Greek! (The Ingenious Language)

Where do I begin when I try to describe this marvelous book?

If you look at the cover (see image at the bottom of this post), you’ll see that the full title of this book is The Ingenious Language: Nine Epic Reasons to Love Greek, and that the author is Andrea Marcolongo, and that the all-important translator is… oh, no, the publisher chose to omit translator Will Schutt from the cover! Tsk, tsk!

What makes the translator so important? Well, I’m getting ahead of myself there. I’ll come back to him at the end of this post, which is divided into four parts: first I’m going to give my review, supported by several quotations from the book; next I’m going to recommend that you read every word of Mary Norris’s review in The New Yorker; then I’ll say something about my own background in relation to this book; and finally we’ll talk about translation and the effects of learning ancient Greek.

In case it isn’t clear — and I suppose there’s absolutely no reason to suspect that it would be — Marcolongo is writing about ancient Greek, not modern. So maybe you’re wondering whether you are the intended audience. The answer is yes:

Coming to understand Greek is like learning how to live your life: not a question of talent but of determination.

I have written these pages because I fell in love with Greek when I was a young girl…. Now that I am a grown woman, I would like to try to kindle… the romance in those who fell out of love with it… I’d even like to make sparks fly in those who have no previous knowledge of the language. This book is about love: love for a language and, more importantly, for those who study it either because they are forced to or because they find themselves irresistibly drawn to it.

It does not matter if you know ancient Greek or not. There are no exams or pop quizzes attached to this book, though there are surprises. Lots of them.

Yes, indeed there are surprises. And you don’t even need to know the Greek alphabet, although there are extra rewards for those who do, starting with the beautiful clarity of the Greek font chosen for the book:

Along the way, you’ll learn a lot about the amazing characteristics of the ancient Greek language, a bit about the people who spoke it, and even something about the Italian educational system! Here’s one of the Big Ideas about the Greek language:

No particular order is used to express a syntactical function: every Greek word that we read is found where it is — and not elsewhere — because the author intended it that way. The purpose of its position totally depends on the individual authors and their choice is totally unrepeatable.

If you’ve been taught Latin incorrectly, you may think that this description applies to Latin as well, but it doesn’t. That, however, is a matter for another day.

Another Big Idea that you’ll learn from Marcolongo is the difference between aspect and tense. Unless you’ve studied Russian you’ve probably never even heard of aspect, but those two lines I showed above come from a discussion of the aspect/tense issue. No space to go into that here, but maybe we’ll get to it in another post. Or just read The Ingenious Language and you’ll be rewarded with an understanding of what aspect is, why it is important, and what it tells you about thinking in Greek.

I mentioned above that you should “read every word of Mary Norris’s review [of The Ingenious Language] in The New Yorker.” You may recall my enthusiastic review of Mary Norris’s Greek to Me just over a year ago, where I nominated that book for best book of the year, so it seems only fitting that for this year’s best book of the year I should nominate a book that Norris had in turn reviewed. In any case, if this post doesn’t convince you, maybe the New Yorker review will.

I also promised to say something about the relevance of my own background. When I was in what would now be called middle school, my parents and I decided that I needed a high school experience that would be intellectually more stimulating than Newark Academy (and geographically more contained, as none of my friends lived within walking distance). That’s how I ended up at Phillips Academy Andover. But before I settled on that choice, I had to evaluate other possibilities, and the deciding criterion was that I could study ancient Greek at Andover. I already loved Latin, and I badly wanted to expand into Greek. I ended up taking six years of it and still sometimes read bits of Plato or Homer in the original. My years of high-school Greek were super-intense and I loved that experience, even if I disagreed with some of the pedagogy. Fortunately my classes were small (3–8 depending on the year), and my teachers — Dr A, Dr C, and Dr G — were scholarly. I still remember a great deal about what they taught me nearly 60 years ago, and I oddly remember some things that they probably did not intend to teach me. Dr G, who was very British (though he was actually American) and had done all his undergraduate and graduate work in Britain, had this odd exception to Andover’s general rule that we had to keep our ties and jackets on during every class: he let us remove our jackets, but only in the winter and only if he kept the windows open! Builds character, you know. I also learned Latin from Mr M, Dr C again, and Dr G again, but I don’t have anything to say about that here. What I do need to say is that three of Dr C’s pronouncements have stuck in my mind ever since:

