Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.01.27

Paula Saffire, Catherine Freis (ed.), Ancient Greek Alive. Third edition.   Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1999.  ISBN 0-8078-4800-X (pb).  $19.95.  

Reviewed by Sarah K. Torrence, Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Miss Porter's School (
Word count: 2016 words

The two most immediately striking features of this textbook are, first, the series of "scripts" with which the book opens, and second, the use of non-Greek folk tales, translated into Attic Greek, throughout the text. (Most of these stories are Sufi legends concerning Sheikh Nasrudin; also included are legends from Chinese, Armenian, Siberian, Yiddish, Nigerian, Ghanaian, and West African traditions.) Both seem odd choices at first, but, as one gets further into the book, the benefits of these choices emerge.

The scripts provide the student an opportunity to hear and speak the language for a period of approximately two weeks (9 lessons), and to enter into the grammatical lessons armed with a fairly substantial basic vocabulary. The editors suggest writing transliterations on the board during this "conversational" portion of the course, and this seems an excellent tool for teaching pronunciation and the Greek alphabet. The book presents the Greek alphabet following the third script.

Beyond the 9 scripts, there is little further use of conversational or oral Greek, but the very simple and entertaining stories lend themselves to reading aloud, and drills occasionally call for oral responses. Although the tales of Nasrudin are not Greek stories, they provide humor and continuity as they instruct. Because these are not Greek stories, Saffire has freed herself from the necessity of having to "water down or otherwise distort Greek material" (xv). Saffire herself has translated these stories into very clear Attic Greek, and she has done a commendable job in selecting passages in which she might incorporate grammatical concepts and forms appropriate to each lesson. A wonderful example of this is found on page 57. Here, Nasrudin is asked which is more useful, the sun or the moon. The dialogue offers several opportunities to use comparison (the subject of the present grammar lesson), first with and the same case, then with the genitive of comparison. At the same time, Saffire is able in this story to exercise again the recently taught use of μέν ... δέ constructions. Indeed, the simple stories which Saffire has selected from various cultures provide her freedom to incorporate what constructions she will, without the worry that she is altering passages which found their original Greek expression in other, more complicated forms.

In addition to the stories which she has translated into Greek from various languages, Saffire makes other unique choices for text to illustrate grammar. Lesson 32, "Contrary-to-Fact Conditions," opens with a poem in English by Sir John Suckling, "The Constant Lover." This poem, with its repetition of the verse "Had it any been but she," makes clear immediately to the student the way in which English distinguishes between simple and contrary-to-fact conditions, before the text explains the corresponding constructions in Greek.

Despite the predominance of non-Greek stories, the book is not without original Greek. Most of these readings are collected in the back of the textbook, in a section titled "Thesauros." (The meaning of the section title is explained to the students at its first mention, on page 37.) Included are short (mostly one-line) passages from the New Testament, Heraclitus, Xenophanes, Diogenes the Cynic, and "famous sayings" by various authors. These readings are assigned within the textbook and have been selected as further reinforcement of the grammar. The later lessons, 51-54, include within them longer excerpts of original Greek from the Hippocratic Oath, from Euripides' Trojan Women (Hecuba's speech at lines 1156ff), and from Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrranos (lines 429-443, dialogue between Oedipus and Teiresias). Also, students are assigned short pieces of original Greek poetry to memorize and recite.

Each of the 54 grammar lessons begins with a clear explanation of the new grammatical concept and/or a paradigm, followed by useful, focussed drills and exercises for class- and homework. The reading for each lesson comes after the grammar and drills, and is itself followed by a vocabulary list, keyed to the line-numbers of the reading. Important notes, regarding morphology and syntax, are included within the vocabulary notes, making these pages somewhat cluttered. However, these notes are useful, and they are set off in boxes. If the student is encouraged to make his or her own list for vocabulary study (a good idea in any case), the format will be less confusing. A vocabulary review is offered approximately every fifty pages, and these are well-formatted, providing in columns the Greek words, and are divided according to part of speech, declension & conjugation.

All noun/adjective cases are learned from the very beginning. Lesson 1 opens with the declension of ἀδελφή and γλῶττα in the singular & plural, and the student is told early in his or her study (also Lesson 1, p. 27): "Get into the habit of looking at word endings. Do not try to guess the meaning of a sentence by word order. Do not try to think up likely meanings based on vocabulary." This is good and necessary advice to the English-speaking student, and it is worthy of the bold print in which it appears. Lesson 5 presents an overview of the "basic ideas" from which the various uses of each case derive, beginning with a brief account of the seven original Indo-European cases.

