Easing the frustration of Greek: Part 1

In Greek III class yesterday morning, several students made clear their frustration with the language.  For me, frustration and Greek go hand in hand, occasionally reaching the point where I wonder why I bother with it at all.  Studying Greek is something I do for fun—why should I entertain myself with something so frustrating?  Greek has become, in the words of Sophocles, a λυττῶν καὶ ἄγριος δεσπότης, a raging and savage master.

If people say Greek is frustrating, we have to ask why.  In their book Who Killed Homer, Hanson and Heath say:

Greek, however, comes at a price.  The ancient Greek verb has over 350 forms…The would-be Greek student must absorb the myriad rules of verb formation, the addition of vowel prefixes, reduplication of letters, vowel contractions, infixes, and suffixes.  Only with mastery of these action words do you realize that such arcane statutes are often broken:  the Greek verb is, in short, a mess.  It is never tamed or even bridled.

In Empires of the Word, Nicholas Ostler tell us:

The language that so united the known world…over all these centuries, was a complex organism that made few concessions, if any, to foreign learners.

And Edith Hamilton says in The Greek Way:

Greek is a very subtle language, full of delicately modifying words, capable of the finest distinctions of meaning.  Years of study are needed to read it even tolerably.

In short, Greek appears frustrating because it is frustrating.  Reading it requires committing a massive number of forms and complex rules to memory, learning a large vocabulary of words with multiple definitions, and, when the rote is over, understanding a mind-boggling syntax with incredibly fluid word order.  For the beginner, the most frustrating of these elements is usually the forms.  How can I be expected to keep so many forms straight?  How is it even possible?

Rote is inevitable, in any language, and the pain of memorization is unfortunately a necessary one.  But in this series of posts, I hope to ease the frustration a little bit by presenting some of the “tricks” that I have learned to cut down on the pain just a bit.  I’d like to start with the most intimidating element of Greek:  the verb.

Unlike Latin, where most forms consist of endings slapped on the back of words, in Greek words seem to mutate beyond recognition.  For example:  the word θοῦ which is the aorist imperative middle of τίθημι.  The typical beginning Greek student will pull his hair out in frustration over forms like that.  How could I possibly know θοῦ is derived from τίθημι??!?

If there is one piece of advice I would offer Greek students struggling with forms, it’s this:  Read Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek.  After I finished Rali’s Attic Greek II course (for the first time) in 2003, I went through Mounce and it was eye-opening.  BBG would be a terrible first Greek book because it focuses almost entirely on morphology while excluding syntax, but his information on morphology is priceless, and it applies to any dialect of ancient Greek.

Here is one of his best pieces of advice (emphasis in original):

If you assume that the present tense stem is the base form of the verb and all other tenses are derived from it, you will become confused and potentially discouraged since this approach forces you to memorize hundreds of “irregular” forms.  However, if you learn that the different tense stems are formed from the verbal root and not the present tense stem, memorization and frustration can be kept to a minimum.

This is the key to learning Greek verbs.  Figure out the root, and then figure out how it changes in the various principal parts. As Mounce says, the root is not the present tense stem.  The present tense stem is a modified form of the root.  If you’re a Greek student, go look up the principal parts for the following examples and try to determine what happens to the root.

The root of λείπω is not λειπ-. It’s λιπ-.  The root of βάλλω is βαλ-, not βαλλ-.  The root of λαμβάνω is λαβ-, not λαμβ-.  And the root of τίθημι is θε- (or its longer cousin, θη-), and emphatically not τιθη-.  Each of these roots undergoes modification to form the present tense stem, which is ironically an irregular form!  For example, the root λαβ- gains a nasal infix to become λαμβ-.  No, a nasal infix is not something you get at the otolaryngologist, but a mu or nu inserted into the middle of (infix, as opposed to prefix or suffix) the root.

Back to θοῦ.  How does one recognize this form?  First of all, the -ou ending with the circumflex looks a lot like a contraction—this tells you the root is probably θε- or maybe θο-.  If you know your roots, θε- should immediately make you think of τίθημι.  (Again, if you don’t know your roots, θε- will immediately make you think of…nothing.)  You do have to know your endings, and if you do you will remember that οῦ (uncontracted –εσο) is the ending for the imperative middle/passive.

My advice is this:  For every verb you learn, don’t just memorize the six principle parts.  Figure out the root, and how the root changes in each tense stem, and why.  The more verbs you look at, the clearer the rules will become to you.  I highly recommend Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek and Morphology of Biblical Greek, even if you are studying Attic.  He lists the principle parts of major verbs with detailed footnotes on why they do what they do.  If you do this instead of just memorizing the principle parts, you’ll have a lot less frustration learning Greek.


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