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On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

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On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby atticusg » Wed Jan 21, 2009 2:56 am

Hello everyone! I have just a simple question about Greek. As of late I have encountered much bewilderingly passionate praise of this enigmatic and (at least I am led to believe) most expressive of languages... for those who may be perhaps ignorant of this aforementioned praise, examples include ""I would make them all (English boys) learn English: then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honor, and Greek as a treat" Winston Churchill, "Learn Greek, it is the language of wisdom" George Bernard Shaw, "“If it is true that the violin is the most perfect of musical instruments, then Greek is the violin of human thought” Helen Keller. Most bold of all, is that Voltaire dubbed Greek "le plus beau langage de l’univers"*--not just the best language in Europe, not in the World, but in the UNIVERSE :mrgreen:

There are many more such praises that I have found, but indeed they are too many to list here. My question is, finally, what is so majestic about this language? What is it about Greek that has made all these noble men and women of intellect gush so fervently? Can anyone elaborate on the reasons some of these intellectuals have given (such as, what Voltaire said in his Dictionnaire Philosophique, about Greek being full of vowels and compounds and so on)? Thank you all for your time and patience. :)
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby vir litterarum » Wed Jan 21, 2009 3:18 am

The pitch accent in terms of euphony is what distinguishes Greek from almost every modern language. Instead of stressing syllables as the Romans did and English does now, the Greeks raised and lowered the pitch of their voices on certain syllables, endowing the language with a musical quality. Poetry and prose rhythm are based on the succession of long and short syllables, which is a much more flexible system than one based on accent, for it is near impossible in a system based on accent to have a succession of five or six unstressed syllables, but in Greek a succession of five or six short or long syllables is much more easily achievable, allowing Greek poetry and prose to have much more flexibility in terms of meter.

Flexibility is a thorny issue. Some would say that Greek has a free word order, while others would say that it is more structured, but based on logical and pragmatic determinants instead of syntactic ones (See especially the work of Prof. Helma Dik, who happens to be a member of this forum).

Greek shares with German a proclivity for forming compound words. If you are interested in Greek pronunciation, see Vox Graeca by Sidney Allen.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby thesaurus » Wed Jan 21, 2009 6:07 am

I would suggest that Westerners have celebrated by proxy the language that produced the works of philosophy, literature, and science that they already enjoyed and venerated. As you know, other people have made similar statements about a wide variety of languages throughout history, so 'degree of beauty' is not something quantifiable. Think of how people talk about their lovers. What would once have been defects are soon transformed into testaments of supreme beauty, etc. In other words, idealize the Greeks and you will idealize their language.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Swth\r » Wed Jan 21, 2009 11:28 am

Beyond inherent linguistic parameters, I think it is the content of ancient greek texts that has made people of all times to amaze greek litterature... The language itself is of course of great beauty, as also of dialectical - genre differentiation; furthermore, its historical evolution is apparent through a lot of sources; and all those things make greek one of the most interesting languages to learn or study. But cultural achievements of ancient greek civilization are perhaps the reason in the most prominent position for learning greek (philosophy, theater, democracy, history, poetry, architecture-sculptury-pottery... etc...). As a modern Greek myself, I am not perhaps in the position to express objectively the reason why someone may wish to learn ancient greek (not for academic reasons). I suppose loss of (morphological) case in a lot of modern languages (e.g. english, french, italian, spanish...) make a lot of people admire the structure of ancient languages, including latin, from which many modern languages are evoluted or influenced by any lingusitic aspect.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby savarez » Fri Jan 23, 2009 9:24 pm

vir litterarum wrote:The pitch accent in terms of euphony is what distinguishes Greek from almost every modern language.


While I agree that the pitch or musical accentuation of Ancient Greek makes it distinctive in the Indo-European branch of world languages, nearly all modern languages in the Sino-TIbetan language group, spoken by nearly one third of the population of the planet, use pitch accents.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger said: "Greek language and it alone is logos."