  • We have to learn the accent marks (see the Greek excerpt above for a bunch of examples showing acute, grave, and circumflex accents, not to mention “smooth breathings”) for each word, even though they almost never distinguish one word from another. Why? Because “Greek has been taught that way for a thousand years,” that’s why. Fortunately Marcolongo gives a better explanation.
  • The truth about FDR’s crimes will come out once Eleanor dies. Well, she died around Thanksgiving time in my sophomore year, and no new truths emerged. Oh well. After she died, Dr C told us repeatedly that they will come out soon. Sigh.
  • When translating, one has to translate every single word in the Greek, even though Greek doesn’t work like English. As Marcolongo ably explains, Greek has lots of little “particles” that serve a function similar to punctuation, and if you slavishly translate every one of them (as Dr C insisted) you get monstrosities like “For on the one hand indeed we truly think…’

Speaking of translation, let’s conclude with some of Marcolongo’s thoughts about it, as well as my thoughts about this particular translation of The Ingenious Language from Italian to English. Actually I’ve written about the art of translation before, but not of course in this context. Marcolongo writes:

To carry the signified over the barrier of the signifier— that is the main purpose of translation, no matter what the language. A translation will never be the same as the original work; it is a path toward that work’s original meaning. The result is an uncanny encounter, like bumping into a stranger who is somehow immediately familiar… When we translate, we inch toward the meaning of a language that is and always will be different from our own. Translation is a journey toward a language with particular qualities, qualities that make it special, which we cannot sense because we lack the language skills to do so, and therefore must translate, must light out for other places — and other ways of saying them.

In the second paragraph above, near the top of this piece, I mentioned Will Schutt, the invisible translator. He is invisible not just because his name is omitted from the cover but also because the reader is hardly ever made conscious of the fact that this book wasn’t written in English! There is, however, one hitch: often Marcolongo compares some feature of Greek with the corresponding feature in Italian or English, and I can’t help wondering what the original (Italian) version said. When she compares some Greek verb form to the “equivalent” in English, did she actually use English (which would be odd to the original Italian reader) to did she use Italian, helpfully translated into English by Schutt? Unless I dig up the Italian version, I will never know. But the recursive nature of reading a part of a translation where the very topic being discussed is translation begins to boggle the mind.

In conclusion, what is the effect of studying ancient Greek? Not very many Americans do that — the College Board has even eliminated the Greek AP exam — another sigh — but I’ve run into two groups of people who have done so. The first group is obvious: classics teachers. Curiously, though, the second group is a subset of computer programmers. A truly surprising number of the computer programmers I’ve worked with have taken Greek courses in college, and sometimes even in high school. Why? Well, let’s just see what Marcolongo says:

I can often recognize those who have studied the classics — and not just by the bifocals they wear. I can recognize them by the way they speak and write: the tell-tale signs that Greek has crept into their way of seeing and describing the world and never left. Besides a depth of vocabulary — inevitable after spending five years studying word after word after beautiful word — and a certain penchant for hypotaxis — for complicated discourse composed of long subordinate clauses — some habit of Greek speech not only survive but live on in those who have studied Greek.

And finally there is

the demand for coherent argument. It is extremely unlikely that those who have made every effort to keep up with Plato’s ironclad logical deductions will be fooled by a manipulative piece of journalism, a politician’s self-contradictory speech, an unsolicited opinion on Facebook, or assembly instructions from IKEA.


Categories: Books, Linguistics