearlessness in tackling controversial and emotional topics in a level headed scholarly way. A notable example was when she published an article detailing her views on 9/11, where she said one should objectively also try to understand the side of the terrorists as well in why they did it. Beard did not condone 9/11, but called for an objective analysis of the motives, and believed the US “had it coming” in light of her understanding of their motives. Beard got major backlash for these views, as the topic is so emotionally charged, but she stood her ground in solid scholarship and objectivity.

Still, it is these precise qualities that can, equally, land her in deep water. The point of her notorious 9/11 article was that one could simultaneously deplore the terrorists’ murderous violence, and try to understand their position. After the deluge of angry emails arrived, she tried to reply to most of them, even making a couple of friends along the way. When I asked her if she would countenance taking Isis’s ideology seriously, she said: “That’s the wrong question. There is no argument that I won’t take seriously. Thinking through how you look to your enemies is helpful. That doesn’t mean that your ideology is wrong and theirs is right, but maybe you have to recognise that they have one – and that it may be logically coherent. Which may be uncomfortable.” (The Guardian)

Beard also showed some surprising views and objectivity about one of her old teachers, who would now be unacceptably sexist. To her, she prefers some of the old school traits, even if there is a component of sexism.

One of my own undergraduate teachers, Geoffrey Woodhead, died. He had been a charming misogynist of the old school, who had vehemently opposed the admission of women into his college. I had taken a very dim view of this at the time.Thirty years on, I think I prefer an old-fashioned out and out misogynist, to the crypto-variety that now stalks the Senior Combination Rooms of Cambridge in left-wing disguise. At least you know where you are with the out and out sort.

Whatever his views, Woodhead had to teach a mixed group of us how to study Greek inscriptions. It was only a couple of weeks into the course that I saw how the misogyny found its expression. When it came to the time when he would ask the class questions, the women of the group were always given very simple ones, often with a house-keeping theme. “What would you do when you first found an inscription Miss Beard?”  “Clean it, Mr Woodhead”, was the right answer. The blokes, on the other hand, got really tough googlies. “Could you compare the letter forms of IG 1.2, 4098 with SEG …whatever.” (The Times Literary Supplement)

Overall, Beard is a fascinating scholar to read more about, and definitely helps make history more interesting! This article, The Cult of Mary Beard, really captures her uniqueness and excellence!

There isn’t much competition for Mary Beard in her field, but there is one other incredibly inspiring extraordinary scholar who was in fact, Beard’s mentor: Joyce Reynolds. Right off the bat, Reynolds is amazing due to her sheer age! She is currently 99 Image result for joyce reynolds classicistand has been working in academia late into her nineties, and I haven’t heard yet she’s stopped! Joyce Reynolds was born in 1918 also in England. Reynolds earned a degree in classical studies in 1944. She never got a PhD, but was later given an honorary PhD. It’s incredible she is still alive, as of now, and still in academia! Many of her students, like Mary Beard have gone onto fruitful careers and many are senior scholars in the field. Reynolds started her career in 1951 at Newham College and went to Cambridge and lectured there from 1957-1983. She was elected to the Fellowship of the British Academy in 1982. Her research interest was mainly Roman epigraphy. Her story of how that came about was another scholar published her research ideas first, but luckily, her supervisor needed help in epigraphy!

After a civil service job during the Second World War, she planned to continue there – only to fail the entrance exam, a so-called ‘intelligence test’. “It was depressing,” she recalled. “I took my time over each question, but in fact you have to go like the clappers. Nobody told me this, so I was giving each answer due consideration and I ran out of time.” Instead she took up a research scholarship and headed to post-war Rome, to find that a French researcher had just published an important article on the very subject that she had planned to work on. Fortunately, her supervisor needed help with some inscriptions from his excavations – and the rest was history. (Newham College)

Reynolds’ most prominent work was deciphering inscriptions in Aphrodisias, and her former student Mary Beard noted it was influential in how scholars viewed Ancient Rome.

Her most influential work has been on the inscriptions from the Greco-Roman city of Aphrodisias in modern Turkey. There an extraordinary series of official documents, and letters between the Aphrodisians and high ranking Romans, has been discovered, inscribed and preserved on a wall in the city’s theatre for all to see (now known, for obvious reasons, as the ‘Archive Wall). Reynolds deciphered these, no mean feat in itself, but in a classic volume Aphrodisias and Rome (1982), she explored the importance of these documents for big historical questions about Roman government and the relations between the imperial center and the provinces. (Newham College)

Joyce Reynolds is an inspiration in her scholarship, and the amazing fact she has continued her love of learning and academics into her late nineties, a feat most of us will not live to do, or cannot do! Reynolds is inspiration that a fruitful career can be a lifetime full of purpose and fulfillment.