I often wonder if Heidegger is right, that there is something inherent in the Ancient Greek's conception of language that make it somehow better suited for discussion of phenomenology. The purpose of language is to help us grasp the phenomenon of the world. If we take it that language itself is a phenomenon, that is, it possesses it's own "being", which is necessarily different than the "being" of the phenomenon language describes, Heidegger seems to contend that the Greek language is somehow inherently closer to the "being" of the phenomenon than other modern languages.

Modern philosophers often argue whether language evolves to name an existing reality, or whether it influences our conception of reality itself.

So, perhaps, from a philosophical point of view, Greek gives us a vocabulary for the expression of phenomenon that is unique.

Heidegger thought so.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Lex » Fri Jan 23, 2009 10:42 pm

savarez wrote:
vir litterarum wrote:The pitch accent in terms of euphony is what distinguishes Greek from almost every modern language.


While I agree that the pitch or musical accentuation of Ancient Greek makes it distinctive in the Indo-European branch of world languages, nearly all modern languages in the Sino-TIbetan language group, spoken by nearly one third of the population of the planet, use pitch accents.


Isn't Swedish a pitch-accented language? And I've always thought that Swedish sounded kinda silly. I think the supposed euphony of languages is purely subjective.

savarez wrote:The philosopher Martin Heidegger said: "Greek language and it alone is logos."


Wow. It's just another language; it's not magic. I think that people claim that they think Greek is the most beautiful language because they think that is what they are expected to think. The original poster quoted Churchill. From what I've read, Churchill got lousy marks in Latin, much less Greek, so how would he know? It's like the Bible and Shakespeare; lots of people have them on their bookshelves, but few people read them.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Essorant » Sat Jan 24, 2009 1:07 am

Well, if languages were women, Greek would certainly be a best bride to win. She has some of the best experience and examples of art, wisdom, and politics, but not only that she has a very melodious voice and even a very pleasant appearance to the sight. Who may ask for better?
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby easternugget » Sat Jan 24, 2009 4:57 pm

If only Greek was a woman...I might actually have a chance :D

Though I am glad English isn't a woman. Boy, she would be UGLY! :shock:
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Lex » Sat Jan 24, 2009 6:05 pm

easternugget wrote:Though I am glad English isn't a woman. Boy, she would be UGLY! :shock:


Hey, don't blaspheme now! We're talking about the language of Shakespeare and the King James bible here!
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby annis » Sat Jan 24, 2009 6:39 pm

atticusg wrote: Most bold of all, is that Voltaire dubbed Greek "le plus beau langage de l’univers"*--not just the best language in Europe, not in the World, but in the UNIVERSE


This is just so much mystification. It seems to me Greek comes in for this for a few reasons.

  1. As others have said, because of the quality of the Greek material that has come to us.
  2. Because we don't understand it well. There are still particles, say, and some facets of the verb system, which still defy consensus analysis. Anyplace there's a lack of knowledge, people tend to fill it with their own fantasies. See the oddball theories around Sumerian for an especially clear example.
  3. Because as we read the texts come to us slowly. When I was first starting to read Homer with something like pleasure, I noticed that sometimes the intensity of the mental images I was getting was much stronger than I get in my daily reading in English. I mean, some hero chopping off some other guy's arm was pretty visceral to me, more so than reading the same text in English would be, or even than I get now with more Greek under my belt. Because we have to focus so closely on the texts we read — because our command of these languages is still imperfect — it makes the texts seem more powerful.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Amadeus » Sun Jan 25, 2009 5:33 pm

vir litterarum wrote:The pitch accent in terms of euphony is what distinguishes Greek from almost every modern language.


That might be true, but isn't the pitch accent of Ancient Greek something of recent (re)discovery? I doubt Voltaire and Churchill knew anything about it.

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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby annis » Sun Jan 25, 2009 6:56 pm

Amadeus wrote:That might be true, but isn't the pitch accent of Ancient Greek something of recent (re)discovery? I doubt Voltaire and Churchill knew anything about it.


Voltaire might have known about it — the ancient grammarians certainly discussed it. I'm not sure when people started to dig into the details and attempt to reproduce it, though.

