Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.6.25


Peter Jones, Learn Ancient Greek. London: Duckworth, 1998. Pp. viii, 216. £14.95 (pb.) ISBN 0 7156 2758 9.

Reviewed by Barry Baldwin, bbaldwin@acs.ucalgary.ca

I have been looking forward to this book ever since reviewing (BMCR 8 [1997], pp. 747-749) its 'prequel' Learn Latin. Since that time, Jones has left his post at the University of Newcastle with a parting blast at the decline in conditions and standards, had a spat in the public prints with Hugh Lloyd-Jones over the case of Louise Woodward the 'English Nanny' (not to be confused with either the English Patient or Fran Drescher), and begun a newspaper column on Greek poetry. He remains the Jones up with whom it is very hard to keep.

Much of what I said about its predecessor applies here. Jones is not claiming that his libellus comports what he happily does not call the Total Greek Experience. Its purpose is (in his own prefatory words) to provide users with just enough of the language to read extracts from the New Testament, the Greek Anthology, Thucydides, Plato, Sophocles, Lucian, and Dio Cassius. Again, he delivers what he promises. Twenty chapters present in short digestible tranches the essentials of Greek adjectives, nouns, prepositions, and verbs along with some basic syntax. The hard stuff (Jones never pretends it is easy) is made palatable by a constant and commendable policy of relating Greek to English, by regular lecturettes on Greek history and literature, by some agreeable cartoons from the pen of Michael ffolkes, and by Jones' breezy no-nonsense style and steady stream of jokes, one or two overused (notably the 'Cough' parenthesis that accompanies too many of the dryer grammatical moments) but many genuine thigh-slappers, e.g., "from here to infinitive", "popoi--nothing to do with spinach-eating sailors", "Rabbi--no, not Burns", and the limerick about the Greek-learning curate from Kew (p. 11). Substantial (apart from the undernourished list of prepositions--where are you, epi and kata?) grammatical tables postlude these chapters, as do a pair of shortish vocabulary lists and an adequate index. An audio-cassette pronunciation tape geared to the book is available from the author (details are supplied) for an extra six quid or fourteen bucks. The volume is again attractively produced in the best Duckworth tradition with its blue-brown-red cover (words and cartoons) and remarkable (not that I checked every breathing) freedom from misprints--"centgury" (p. 107) is a rare sore thumb.

Were Jones American, he would probably have adduced Ivana Trump's 'the Donald' to illustrate his point (p. 24) about proper names in Greek taking the definite article. He is less concerned than before about purging the text of Briticisms. Unless their owners watch a lot of PBS, cisatlantic eyebrows will shoot up over (e.g.) "trainers" (p. 10, in the sense of running-shoes), "slip the lemon into overdrive" (p. 23--I floundered over this one myself, no doubt some bit of rhyming slang is the key), "ee-oops" (p. 34), "bless his little cotton socks" (p. 71), "AwayDay Weekend Break Offer Horror" (p. 88), "Natch" (p. 94), "this aorist wossit" (p. 101), "draw concers" (p. 173). Jones fears in his preface that purists will shudder at his mixing of classical, koine, and late Greek; I expect such misguided souls may likewise quake over his own idiomatic mixture that runs from the archaic "cheekie chappie" (p. 113) to such Nineties argot as "seriously healthy chunks of Greek" (p. 145), with the odd Americanism ("li'l ol' present participles", p. 164) lumped in for good measure.

Jones affords his followers a taste of the subjunctive but not the optative, and they are left in blissful ignorance of the thickets of irregular and -mi verbs, although he does give them eimi ('to be'), sensibly in the first chapter (in my first Greek book, it had to wait until chapter seventeen), also oida. He also spares them accents, rightly, albeit anticipated in this didactic decision (as in the use of cartoons) half a century ago by Kinchin Smith and Melluish in their Teach Yourself Greek (London, 1947), from which old buffers like myself got their first Hellenic dose. Their reasons are amusingly the same, only different: Jones (p. 58) says accents begin to appear in manuscripts (does he mean papyri?) around 200BC; KS & M declare they don't turn up until the seventh century AD--quot homines... Still, although he doesn't mention it, I fancy Jones shares my affection for the venerable Teach Yourself Greek--at any rate, he uses (p. 112) the same Anacreontic drinking-song as they do (p. 67) to illustrate basic parts of speech.

As with Learn Latin, Jones excludes the future. Again, I think this particular decision was wrong, though it is hardly the end of the world. What, though, has Jones got against this tense? Perhaps he listened too much to the Sex Pistols--No Future was one of their most notorious chants. A few other frailties earn a glance. Since Jones is correctly concerned to spare his readers any unnecessary lumber, I doubt he needed to trouble them with (e.g.) the relatively infrequent oidas alternative for oistha (p. 79)--even Abbott and Mansfield didn't bother with this one. His table of diphthongs (pp. 12-13) is idiosyncratically different from any other I've ever seen--two seem to be missing, double gamma is included, and I don't understand his rule for pronouncing eu as two separate elements. It's not true (p. 148) that the fifth and sixth feet of a hexameter verse are invariably a dactyl and a spondee. Jones has no explanation (p. 94) for Greek neuter plural subjects taking singular verbs, nor does he warn his pupils that this rule is in practice often broken: Kinchin Smith and Melluish did better, suggesting (p. 69) that when neuter plurals connote inanimate things, the Greeks thought of them as quantity or mass rather than individual items. Thales is quoted (p. 104) on his three blessings (being human, not animal; man, not woman; Greek, not barbarian), yet this aphorism is absent from his repertoire in Kirk and Raven, and Herodotus 1. 170 says he was more Phoenician than Greek. Readers are invited (p. 162) to share teacher's affected puzzlement over Apollo's one-liner "A Pledge: Disaster alongside": they would have been better directed to the discussion in Plato, Charmides 165a. 'Xenophobia' may not have been an ancient word (p. 14), but it has (not surprisingly) surfaced in modern Greek dictionaries. I don't find it at all "amazing" (p. 115) that 'bishop' should evolve from 'episkopos'. I fancy the relative pallidity of Aristophanes' last two plays (p. 169) has more to do with changed comic tastes than "the demise of the radical democracy"--the system was in full swing again, and there was no shortage of individuals to hate, as the orators and Middle Comedy abundantly show. Talking of democracy is something Jones likes to do, and he reiterates his favourite contention that the Athenian version was the first, the last, and the best. But the American idea frequently comes close (e.g., electing judges and sheriffs, the constant stream of 'propositions' whereby voters decide such important local issues as property taxes and education financing, term limits); and what would Jones say if Britain adopted an Athenian-style ochlocracy which voted to eliminate Greek and Latin from its schools and universities?

But these are quiddities. While Jones never actually quotes Johnson's "Greek, sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can", it is implicit in his own envoi: "at the crunch point, those with a gift for languages will move on, the rest will not." We all know this feeling. But the least adept user of Jones will drop the book the better for knowing not to say 'the hoi polloi' (p. 23) and that the ancient Olympics were not a festival of sportsmanship (p. 123). Taken together, LL and LAG (did Jones notice this latter acronym?) are twin triumphs of tasty teaching. Now, if only Duckworth and he would put their heads together and give us a fat selection of those marvellous 'Ancient and Modern' columns which Jones has been turning out for years on a remarkable weekly basis in the Sunday Telegraph and (now) the Spectator--haec placuit semel; haec decies repetita placebit.