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The Greek Dialects: Where to Start

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The Greek Dialects: Where to Start

Postby annis » Fri Jan 07, 2005 10:18 pm

Before you can answer the question "which Greek dialect should I study first" you need to know the answer to "what do I want to read in Greek." Unless you're studying at a school, where you're unlikely to have a choice in the matter, your intended reading matter determines the best plan of study.

If you're going to read only the NT and related Koine works, then you should probably study Koine.

If you plan to read <i>any other Greek</i> at all, I strongly recommend starting with Homeric. All later literature references Homer to some degree. Even if you plan to read only philosophy, the Greek philosophers like to quote Homer, too.

That's the very short answer to the question.

For a fuller discussion about all the literary dialects of Greek, please see Greek Dialects: Where to Start? There I discuss in more detail the pros and cons of the possible starting places, and also touch on some of the obscurer literary dialects you might run across.
William S. Annis — http://www.aoidoi.org/http://www.scholiastae.org/
τίς πατέρ' αἰνήσει εἰ μὴ κακοδαίμονες υἱοί;
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Re: The Greek Dialects: Where to Start

Postby Hylander » Sat Jan 30, 2016 3:22 pm

The previous post suggests that, leaving aside those who want to read New Testament Greek exclusively, everyone should start with Homeric Greek, even if their main interest is philosophical Greek. I think this idea is utterly misguided and wrong-headed. It's much easier to pick up Homeric Greek after learning Attic Greek than the other way around.

A large part of the difficulty in learning Attic Greek lies in mastering the complex syntax. Homeric syntax is much simpler. You're better off learning Attic syntax first and then picking up Homeric Greek, especially if your ultimate aim is to read philosophical Greek and other Greek prose. If you learn Homeric Greek first, basically you almost have to start all over again from the beginning to learn Attic Greek.

The difficulties of Homeric Greek, in contrast, lie in the morphology, and to a lesser extent, the vocabulary. The Homeric poems exhibit a large array of forms and words drawn from several dialects--in many cases, there are alternative forms of the same words from different dialects to fit different metrical slots. It's easier to pick up and recognize the proliferating forms against the stable (more or less) normative background of Attic Greek, than to try to assimilate all of the alternatives at the beginning stage of your studies. And, while it takes some effort at first, once you get going with Homer, the strange forms and vocabulary shouldn't pose as much of a problem as they seem to at first if you have the normative background of Attic Greek at your disposal.

Homeric phonology is not too different from Attic. The most salient difference is η after ε, ι, and ρ (Homeric) instead of α (Attic).

In sum, unless your sole interest in learning ancient Greek is to read the Homeric (and you should bear in mind that as you proceed in your studies, your aims may evolve once you've read the Homeric poems), you're better off, in my opinion, starting with Attic.

I should add, however, that "Homeric Greek" is something of a misnomer. In general, all Greek hexameter and elegy from the archaic period down to Quintus Smyrnaeus and Nonnus in late antiquity was de rigueur written in the "Homeric" language. (The exception: in the Hellenistic era, Callimachus and Theocritus wrote hexameter poetry in a literary Doric language.) So Homeric Greek will give you access to a larger body of poetry than is implied by the adjective "Homeric." But dramatic dialogue is written in Attic and dramatic choruses are written in a lightly Doricized version of Attic, so if you're interested in reading tragedy and comedy, you need Attic.

As for the other literary dialects--Ionic (very close to Attic), Doric and Aeolic (a very limited corpus consisting of largely fragmentary poems)--once you have Attic down, these won't present much of a problem. (The emphasis is on "literary"; actual spoken dialects, as evidenced by local inscriptions, diverged much more sharply from one another and from literary Attic.) Anyone who wants to read the full range of ancient Greek literature has to be prepared to encounter an array of dialects, but with the normative background of Attic, they shouldn't have too much trouble with other dialects.
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Re: The Greek Dialects: Where to Start

Postby seneca2008 » Sat Jan 30, 2016 3:35 pm

I absolutely agree with Hylander. The only possible reason for learning "homeric" greek first is the syntactical simplicity but that is outweighed by the complexity of the morphology. I also think the vocabulary is much more complex. One encounters many more words in Homer where it is evident that even in antiquity readers didnt really understand the text.

I wonder whether the idea of starting with Homer sprang from in modern times? I wonder if its a feature of 19th century American classical education?
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Re: The Greek Dialects: Where to Start

Postby swtwentyman » Sat Jan 30, 2016 4:07 pm

seneca2008 wrote:I wonder whether the idea of starting with Homer sprang from in modern times? I wonder if its a feature of 19th century American classical education?


I'm rereading Pharr's introduction to his Homeric Greek: A Book For Beginners and he claims to have originated the idea in modern times (this is sometime around the turn of the century), which he claims was widely the method of the Romans, with anecdotes of its having been tried or used by others "now and then"..He says that many students find Xenophon boring and Homer more interesting, and that the latter is much greater literature and a cornerstone of Hellenic literary culture.

"If on the other hand we begin with Homer and obtain a good grounding in his language, the transition from that to later Greek is simple and natural and in accordance with well-established laws, so that a student who once gets a grasp of the processes involved not only has acquired a valuable scientific point of view, but he might be untrue enough to the traditions of countless students of the past to find Greek grammar interesting."

He contends that the Homeric forms are actually fewer than those in Attic and more straightforward. "The 'regular' declensions of such words as polis, basileus, naus, pekhus, astu, comparatives in -ion, and other forms which wull readily occur to any one who has studied Attic Greek, are so complicated that they are not ordinarily mastered by students of beginning Greek, and it would be rather remarkable if they were." (Hmm, I didn't have too much trouble with them). There are few or no contractions, which cause a great deal of trouble to beginners, in Homeric (I've needed to review -ao verbs a few times). Long and involved passages in indirect discourse never occur (this gave me some trouble in beginning Latin). It takes as much vocabulary to read the first four books of the Anabasis as it does the first six books of the Iliad. Words are closer to their primitive meanings in Homer. Xenophon was anti-Athenian which showed in his debased Attic.

Homer is a better prepearation for Greek drama, Hesiod, and the elegaic and iambic poets than is Xenophon, and in the other authors the difference is but slight. Many students drop out without having read both Homer and Xenophon so we may as well give them the greater literature (this seems to me somewhat dubious to say the least). Homer and Hesiod are key to the Greek religion and reflects what the Church fathers were up against in NT times.

That's about what I can glean from it.
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Re: The Greek Dialects: Where to Start

Postby seneca2008 » Sun Jan 31, 2016 5:01 pm

I think we should beware taking what Pharr says on trust. As you can see from this article http://www.jstor.org/stable/3288087?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents a review published in 1921 at least one reviewer had doubts about his statistical claims on the complexity of Homeric vocabulary compared to Attic. The reviewer also notes that Xenophon is not the only alternative to Homer as an introduction to Greek. I am sure there must be much more recent scholarly work on this. Clearly the authors of Reading Greek and Athenaze and other modern teaching methods were not convinced that an approach solely through Homer was a good model to follow.

Homer and Hesiod are key to the Greek religion and reflects what the Church fathers were up against in NT times.


I assume this is a paraphrase of Pharr. I think its too simplistic (as a thesis not a paraphrase). The idea that there is something called "Greek Religion" which can be deduced from a text is perhaps to be expected from someone brought up in a christian culture.

The important thing is to start learning Greek and keep reading and learning!
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Re: The Greek Dialects: Where to Start

Postby swtwentyman » Fri Feb 05, 2016 11:23 pm

Yeah, the Pharr was a paraphrase of his line of reasoning. No endorsement is implied.
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