Churchill was probably still of a generation that pronounced Greek and Latin according to the rules of English spelling and pronunciation. Notice how the particles are rendered as names in this: A particular Dialogue (from 1959).
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Essorant » Mon Jan 26, 2009 1:01 am

English would be a likeness to Scylla or Charybdis, that was originally a beautiful nymph, but, alas, eventually turned into a monster!
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Lex » Mon Jan 26, 2009 4:55 pm

Essorant wrote:English would be a likeness to Scylla or Charybdis, that was originally a beautiful nymph, but, alas, eventually turned into a monster!


Nonsense. A language like English is like a violin; it can be used to make the most beautiful music, or horrific screeching sounds. It all depends on who plays it.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby easternugget » Mon Jan 26, 2009 8:26 pm

Nonsense. A language like English is like a violin; it can be used to make the most beautiful music, or horrific screeching sounds. It all depends on who plays it.


True, too bad most users of English (myself included) are more apt to take their violin and smash it against the ground. :D Actually, I will admit I am fine with English. I just like Greek better!
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Lex » Mon Jan 26, 2009 10:23 pm

easternugget wrote:Actually, I will admit I am fine with English. I just like Greek better!


I'm no Shakespeare, but I do have one thing in common with him; he had little Latin and less Greek, I have little Greek and less Latin. :wink: And I must admit that I prefer the language I feel most confortable with and fluent in, which for me definitely means English.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby easternugget » Mon Jan 26, 2009 11:13 pm

Lex wrote:And I must admit that I prefer the language I feel most confortable with and fluent in, which for me definitely means English.


I think because I am most comfortable and fluent in English, I see only the flaws and miss any of its own beauty. Because I am not as comfortable with Greek, I see how it fills up the features that English is lacking, and I view those as beauty. Maybe....or maybe because I am so comfortable with English, I feel like I can make fun of it. It is fun to make fun of it. Maybe both.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby annis » Tue Jan 27, 2009 2:50 am

Lex wrote:Nonsense. A language like English is like a violin; it can be used to make the most beautiful music, or horrific screeching sounds. It all depends on who plays it.


Hear, hear!
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Essorant » Tue Jan 27, 2009 6:26 am

I agree. But I think that is more generally true for all languages, rather than special to English itself.

(I would also change "It all depends on who plays it." to "it depends on the skill/manners of who plays it". As long as you play it with good skill it shall play well, regardless of who you are.)
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Lex » Tue Jan 27, 2009 7:05 pm

Essorant wrote:I agree. But I think that is more generally true for all languages, rather than special to English itself.

(I would also change "It all depends on who plays it." to "it depends on the skill/manners of who plays it". As long as you play it with good skill it shall play well, regardless of who you are.)


Your first statement is appropriately PC, but I'm not sure one way or the other whether it's true. It's possible that some "primitive" languages do not have the ... richness ... that makes the eloquence and nuance possible that is possible with English. Most modern languages that have a respectable literature, though, sure.

As for the second statement, I agree completely. That was what I was going for.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby thesaurus » Wed Jan 28, 2009 4:06 am

Lex wrote:Your first statement is appropriately PC, but I'm not sure one way or the other whether it's true. It's possible that some "primitive" languages do not have the ... richness ... that makes the eloquence and nuance possible that is possible with English. Most modern languages that have a respectable literature, though, sure.

As for the second statement, I agree completely. That was what I was going for.


I've never heard linguists say anything except that all languages are inherently capable of the same expression. A language adapts to the requirements of its users, so if they're in the mood to philosophize or write poetry, they'll fashion their words appropriately.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Lex » Wed Jan 28, 2009 4:35 pm

thesaurus wrote:I've never heard linguists say anything except that all languages are inherently capable of the same expression. A language adapts to the requirements of its users, so if they're in the mood to philosophize or write poetry, they'll fashion their words appropriately.


Even though I've argued that the Greek language isn't magic, I cannot believe that some languages are not in a real sense more or less primitive than others. As you know, English is a river fed by many streams; Anglo-Saxon, Middle French, Latin, Greek. This wealth of resources is what gives it its power and subtlety. Some languages are more like streams than rivers; they don't have as many resources. As Saul Bellow said, "Where is the Proust of Papua? When the Zulus have a Tolstoy, we will read him."
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby thesaurus » Wed Jan 28, 2009 5:27 pm

Lex wrote:
thesaurus wrote:I've never heard linguists say anything except that all languages are inherently capable of the same expression. A language adapts to the requirements of its users, so if they're in the mood to philosophize or write poetry, they'll fashion their words appropriately.


