For unfortunates like me who know little Latin and less Greek, Andrea Marcolongo offers a brisk, bracing wake-up call. Characterising ancient Greek as "concise, explosive, ironic, open-ended", Marcolongo expects us to digest her book, learn the alphabet appended at the back, then be shamed into studying the language.
Marcolongo takes no linguistic prisoners. She first elaborates Greek notions of time ("more how than when") before dragging readers through mechanical aspects of word stems, the function of a passive aorist and a separate chapter on "sounds, aspects, breathing". Greek cases are portrayed as "an orderly anarchy of words". An agglutinative language is categorised, and shades of desire in the volitive oplative appraised.
This dense immersion technique might seem both pedantic and didactic. Moreover, Marcolongo describes at some length not only her struggles with Greek but her annoyance at being given a boy's name.
Although Marcolongo claims her book is "neither descriptive nor prescriptive", the text can certainly be bossy. To leaven the mix, Marcolongo does include boxes of information (on dilution of ancient Greek wine, for instance, or onomatopeia) and a bizarre interlude set in a shady Piraeus market at night-time.
Nine Epic Reasons to Love Greek might link only obliquely to grammar and syntax. Those reasons would be called Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristophanes and Aristotle. Like many addicted readers, I sigh at the lack of many a thing I sought, but particularly my being obliged to read Greek (and Russian) classics through the charcoal sketches of translations rather than enjoying the oil painting originals. Penguin Classics - shelves of battered, beloved friends - have gone some way to filling gaps in my linguistic skills.
Marcolongo maintains that "coming to understand ancient Greek is like learning how to live your life". So, too, surely is learning any language, let alone a tough one with a distinctive alphabet and odd script, one like Chinese or Arabic.
Similarly, she contends that Greek poetry "contains all there is to know about the intensity of human experience". Might we not make the same claim for Shakespeare, Dante or Goethe?
"Wisdom comes alone through suffering" (Aeschylus) and we should "always desire to learn something useful" (Sophocles).
Even in translation, those two classic Greek dramatists might suggest a more accessible, less cluttered approach to ancient Greek than Marcolongo's delving into structure, roots and inflections.
- The Ingenious Language: Nine Epic Reasons to Love Greek, by Andrea Marcolongo. Europa. $15.95.