Both of these amazing scholars inspire me in the study of classics, and history in general!

Image result for joyce reynolds classicist class picture

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology, Helping Make History More Interesting | Leave a comment

Two Ways to Say It: Diglossia in Ancient Greek and Latin

In English here in the US we have several regional colloquial dialects of English, but for official matters like school, news reports, non fiction books, magazines etc. there is a standard English being used for official public everyday life. However, in many other countries and languages, there is a more dramatic contrast between the colloquial every day speech and official speech. A commonly cited example is in Arabic speaking countries, there’s one’s regional dialect, but also standard Arabic, as taught in schools and heard in official news. Everyone knows both to get by, but one is reserved for everyday private life, and the other for official things. It is said many regional dialects are unintelligible with the standard official version. German has it to an extent too, with High German being the official language of Germany and the one you are taught in school, but there are other dialects like Low German, which Germany decided you need a translator for official things if you only understand that version as the two are very different. When languages used in different contexts in society are apart enough to be nearly two separate languages, or are two separate languages for private vs. official functions, they call it “diglossia”.

In antiquity, they also had instances of a diglossia. In the Roman Empire, Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire for official functions, like monuments, literature, and government. However, the local populace, like in the provenances spoke their own native languages amongst themselves, or foreigners living in predominantly Latin speaking parts like slaves and others could “code switch” between their own language for their family and friends, and Latin for everyone else who wasn’t in their group. There’s a really fascinating article on that about Greek speakers in Ancient Rome called Greek and Latin Bilingualism Beyond The Upper Class in The Ancient Roman Principate  in Anthro Journal by Michael Paravati. While Greek was the language of learning, like Latin was in the West, the article explores how it was used by the lower classes, like Greek slaves and other Greek speaking peoples in Rome. Interestingly, there were enough Greek speakers for it to create a sort of bilingual atmosphere, with inscriptions on some monuments being in Latin and Greek, and some evidence reflected in comic plays mocking slaves speaking Greek and them tag switching their native phrases into speaking Latin! However, the article argues Greek still had the subordinate role and Latin was still number one on the social hierarchy. I guess when the Romans spoke Greek they’re educated, but if a native Greek speaker speaks it they’re lower class. Sort of reminds me of the dynamics going on in the US with English and Spanish. While not a diglossia, you’re well-educated if you can be bilingual and speak Spanish, just not if you actually speak it as your native tongue! It’s only “smart” if you’re the outsider in the dominant social group… Latin also had the diglossia of Classical Latin for official things, and Vulgar Latin for everyday life as well among native Romans. Unfortunately we know less about Vulgar Latin as many writers did not see it as fit to use in literature, but our modern day romance languages are based off Vulgar Latin.

A very interesting instance of diglossia in the ancient world is in ancient Greek too. Attic Greek was the traditional classical Greek for learned people, and much of the intelligent literature was written in Attic Greek. However, change started to happen with Alexander the Great conquering much of the world, and introducing a common “koine” dialect for everyday speech. This evolved into the Koine Greek of the Bible and everyday life in Greek speaking parts. Koine was simpler grammatically than Attic Greek, and had some different vocabulary, and dropped the ancient Greek pitch accent to a modern stress accent.

As early as in the Hellenistic period, there was a tendency towards a state of diglossia between the Attic literary language and the constantly developing vernacular Koiné. By late antiquity, the gap had become impossible to ignore. In the Byzantine era, written Greek manifested itself in a whole spectrum of divergent registers, all of which were consciously archaic in comparison with the contemporary spoken vernacular, but in different degrees.

They ranged from a moderately archaic style employed for most every-day writing and based mostly on the written Koiné of the Bible and early Christian literature, to a highly artificial learned style, employed by authors with higher literary ambitions and closely imitating the model of classical Attic, in continuation of the movement of Atticism in late antiquity. At the same time, the spoken vernacular language developed on the basis of earlier spoken Koiné, and reached a stage that in many ways resembles present-day Modern Greek in terms of grammar and phonology by the turn of the first millennium AD. (Wikipedia)

Older scholars however, decried what they saw as the degradation of the Greek language into a more slang like form, sort of like what grammar purists of English think of colloquial slang in English today. They wanted to keep Attic Greek as the only “proper” form of Greek in sophisticate literature and even a revival in everyday speech of the older forms of Greek. Some of these “Atticists”  even wrote down some linguistic pet peeves of theirs!