Even though I've argued that the Greek language isn't magic, I cannot believe that some languages are not in a real sense more or less primitive than others. As you know, English is a river fed by many streams; Anglo-Saxon, Middle French, Latin, Greek. This wealth of resources is what gives it its power and subtlety. Some languages are more like streams than rivers; they don't have as many resources. As Saul Bellow said, "Where is the Proust of Papua? When the Zulus have a Tolstoy, we will read him."


I admit there is a problem of invention that needs to take place in some languages to develop their literary repertoire. The question, I think, is not whether Zulu lacks the ability to produce great works of literature, but whether an author with significant creativity/genius has emerged over time, or even whether the Zulu society has advanced enough to allow for the economic and social conditions that facilitate the production of 'high literature'. Poor and undeveloped English speaking communities don't frequently produce great literature, because they are not in the place to do so. Also, undoubtedly there are a myriad of oral/folk traditions that serve as literature in such societies (Zulu or otherwise), the likes of which Westerners would either not readily recognize or acknowledge as "literature." I think it's important to distinguish between the conditions, authors, and materials (language) of literary production.

PS I'm only harping on Zulu because one of my roommates happens to be Zulu. Cf. Wikipedia for some info on Zulu literature, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zulu_language#History When a language has only recently been put into written form, the novel is going to be elusive for a while.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Lex » Wed Jan 28, 2009 5:58 pm

thesaurus wrote:I admit there is a problem of invention that needs to take place in some languages to develop their literary repertoire. The question, I think, is not whether Zulu lacks the ability to produce great works of literature, but whether an author with significant creativity/genius has emerged over time, or even whether the Zulu society has advanced enough to allow for the economic and social conditions that facilitate the production of 'high literature'.


But maybe the questions you bring up are intertwined. Maybe no Zulu literary genius has arisen precisely because it would take such an incredible amount of genius to produce a great work of literature in the Zulu language, given the limitations of the language? And maybe the language is limited because the Zulu society is backwards? Yes, yes, I know all this is terribly politically incorrect, but that doesn't mean it's not true. (Of course, I could be wrong. I have zero knowledge of the Zulu language. I'm just playing devil's advocate.)
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Amadeus » Fri Jan 30, 2009 7:51 pm

Even though I have been studying Ancient Greek for a couple of years (on and off), I still have not reached that stage where I can say that the language is truly as beautiful as the scholars say it is. Perhaps I need to read more actual Greek to get that pleasant sense that everyone talks about. But as of yet, the only thing attractive about AG is its exotic character, and by 'exotic' I mean that it is somewhat distant (if not very distant) from our alphabet and our modes of expression. Now I wonder if this exotic trait in the mind of one beginner (such as moi), continues to manifest itself even as one gains greater command of that language, and, therefore, constitutes the sole reason for calling it the best language in the world.

It is not unusual to hear Anglophones speak highly of French, or Japanese, precisely because English, being widely spoken now, is considered less exotic than the aforementioned languages. Could this be the case also for AG? Even in the Classics community, Latin is heard of more than Greek. So even there Greek could be considered more exotic.

Btw, as regards the pitch accent: though it may have been known for quite some time (even as far back as the XVIII century), isn't it the case that no one has been able to accurately decipher all the tones that go into that system? If so, isn't the "beauty" of the pitch accent more of intellectual character (that is, we read about it and imagine how wonderful it must have been)? Of all the attempts to emulate the pitch accent on the web, I find none to be very convincing nor beautiful.

