Why should you study Ancient Greek?

Τὴν ἀρχαίαν Ἑλληνικὴν γλῶτταν δι’ ἃς αἰτίας μανθάνῃς;

Why should you study the Ancient Greek language?

In this little article, I wish to bring forth the reasons for my having begun learning Ancient Greek. The article that was previously available under this address has been completely re-written as it had been written by me in a hurry. I had, at the time, just begun learning the language and was making adjustments to my website to accommodate the change from Ancient Egyptian to Ancient Greek and I, therefore, wanted to simply add as much content onto here as I could; and, as a result of my doing so, aforesaid content was of a rather low quality which did not have a lot of effort put into it. Thus, as a means of improving the quality of content on this page, I am now re-writing what I have already written, adding numerous things which I did not mention in the previous article.

On (not) communicating

Before we begin our discussion — or, rather, my monologue — regarding my learning Ancient Greek, I find that it would, perchance, be interesting to first begin glancing at a few of the motives behind normal peoples’ learning of languages. The quotation marks have been placed there not for the reason of my wishing to place myself in any way outside other language learners; but, rather, for my wanting to set myself apart, at least concerning my learning of Ancient Greek, from those people — which encompass the majority of language learners — who learn a language as a means of communicating with a larger group of people in said peoples’ native language. I, too, have learnt several languages over the years in order to gain the ability of being able to talk to people in their native language which, in turn, also allows you to more fully learn about their culture.

People who learn languages that are no longer natively spoken by anyone, however, obviously must have other goals in mind, for it would be impossible for them to speak directly to native speakers — though I do not doubt that students of ancient languages would squander the opportunity to speak with a native speaker of their language of choice — so their role in communicating with native speakers takes a passive, rather than active, approach. Whereas someone learning, for example, French has the ability, and often also desire, to speak to native speakers — to, for instance, improve one’s speaking ability and, thereby, the spontaneous construction of a sentence —, this ability is unavailble the students of ancient languages. We are therefore required to content with reading — and, by extent, also listening — to the words which were spoken by people hundreds upon hundreds of years ago or to read those writings by other students. The aforementioned requirement of improving one’s ability to spontaneously construct a sentence whilst speaking to someone and deciphering the incoming answer at a reasonable pace are, therefore, not important matters to ancient language learners.

Plato with students of his in the Academy (1st cenutry BC, Roman mosaic).wikimedia

What these things imply should thus — in my mind, at least — be obvious. If not, however, it is firstly imperative to grasp the fact that, because of the above-mentioned differences due to the lack of native speakers of ancient languages, not only do the approaches of learning a modern and ancient language differ significantly; but that, secondly, these languages are often learnt by two different types of people. An out-going person who loves speaking to other people — on, for example, the street or at a bar — in their native language would not want to put in the effort of learning an ancient language unless they had the ability of either time-travel or resurrection; neither would a more introverted person, who barely manages to build up enough courage to speak to people in his native language, want to learn a second language simply to have the ability to talk to more people.

The differences in approaches to learning these two types of languages spring from the fact that those learning an alive language have the ability to seek feedback from a large pool of people (how large, exactly, this pool is obviously depends on the language being learnt — in some cases it might be more akin to a puddle); that they have a large amount of both auditory and visual media available to them from the country / countries in which the language is natively spoken; and, lastly, that opportunities to practice the language in action are plentiful (once more, however, dependend on the exact language being learnt). Learners of ancient languages have neither — well, sort of.

Some ancient languages, first and foremost Latin, appear to have seen somewhat of a revival and there are now a significant number of people who speak the language at a near-native level; but this is, unfortunately, not the case with the majority of ancient languages, amongst which is Greek. Greek appears to be the language most people know beside Latin, and it tends to be the one they have less experience in and that they do not speak as well. Why exactly this is the case is, unfortunately, beyond my understanding; but I do know that it is a most unfortunate circumstance.

Learners of the Greek language must, therefore, content themselves with different resources, the majority of which being various (graded) readers of actual authors of Ancient Greek literature.

The Joy of Reading

Reading, for many, has become a chore which is better avoided and which one would never catch oneself doing voluntarily. Even those of a more academic background appear to have no desire whatsoever to pick up a book in their free-time as a means of enjoyment and learning — this, at least, is the case with the majority of university students that I know. It may, thus, come as a surprise that one of the main reasons for my learning Ancient Greek is to obtain the ability to be able to read texts written thousands of years ago. This, once more, comes down to the topic of the two different types of language learners which I have already alluded to above; some people, generally those — though, of course, not exclusively — who are more introverted, tend to enjoy spending time on their own and to them, therefore, reading as a means of spending their free-time is a viable option (though access to the Internet and the various options of entertainment that are thereby unlocked have reduced this number significantly, I would argue).

19th-century depiction of the Library of Alexandria.wikimedia

Returning, somewhat at least, to the topic of communication, I find that I should add that finding a suitable person to practice a living language with has always been a task I found rather difficult. Most people appear to stop speaking to you after a short while or their answers are of such low effort that writing with them is a chore rather than an enjoyable experience. I, thus, found myself practicing my language skills passively rather than actively, which means that I mostly spent my time learning the language by consuming media — printed or otherwise —, instead of actually communicating to people. It, therefore, occurred to me that I might gain more by learning an ancient language, as the majority of my learning was spent reading texts rather than actually speaking to people.

This in addition to the fact that reading is — to me — an enjoyable experience which allows me to calm down and talk to people without having the need to actually do it, means that learning an ancient language really seemed to be my best option. But why do I enjoy reading? When you read texts, you often hear the writers’ voices and the voices of the characters being described in the story in your own head — though I have heard that a certain group of people lack the ability to hear voices within their own head when reading or even thinking. If you then apply this hearing of voices to reading texts which were written even before our current method of date-keeping sprang into existence — based, of course, upon the birth of Jesus —, you feel as if these ancient peoples have, once more — albeit merely in your own mind — risen to life, speaking to you about their experiences. I truly find that, although we have yet to master time-travel (and especially the much more difficult backward time-travel, if one is to believe Einstein), the closest you can come to travelling back in time and speaking to the ancients is by reading their words in the language they spoke.

Reading a translated text, even if it is merely prose rather than the much more difficult to translate poetry, never feels the same as reading the original version; for the ancients were not able to read English, it did not even exist — at least as it does now. By reading the unaltered* original, you are reading the exact same text which was read by those who lived at the time of its being finished — you are, by extension, hearing the voices of those people whose voices have, technically, been silenced by their death for hundreds upon hundreds of years.


Thus, in short, I am learning Ancient Greek to have the ability of being able to read texts which were written thousands of years ago in their original tongue so as to hear the ancients talk to me and have them, at least in my mind, resurrected. As someone who is not the most out-going of people and who, when learning modern languages, tends to simply consume media in said language instead of speaking to people, I found I would gain much more by learning an ancient language. Ancient Greece has always interested me more than Ancient Rome (I am unsure why) and my choice was, therefore, not a difficult one.