Information can also be derived from some Atticist scholars of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, who, in order to fight the evolution of the language, published works which compared the “correct” Attic against the “wrong” Koine by citing examples. For example, Phrynichus Arabius during the second century AD wrote:

Βασίλισσα οὐδεὶς τῶν Ἀρχαίων εἶπεν, ἀλλὰ βασίλεια ἢ βασιλίς.
Basilissa (queen) none of the Ancients said, but basileia (queen) or basilis (queen).

Διωρία ἐσχάτως ἀδόκιμον, ἀντ’ αὐτοῦ δὲ προθεσμίαν ἐρεῖς.
Dioria (deadline) is extremely disreputable, instead you will say prothesmia (appointed time).

Πάντοτε μὴ λέγε, ἀλλὰ ἑκάστοτε καὶ διὰ παντός.
Do not say pantote (always), but hekastote (every time) and dia pantos (continually).


Indeed, Koine Greek wasn’t given much value in its own right until the early 19th century, as it was seen as a degraded inconsequential form of Greek as opposed to the scholarly Attic Greek. Luckily now though, more people are studying the vernacular in its own right to get a better glimpse of what everyday life was like for the average person.

Overall, it is fascinating to research how Latin and Greek was used in society, with the two different forms for official vs. everyday, or even bilingual in the Roman Empire, but Greek being subordinate to Latin. Part of studying history is to discover how everyday people spoke and lived as well as the great historical figures and authors. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find more detailed information than the very basics for the most part, as the vulgar forms weren’t always available since they weren’t deemed worthy of writing down at the time, and I couldn’t find much research on the growing diglossia between Attic and Koine Greek. I hope more research is done in this area as historians begin to see the value of the colloquial language of everyday life in history.

Related image

-“Whatever happened to speaking proper Greek, young man?!”

-“You’re so old fashioned, dad! You sound like you’re one of these boring scrolls I read in school…”


Posted in Ancient History, Linguistics and History | Leave a comment

Lost in Translation: The Importance of Cultural Context

I have made the point before that cultural context matters when trying to ascribe meaning to something someone from a distant time period or foreign culture has to say. Cultural context refers to what something means in the particular culture being studied. For example, some ritual they do, or tradition by itself might seem meaningless or silly to an outsider, but have deep significance to those within that culture. An opinion that seems arbitrary or illogical to an outsider’s perspective may reflect a different worldview in where such an opinion makes perfect sense. Taken out of their proper context within a culture, anything like rituals, values, opinions, concepts etc… may seem meaningless or misunderstood. Cultural context helps the historian have a much richer appreciation for what they are studying, as they can try to see what it was supposed to mean to an insider, rather than just looking in from the outside. Since every culture has their own worldviews, traditions, values etc… it is a very easy mistake to make to interpret another culture’s message through the eyes of your own culture, not theirs.

While the most obvious cultural misunderstandings happen around customs, traditions, values etc…, there is one particular aspect that is much more overlooked. In anyone’s culture, there are certain things that are so ingrained, that we take for granted and don’t even think of them as cultural, but universal to everyone. These often are abstract concepts in our own worldviews. I never thought of this before either, actually, as for me too, things seem so obvious it is almost alien to think others think differently and still are making any sense. For example, in Western culture, and my own worldview, what makes sense is governed by rules of logic and reasoning. In this worldview, there are truths and untruths, and what is true must be based on evidence that we can somehow sense or figure out, or through rules of logic. It is more analytical and ridged in the way that I found out other cultures do not think in such terms. To them, their worldview is more fluid, how they determine what is in their world to us might seem arbitrary by our standards, but they have a different outlook. Even in the past, most people thought in a different way than we do now. Our worldview in the West has become “scientific” in how it’s grounded in logic and evidence, perhaps only recently once the scientific revolution took place and science as we know it got more prominence in our culture. Even a smaller concept than trying to determine the rules of the cosmos we can easily take for granted.

For example, the concept of time, how it functions seems so obvious to us, but to another culture it is different. Western culture views time as a linear process, heading away from the past, towards the future. Other cultures though, had a cyclical view of time, like in many past agrarian societies the seasons would govern their lives and be on a cycle. For those people, that made sense, as they lived season to season on an agricultural cycle, than an industrial culture in which the cycles of the seasons became irrelevant and one could count the years ever moving forward. The agricultural society however, couldn’t care less about whether it’s been a decade or a century, their crops depended on the repeating cycles of the seasons. Time seems like such an absolute, I mean. Everyone experiences it, and to us, it seems logical to view time as linear; past, present, future…, but even though everyone is aware of time, how it is interpreted can vary.