Just some thoughts... :)
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby joja » Thu Mar 25, 2010 7:59 pm

"There is hardly a student that does not believe the New Testament was originally in the Greek language. All our great Bible students have said that God gave the world three great nations with three great contributions for the sake of the Gospel. He gave the Greeks who gave a universal language. He gave us the Jews who gave us the true religion and true knowledge of God through the Saviour. He gave us the Romans who gave us a unified empire with law and a system of highways. Thus we have true religion, the language to express it to many peoples, and the government and roads to spread it physically. And historically speaking this seems to be exactly right. And today our Greek scholars say that the Greek language of Bible days is so perfect and exact that if the student of the Greek is a refined and accurate grammarian he can truly know exactly what the New Testament Word teaches.
But is this not only a theory? Is this true? Is it not so that every Greek scholar of repute from one denomination debates another student of another denomination, and is it not so that their arguments are based on identical Greek words and identical rules of grammar? Certainly that is the way it is. Even back there in the Pergamean Age, just prior to the Nicene Council of 325 there were two great students, Arius and Athanasius who became locked in doctrinal combat over a Greek word. So intense and so world wide did their debate become that historians said the world was divided over a dipthong (the sound of two vowels in a single syllable.)
Now if the Greek is so perfect, and so ordained of God, why was there such a dispute? Surely God did not intend us all to know the Greek? Right today we are having arguments over the Greek. Take for instance the book, "Christ's Paralyzed Church X-rayed" by Dr. McCrossan. In it he sets forth numerous quotes from many renowned Greek grammarians, and proves to his own satisfaction that the unchanging rules of Greek grammar prove conclusively that the Bible teaches a man is baptized with the Holy Ghost subsequent to rebirth. He also states flatly that women can take over the pulpit because the word prophesy means to preach. But has he convinced other students of the Greek who are as able as he? Never. All you have to do is read those students who hold the opposite view and hear their learned quotes.
Now not only is what I have just said true, but let us go a step further. Today we have some students who claim that the original manuscripts were written in the Aramaic which was the language of Jesus and the people of His day. It is claimed by them that the people did not speak and write in the Greek as is so commonly supposed. And the fact is our historians are divided on that. For example, Dr. Schonfield, a most brilliant student has from research proved to his satisfaction that the New Testament was written in the vernacular of the Greek speaking people of that day. He builds up a fine case for his beliefs, based on the various documents at his disposal. But on the other hand we have another renowned student, Dr. Lamsa, who is convinced that the New Testament was written in the Aramaic and he has none other than the brilliant historian, Toynbee, to back up his contention that the Aramaic, and NOT THE GREEK was the language of the people, so it seems possible that the New Testament was first written in the Aramaic.
However, before we get too concerned about this, let us read both the King James version and the translation by Dr. Lamsa. To our gratification we find the words in both amazingly the same so that there is no difference actually in content or doctrine. We may even conclude that God has allowed these newly discovered manuscripts and recent publications of already known scripts to come before us to prove the authenticity of what we already had. And we find that though translators may fight each other, scripts do not.
Now you can see that you can't base interpretation upon students' profound knowledge of the language the Bible is written in. But if you still can't see that because you are veiled in your mind by tradition here is one last illustration. No one can doubt but what the Scribes and Pharisees and the great scholars of the year 33 A.D. knew the exact laws of grammar and the exact meanings of the words in which the Old Testament was written; but for all their superb knowledge they missed the revelation of God's promised Word manifested in the Son. There He was set forth from Genesis to Malachi, with whole chapters devoted to Him and His ministry, and yet except for a few who were illuminated by the Spirit, they missed Him entirely.
We now come to a conclusion, such conclusion as we have already found in the Word. As much as we believe in trying to find the oldest and best manuscripts to get the best record of the Word possible, we will never get the true meaning of it by study and comparison of Scriptures, sincere as we may be. IT WILL TAKE A REVELATION FROM GOD TO BRING IT OUT. THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT PAUL SAID, "WHICH THINGS WE ALSO SPEAK, NOT IN WORDS WHICH MAN'S WISDOM TEACHETH, BUT WHICH THE HOLY GHOST TEACHETH." I Cor. 2:15. The true revelation is God interpreting His own Word by vindicating what is promised." - William M. Branham
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Scribo » Fri Apr 02, 2010 6:05 pm

I think so many people harp on about the beauty of Greek because they're pretentious mongtards (oh look I made a compound word!) I've studied and speak a few languages and whilst I enjoy Greek (I'm a Classicist I also spend a lot of time in Greece and possess more than the rudiments of it's modern tongue) it hardly strikes me as something amazing.

