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Getting started with Greek -- general advice

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Getting started with Greek -- general advice

Postby egbert » Fri Jul 26, 2013 8:11 pm

I'm flirting with the idea of getting started with Homeric Greek.

I have good knowledge of modern Russian and a smattering of Latin that still sort of works for simple tasks. So case and participles and some syntax that's rather unlike English are okay with me, not too scary.

However, I kind of have no idea how to get started, or what a reasonable course of self-study would be. I'd like to read Homer (and any number of others) in Greek and I'd also like to know "the grammar" cold, so I want to make sure I have a solid foundation.

If anyone thinks these are reasonable goals, would you care to share any advice about possible pitfalls and ways to work on this? Just do every single thing in Pharr's book and then move on to an edition of the Iliad? What do you all think?

I appreciate any type or amount of advice. Thanks!
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Re: Getting started with Greek -- general advice

Postby Qimmik » Wed Jul 31, 2013 12:24 pm

I'm not familiar with Pharr's book, but others seem to find it useful.

One difficulty in the Homeric poems you should be aware of is that they exhibit a sometimes bewildering proliferation of grammatical forms and vocabulary--they're written in a mixture of several dialects from different stages of the language, and the verb system (if it can be called a "system" and not a "hodgepodge") is particularly challenging. On the other hand, the syntax is less complicated than that of some later Greek authors such as Plato, Thucydides and Demosthenes.

In schools, students usually learn Attic Greek and then proceed to Homer at the end of the second semester after reading some relatively easy Attic Greek such as Plato's Apology (at least that was my experience). If you do it the other way around, you'll have to learn a fair amount of new material when you turn to Attic and other authors; on the other hand, proceeding from a basic knowledge of Attic Greek to the Homeric poems isn't that difficult. (In my view, the advice offered under the heading "The Greek Dialects: Where to Start" in the "Learning Greek" forum to the effect that those who are interested in reading philosophical Greek or Attic prose should start with Homer is perversely misleading.) And to my knowledge, there's no textbook that is designed to introduce Attic Greek to someone already familiar with Homeric Greek, although there are plenty of introductions to Homeric Greek for those who have studied Attic Greek.

However, if your interest is Homer and Homer is what is drawing you to the study of Greek, by all means start with Homeric Greek.

Once you've worked through Pharr, Benner's Selections from the Iliad is a good text to start reading with even though it's quite old--it includes most of the key passages of the Iliad, and explains vocabulary at the foot of the page. It's available new in a reprint, but apparently (from the "reviews" on Amazon) the reproduction is not clear--you would probably do better finding a used copy of an older printing. Once you make your escape from Pharr and start reading on your own, you'll want to equip yourself with Cunliffe's Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect , which is available in a reasonably priced reprint and is indispensable. (It's also available on-line--maybe you can work with the on-line version; I can't). Good, relatively recent, and reasonably priced commentaries on the Iliad and the Odyssey by Willcock and Standford, respectively, are available in reprints or second-hand.

You also may want to do some reading about the origins of the Homeric poems, their background in a tradition of oral, composed-in-performance poetry, compositional techniques such as ring composition and formulas, Greek history and prehistory, the material culture depicted in the poems (which is not necessarily either that of Mycenaean Greece--the era in which the Trojan was is supposed to have taken place--or that of the era when the Homeric poems were composed 500 or more years later), maybe even the evolution of the Greek language, etc. There are many conflicting theories about the composition of the poems and very little evidence to back them up. So read skeptically.

Much that was written before 1930 is not informed by the oral theory, which is the essential framework for contemporary ideas about the origins of the poems, although there is a wide range of disagreement within that framework. But Jasper Griffin's Homer on Life and Death--to my mind the best book about the meaning of the Iliad--completely ignores it.

Make sure you master the dactylic hexameter (the poetic meter). It's not as difficult as it seems at first. Once know the rules (but there are many irregularities), mark the scansion of a hundred or so lines of verse, five or ten verses at a time, until it becomes second nature. Read aloud and when you read silently, try to hear the poetry in your head; don't obsess over getting the pronunciation exactly right--no one really knows precisely how Homeric verse was pronounced.

Hope this helps.
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Re: Getting started with Greek -- general advice

Postby wmlee » Mon Sep 09, 2013 7:54 pm

egbert, thanks for starting a current thread on this, and Qimmik, thanks for your thoughtful and detailed reply. I'll search the historical threads, but it's good to have a fresh one.

I've also just started out on Homer using the Pharr textbook. I really like using it but of course don't know yet if I'll like the results. (I have studied Attic Greek, but so long ago, I'm just about starting from scratch.)

The Brenner book is (freely) available on line at archive.org. The "read online" and PDF versions look perfectly legible at a glance.

The Pharr text is also at archive.org, [and here of course: Even Homer says "d'oh!"] but I ordered a revised print copy from Real World Books, very cheap, and free postage, which means a lot if you're far from the source.

What do people think of the two-volume Reading Course in Homeric Greek by Schoder and Horrigan? It's not public domain in the US, but used print versions aren't too expensive.
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Re: Getting started with Greek -- general advice

Postby Markos » Tue Sep 10, 2013 9:22 pm

wmlee wrote:What do people think of the two-volume Reading Course in Homeric Greek by Schoder and Horrigan? It's not public domain in the US, but used print versions aren't too expensive.


It's very good.

I feel that I will never read Homer well enough to surpass the experience of reading in translation, but every translation is unsatisfactory--as translators are the first to point out--so I hope that familiarity with the original will deepen my appreciation of translations and enable me to work out alternatives when they seem necessary.


I can't, in good conscience, recommend Homer in English. In Greek I cannot recommend him enough.
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