This creates problems for the historian trying to view a message through the eyes of the culture at the time. We may think we know what they mean when they talk about some concept like “to create” in John Walton’s example in his analysis of Genesis, but they might take the meaning of creating something as different from ours conception of what it is to create something. This is especially tricky for people wanting to get meaning out of religious texts to live by or use as official doctrine. It is not enough to simply feel like you could translate a text and then know what the ancient really meant when they wrote it. You could theoretically weed out all the grammatical and semantic ambiguities, know where the word is used most often, and what it meant in our language, but without the cultural context in the picture too, we still see the meaning through our eyes, not theirs. Another example of this importance of cultural context comes from another author, Dr. Orville Jenkins in his article Time or Character, The Ages or A Time Sequence in aionios How Words “Mean” in Greek and English . He is an anthropological linguist, and has worked with other cultures. He gave a great example involving the Greek word aionios, which is translated to mean “eternal” or “everlasting”. Jenkins disagrees with this, as he argues that those words in our culture in English connotate a worldview the Greeks at the time did not have.

The word in English “everlasting” assumes a context of time sequence and measurement, which the word “aionios/aionion” (of the Ages) does not.  The word everlasting indicates a starting point and moving towards what would be an ending point, but without a real ending point.  That is, the focus seems to still be on sequence.

The English word “eternal” further carries an abstract metaphysical connotation not seemingly in focus in ancient dynamic worldviews. The influence of Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish neo-Platonist of the 1st century, was influential in that direction in later European thought.

He goes on the argue the Ancient Greeks at the time did not have those views in their conception of time, or what they meant in the context of what they were trying to say was going to happen the New Testament.

The Greek word, and the messianic idea it attempts to represent, are focused on condition or character, not time or length of time.  In focus is a new age that is different from the current age, in kind and quality.  The focus is not on how long in terms of time sequence. The Greeks, as well as all the ancient peoples, were dynamic and relational in their understanding of the world, even the “philosophical” thinkers.  We call those cultures concrete-relational, or oral-relational.  Modern literacy and the resultant way of thinking analytically since the Enlightenment has affected the actual way people think. The western Rationalist approach to knowledge, reducing matters down to components and analyzing them by linear deduction, has led to a high focus on time sequence and cause and effect by “independent” actors, rather than the connected, relational concepts of reality dominant in the rest of the modern world and universal in ancient human cultures.

That means the ideas of “everlasting” or “eternal” in English have a time-sequence meaning you cannot get away from.  This is just not involved in the Greek (really Hebrew) idea of a New Age. The Greek word in its own context likewise does not carry any connotation of focus on time sequence, but on a period of time as a unit, very like the common words most used to translate it, “age,” “of the age.”

This would present a major misunderstanding for those trying to interpret what will happen according to the New Testament, as a Westerner with a more time-oriented view would misunderstand what the Ancient Greek writer really meant a “New Age” was supposed to be. The concept of the “New Age” as linearly time oriented like in our Western worldview would be illogical and incorrect for a culture with a more relational worldview like the Ancient Greeks. Knowing that leads to a much better understanding. Who knows though too, the Greek translator might have misinterpreted the original Hebrew or Aramaic word through an Ancient Greek cultural lens rather than the original!

Jenkins makes a great point too, in general, that words “mean” only what they mean within a culture’s worldview, not in our own. Greek words mean what they mean within Greek culture, not American culture for instance! One can try to find the nearest functional equivalent, but no word in a foreign language means exactly the same concept as in your own language and culture. I will add even if a word is translated accurately into a word we already have, what that word means to the other culture an be completely different!

The linguistic understanding of meaning is that the meaning of any word or phrase in a language depends on the worldview, the cultural context of the people using that language.  No word in any language means a word in another language.  Put another way, no word in one language is equivalent to a word in any other language.  Or no word in any language can be defined by any word in another language.

Words have meaning only in their cultural worldview context.  And a word can make sense only in the context and structures of its own language.  Meaning is culture-sensitive.  This is simply what we know about how human language works. Most of the classic lexicons or dictionaries don’t give you a meaning of the Greek word.  Most simplistically reference how that word has been translated into English!  So we still don’t know what it MEANT in GREEK!  In the Mediterranean 1st-Century socio-cultural setting!

Jenkins’ article really highlights the importance of cultural context on interpreting what historical people have to say. Without the original cultural context, even with it being perfectly translated grammar-wise and semantically, the message is still “lost in translation”!