As for it's sound, any language can sound beautiful. However the anglophonic pronunciation one often hears being called "Greek" is bloody horrible, as is imposing Modern Greek phonology onto the Ancient (UGH!) it's all subjective. I suspect 99% of the adoration comes from snobbery and pretension. The other 1% are people like my Greek teacher.

Bye now.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Aristoklhs » Sun Apr 04, 2010 2:54 pm

It´s from " Introduction to Greek Prose Composition by Sidgwick" on page 17 of the book or page 31 on Adobe.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Markos » Sun Apr 04, 2010 3:18 pm

I suspect 99% of the adoration comes from snobbery and pretension...

I think Scribo makes an excellent point. As much as I love Greek, I would never claim it is more beautiful or useful or flexible or more ANYTHING than any other language. One thing that is often claimed about Greek is clearly NOT the case, i.e. that it is more PRECISE than your average language.

Those of us who are in love with this language need to remember this: We did not choose it. It chose us.
I am writing in Ancient Greek not because I know Greek well, but because I hope that it will improve my fluency in reading. I got the idea for this from Adrianus over on the Latin forum here at Textkit.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Nooj » Fri Apr 16, 2010 11:04 am

Lex wrote:
thesaurus wrote:I admit there is a problem of invention that needs to take place in some languages to develop their literary repertoire. The question, I think, is not whether Zulu lacks the ability to produce great works of literature, but whether an author with significant creativity/genius has emerged over time, or even whether the Zulu society has advanced enough to allow for the economic and social conditions that facilitate the production of 'high literature'.


But maybe the questions you bring up are intertwined. Maybe no Zulu literary genius has arisen precisely because it would take such an incredible amount of genius to produce a great work of literature in the Zulu language, given the limitations of the language? And maybe the language is limited because the Zulu society is backwards? Yes, yes, I know all this is terribly politically incorrect, but that doesn't mean it's not true. (Of course, I could be wrong. I have zero knowledge of the Zulu language. I'm just playing devil's advocate.)


What limitations of the language? How is Zulu limited in comparison to say, Latin or Greek? To make these sorts of sweeping statements, you actually need to know a bit about the language.
Dolor poetas creat.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby cb » Sat Apr 17, 2010 8:57 am

hi, to return to the original question, whether or not grk is more flexible/beautiful than other languages is not something that i have an opinion on. however, on the separate question as to where this idea came from, it’s not an idea which only developed in the last few centuries with voltaire/delirious schoolmasters. the idea goes back to the romans – they didn’t all necessarily agree with the idea, but it was certainly a idea held by (at least) several of the well-known roman authors.

i’ve finally tracked down online a useful chapter on the history of this idea – i remembered seeing this chapter in a bookstore years ago in sydney but haven’t been able find it since, until now:

http://books.google.fr/books?id=mFG1ms7GVCYC&pg=PA28

it gives e.g. the famous statements of this idea by lucretius in 1.139, 1.832, etc. i can’t see from the google books preview whether it gives other well-known roman complaints about the EGESTAS LINGVAE LATINAE, e.g. pliny the younger’s letter 4.18:

http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/pliny.ep4.html

cheers, chad :)
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby thesaurus » Sat Apr 17, 2010 2:16 pm

Thanks for those useful sources, CB, although I am unable to view the chapter in question.

I think it's important to distinguish between a dearth in the language's expressive/technical vocabulary, the so called egestas, and some kind of systemic problem inherent in the language itself. That is, it is undoubtedly true that at certain stages Latin lacked the means to easily express Greek (and other) ideas; it seems that this was mostly due to vocabulary differences. Latin is said to have preferred concrete expression over the abstract. However, over time, writers began to coin new words, adopt Greek ones, and expand the meaning of the existing lexicon to facilitate the desired range of expression. Cicero was clearly a big player in this move, as he expanded and adapted the Latin language for philosophical purposes. If Latin had never successfully managed to express philosophical ideas, then there would have been reason to say that Greek is inherently more flexible/useful.

