hi markos, i'd be interested to hear your thoughts on why some sentences are hard to process. i wrote some thoughts on this a while ago here (viewtopic.php?t=11778
), i think each person can test practically what aspect of the language makes them stall (it will quite possibly be different for you and for me and for others, as i said there...)
Yes, Chad, I had read your post with interest back when you wrote it, even at that time struggling with how to figure out what makes a given Greek sentence so hard to process, and what can be done to develop skills to improve this. Let's get right to an example. Here is the first sentence from the Anabasis that I failed to process.
Xenophon, Anabasis 1:4,7 wrote:
καὶ Ξενίας ὁ Ἀρκὰς στρατηγὸς καὶ Πασίων ὁ Μεγαρεὺς ἐμβάντες εἰς πλοῖον καὶ τὰ πλείστου ἄξια ἐνθέμενοι ἀπέπλευσαν, ὡς μὲν τοῖς πλείστοις ἐδόκουν φιλοτιμηθέντες ὅτι τοὺς στρατιώτας αὐτῶν τοὺς παρὰ Κλέαρχον ἀπελθόντας ὡς ἀπιόντας εἰς τὴν Ἑλλάδα πάλιν καὶ οὐ πρὸς βασιλέα εἴα Κῦρος τὸν Κλέαρχον ἔχειν.
Now, when I say "fail to process," I don't mean that there is a word or two, or even a phrase or two, that I don't quite get, but that the overall structure of the sentence eludes me, that I cannot break it down because I can't figure out what goes with what. I cannot even find the main verb(s). I wonder, first off, how many other people on the list would fail to process this sentence. (or, at least the second part of it.) We probably cannot get anywhere, if, as you suggest, each of us find different sentences difficult for different reasons. But I would think that this is a good example of a sentence that would give any but the most advanced learners trouble, and I think that there are elements in sentence processing that are equally challenging to most learners.
So, what makes this sentence so hard? Look at it again, try to figure out why you cannot figure it out.
Here are my thoughts. First of all, it is too damn long! It is a compound sentence, and the first half (up until ἀπέπλευσαν) is not too hard, but after that there are just too many clauses and sub clauses and after a while your English brain, hard-wired for shorter and simpler sentences, stops processing, and understanding breaks down. Secondly, as often happens when reading Greek history, it is hard to keep track of all the people mentioned, who is a Greek and who is a Persian and who is enemy to whom. Here there are five parties involved:
1. Xenias and Pasion
2. the former soldiers of Xenias and Pasion
5. The King of Persia
The background information, mentioned earlier in the chapter, is that Clearchus PRETENDED he was going to stop marching against the King, and at that point some of Xenias' and Pasion's men went over to Clearchus because they THOUGHT that he (Clearchus) would take them back to Greece. Clearchus wound up continuing the march against the King, and Cyrus, rather than punishing the soldiers or at least forcing them to go back to Xenias and Pasion, allowed them to stay with Clearchus. The reader of the Anabasis presumably had all these details straight and so, the issue of the difficulty of the Greek aside, already knew what the sentence meant, and therefore had a much easier time processing it. This does raise one of the points that Chad made in his thread. He said that among the difficulties of reading Greek are the three P's, particles, pronouns and prepositions. I disagree that particles present much of a problem; you can pretty much ignore them and you will still get the BASIC meaning of a sentence. But in this case I agree that the pronoun in τοὺς στρατιώτας αὐτῶν is part of the problem because it is so far removed from Xenias and Pasion that one loses track of the fact that it is their (former!) soldiers that are referenced. Prepositions, I think, don't usually cause much of a problem, but in this case I again agree with Chad. πρὸς βασιλέα adds to the overall confusion of keeping everyone straight because it was not clear (at least to me) whether we are talking about going TO the King or going AGAINST the King.
Some more things that make this (and most difficult Greek sentences) difficult:
1. Whether to take verbs as transitive or intransitive. There is the general rule that active endings mark transitiveness while middle/passive mark intransitiveness, but there are so many exceptions, each verb having its own semantic dynamic, that it is easy to get confused. Here ἐμβάντες is intransitive though active and ἐνθέμενοι is transitive though middle. φιλοτιμηθέντες is passive in form but stative in meaning. None of these things are that tough in themselves, but, in combination with all the other difficulties, they contribute to the failure to process.
2. What governs the oblique cases. Here you have a genitive πλείστου and a dative τοῖς πλείστοις that take a bit of effort to figure out what they go with.
3. The word ὡς. ὡς has to be one of the toughest Greek words, since it can mean so many things and is used in so many constructions. Here the first instance means basically "because" and the second instance is used with a participle marking the presumed intention of a an action. Again, not that hard in isolation, but when piled upon each other and added to the other difficulties, your brain stops working.
4. An unfamiliar form of a verb. Here εἴα is in fact the main verb of the second part of the sentence, the key, really to processing the sentence. But the imperfect of an alpha contract form with a vocalic augment is just not as familiar a verbal form as we would want. To me, βλέπει LOOKS like a verb. ἐτίμα looks less like a verb. εἴα does not look like a verb at all.
5. Infinitive constructions. Infinitive constructions can be easy if the word order is simple, but in this case the subject accusative τὸν Κλέαρχον is far separated from the object accusative τοὺς στρατιώτας.
I'll stop here for now. I've been thinking about this for a while, and I think there are common problems that occur in difficult sentences. And I totally agree with Daivid that what happens in the failure to process is the piling up of these difficulties to the point that the brain just gives up.
Now, the bigger problem is what can be done to help people fail to process less. I have two ideas. One would be to take sentences like these and produce multiple versions with the each successive difficulty leveled out while the rest of the sentence remains unadapted. The second idea would be to use the basic syntactic structure of this sentence but replace all the words with very familiar vocab and forms and concepts. I will create a separate thread in the composition section once I get a collection of several sentences well suited for this purpose and will try out this method. Any further ideas until then will be appreciated.