Different worldviews, different conclusions…

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology, Helping Make History More Interesting, Linguistics and History, Opinion Piece | 4 Comments

Athenaze: An Introduction to Ancient Greek

You may have noticed that some of my more recent posts have to do with Ancient Greece and the classical world. I have become more interested in that time period again, only instead of the Romans like last year, currently I’m more focused on Ancient Greece and 30429349_779969788866953_261389237_nthe ancient Greek Language. I’ve been trying to learn some of the language, and the alphabet. Although the complex grammar of Ancient Greek is a bit over my head right now, the alphabet itself is less challenging than I thought to try to learn! The best I can do now is try to sound out words I see, sort of like first learning how to read. There are some resources online to learn Ancient Greek, but are less common than Latin and mare more technical much faster than other resources on languages like Latin and German. Therefore, I thought that getting a textbook would be a better start to trying to learn more. I wanted one like the Cambridge Latin Course or Ecce Romani, with simple vocabulary and sentences with illustrations of the ancient world. Unfortunately, there are far fewer textbooks of Ancient Greek with such things. However, I did find one called Athenaze, by Maurice Balme and Gilbert Lawall that did have some images of Ancient Greeks in the style of the time period as well as simple stories and vocab. I prefer line drawings like in the Cambridge Latin Course, but it’s still good and feels authentic. Similar to the Cambridge Latin Course and Ecce Romani, Athenaze tells a story with characters to follow. getting increasingly complex as you go along. The story centers around an Ancient Athenian who lives on a farm with his family named Dicaeopolis, translated roughly as “just city”, which is supposed to mean something along the lines of  “honest citizen”.

So far, the textbook overall is what I was hoping for. The illustrations are nice, and like I said, authentic to the time period of Ancient Greece. The simple stories are in large readable font and the vocab lists help one learn. Unfortunately, it is trickier to judge 30772221_779959862201279_692771164_osome aspects since it is definitely more in depth from earlier on than the Latin textbooks, and the grammar is explained less clearly and simply than the Latin textbooks as well. I would say my biggest criticisms of Athenaze is that it spends too little time going over the absolute fundamentals, like exercises on the Greek alphabet, expecting mastery after a few pages going over sounds, and explaining basic grammar before jumping into things, like aorists and other more obscure grammar points. The grammar is definitely too fast paced and the Latin textbooks take it in smaller more comprehensible steps for the beginner. Also, the book does not give pronunciation for the vocab words to make sure they are pronounced correctly. Even though this book is for beginners, it is more appropriate for students with at least a year of Ancient Greek in a classroom. Being self taught, this textbook is challenging and more geared towards a classroom setting with a knowledgeable teacher. Overall, I am pleased with the illustrations and short stories, and the fact they have samples of Ancient Greek from classical sources and Biblical sources, as the New Testament was originally in Greek, and the Septuagint, also in Greek, is the Old Testament. It really shows the range of where and how the language was used. For an absolute beginner for the most part, like myself, I’ve discovered my pace is better met with resources for young children learning Ancient Greek!  Luckily, there are resources to teach young children and are slower paced and don’t dive right into a ton of very technical grammar! It also helps with alphabet practice! Here’s some free pages I found from one source! Hey, Andrew! Teach  Me Some Greek!

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A last point to mention is that this textbook teaches Attic Greek, the Ancient Greek most classicists use and was spoken around Ancient Athens. Attic Greek is more grammatically complex than Koine Greek, the “common” Greek after Alexander conquered many parts of the Hellenistic world. The Biblical sources were written in Koine Greek, not Attic Greek. Some resources, mostly religious in nature due to this fact, teach Koine Greek. The advantage of Attic Greek though is I’ve heard once you can read Attic Greek, you can understand Koine Greek.

I would say that Athenaze is an okay textbook for a class or highly motivated individuals that catch on quickly. The drawings are what I like best, and trying to follow along with the short stories.  The grammar is a bit too complex too soon in the learning process, but the book feels authentic with the period stories and illustrations. Would recommend as a supplement for learning Ancient Greek on one’s own, or for someone with more familiarity with the language. Overall though, very fascinating textbook for a very interesting language :)



Here are some resources I found helpful online!

Ancient Greek Words & Phrases with Audio

Bill Mounce YouTube Channel

Ancient Greek Phonology

Useful Ancient Greek phrases

Posted in Ancient History, Helping Make History More Interesting, Linguistics and History, Reviews | 6 Comments

“They Have Risen!”

Jesus wasn’t the only god who died and rose again in the springtime! The theme of “Dying and Rising” gods was common in agricultural societies where naturally, the deities would follow the cycle of growth in the spring and summer, and the “death” of the nature in wintertime. While not all dying and rising god stories follow the same themes and events as the story of Jesus, the thing they all have in common is the deity dies by some means, but comes back to life.

Dying and Rising Gods


(Left to right: Thor, Mithras, Jesus, Dionysus, and Osiris)

Posted in Ancient History, Holidays, Religion | Leave a comment