The important thing to recognize is that Latin writers changed their language so as to express everything they wanted to say. There were awkward "gap periods," in which writers had to expand Latin's repertoire, but the language itself was sufficiently flexible and useful for the intended purposes.

I continue in my belief that all languages are equally flexible and useful means of expressing human thought. Whether or not they are all equally suited to all purposes at a given time is besides the point.
Horae quidem cedunt et dies et menses et anni, nec praeteritum tempus umquam revertitur nec quid sequatur sciri potest. Quod cuique temporis ad vivendum datur, eo debet esse contentus. --Cicero, De Senectute
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Scribo » Sat Apr 17, 2010 5:36 pm

thesaurus wrote:Thanks for those useful sources, CB, although I am unable to view the chapter in question.

I think it's important to distinguish between a dearth in the language's expressive/technical vocabulary, the so called egestas, and some kind of systemic problem inherent in the language itself. That is, it is undoubtedly true that at certain stages Latin lacked the means to easily express Greek (and other) ideas; it seems that this was mostly due to vocabulary differences. Latin is said to have preferred concrete expression over the abstract. However, over time, writers began to coin new words, adopt Greek ones, and expand the meaning of the existing lexicon to facilitate the desired range of expression. Cicero was clearly a big player in this move, as he expanded and adapted the Latin language for philosophical purposes. If Latin had never successfully managed to express philosophical ideas, then there would have been reason to say that Greek is inherently more flexible/useful.

The important thing to recognize is that Latin writers changed their language so as to express everything they wanted to say. There were awkward "gap periods," in which writers had to expand Latin's repertoire, but the language itself was sufficiently flexible and useful for the intended purposes.

I continue in my belief that all languages are equally flexible and useful means of expressing human thought. Whether or not they are all equally suited to all purposes at a given time is besides the point.


Indeed, also consider how Homeric Greek is said to deal more with concrete expression than abstract.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Auberon » Sat Apr 17, 2010 6:56 pm

Lex wrote:Some languages are more like streams than rivers; they don't have as many resources. As Saul Bellow said, "Where is the Proust of Papua? When the Zulus have a Tolstoy, we will read him."


Some thoughts are in order here.

Languages like Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa and Wolof have a strong oral tradition, as at least one poster mentioned. Swahili speaking writers have only recently in the last 50 or 60 years begun to produce novels in the vernacular. (I use Swahili as an example because it is the only African language with which I have some small experience.)

There are three strong reasons as to why this is. The first is enduring nature of the oral tradition. As the great Malian writer Hampâté Bâ said, "En Afrique, quand un vieillard meurt, c’est une bibliothèque qui brûle." It's a testament to the importance of the oral tradition in many African cultures. It's not that the written language can't convey the ideas. It may be more that there was no reason for it to do so until recently.

Secondly, some languages are not standardized across the majority of speakers. Despite multiple dialects, (ever talk to anyone from Swabia if you speak German?) German has developed a standard written and spoken language, hochdeutsch, but a language like Swahili is more fragmented geographically and a work written in the language could be incomprehensible in parts to a wide range of Swahili speakers and readers. Modern languages that have been languages of commerce and empire have necessarily developed a way around the problem. Swahili hasn't had to adapt that way, but that's not a deficiency in the language.

Finally, and it's tied to point number two, most African writers write in English or French if they want a wide audience. Why? because they want to sell as many books as possible. It has nothing to do with their language being primitive. It's because a writer might like his or her book to be for sale in a market of 300 million people rather than, say, 20 million or less. Were I Kenyan and spoke Swahili and English, or Senegalese and spoke Wolof and French, I would choose French or English as my language of choice when writing if I wanted to be commercially successful.
Last edited by Auberon on Mon Apr 19, 2010 9:27 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: On the alleged beauty/flexibility/utility of Greek

Postby Auberon » Sat Apr 17, 2010 7:01 pm

Great thread, by the way.
Given the choice between accomplishing something and just lying around, I'd rather lie around. No contest.—Eric Clapton
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