Although participles are discussed beginning in Lesson 10, the verbal system is not laid out until the "Verb Overview" which precedes Lesson 25. This overview suggests the full complexities of the verbal system, but goes on to describe in detail the various forms of only the indicative mood ("used to report or predict facts," p. 108). Aspect and tense are described before the forms are presented, and the overview culminates in a characteristically manageable chart. Following this overview, most of the lessons are devoted exclusively to the verbal system. The subjunctive and optative moods are introduced once the student has had a chance to become comfortable with the concepts of time and aspect. Lesson 33 gives a full account of the constructions for indirect discourse, but this is not entirely new to the student by then, as the concept has appeared several times, in very general terms, before then (first in Lesson 9). Useful notes on the more complicated subtleties of the Greek verbal system are noted gently throughout. On p. 131, for example, the student finds "The 99% Principle," according to which the aspect of the participle is 99% predictable according to the stem used. "In fact, what is ongoing is usually contemporary with the time of the main verb, while what is complete is almost always past." In this way, the editors suggest the necessity to be sensitive to exceptions, without terrifying the beginning student: "The 99% principle is a subtlety of Greek. Be aware of it." This principle is applied also to the use of the imperfect in contrary-to-fact conditions on p. 134. The student is thus encouraged to know that the translation is mostly (99%) predictable, but he or she is also reminded that context does have an impact on translation. Following Lesson 50 appears a review of all basic forms of regular verbs.

Rules of accents are presented in Lesson 3. This lesson is a model of clarity and comprehensiveness, and as such it is a good representative of the book as a whole. Its sections are titled "Which syllable gets the accent?", "Which accent does the syllable get?", and "Grave or acute accent on last syllable." Each section is a clear outline of the general rule, and the whole is followed by a summary in the form of a simple chart. Throughout the lesson are very useful drills, asking students to accent words, first alone then within sentences, and to identify the rule(s) according to which he or she has chosen each accent.

Grammatical and syntactical points are presented and practiced with equal clarity. Charts and synopses are nicely laid out throughout, and reproducible paradigms are provided at the end of the book, followed by a list of the principal parts of 98 verbs, in alphabetical order. (There are no grammatical or syntactical appendices beyond these.) Drills are simple and focussed, and some very innovative. In Lesson 10, for example, there is an exercise entitled "Coming into Baghdad," a memory game in which the students are instructed each to begin with ἐρχομένη εἰς τὴν Βάγδαδ εἶδον ... (or ἐρχόμενος ...) and to name an adjective-noun pair in the accusative. The next student will begin similarly, and each student will list all items previously mentioned before adding his or her own. There is a list provided of adjectives and nouns from which to choose.

The student is encouraged to make use of "translationese" for the purpose of precise translation. "Translationese" is introduced in Lesson 13 and is described as "an artificial language that is extremely useful in learning Greek... Translationese represents the structure of the original Greek as clearly as possible. It is not elegant" (p. 66). Throughout the textbook, the editors make use of "translationese" in explaining distinctions among various forms. While this is useful for the beginner, the student should be warned that "translationese" does not necessarily result in an acceptable final translation.

The cultural readings, scattered throughout the textbook, provide breaks from grammar and introduce the student to many aspects of Greek culture, literature, and philosophy. At the opening of the book, the cultural context is laid out in a minimal but useful "Chronology of Authors and Events" (p. xxii) and a nice map of the Greek World (p. xxiii). The essays themselves are appropriately placed so as to follow up on ideas suggested in the lessons, readings, and vocabulary, and they include passages on "Greek Writing and Literacy" (offered among the "scripts"), "Greek Medicine" (an introduction to the medical heroes, gods and sanctuaries) "The Wisdom of Nasrudin and Socrates" (a fairly successful attempt to relate the textbook's main character to Greek tradition) "Two Ionian Philosophers" (an introduction to Heraclitus and Xenophanes), "The New Testament" (a very brief history of koine Greek and of the lives of Sts. Paul and John), "Turtle Tales" (the turtle in folktale traditions), "The Bride of Death" (offered following the reading of several epitaphs found in the "Thesauros"), "Diogenes" (an account of the significance of the legendary encounter between Alexander and Diogenes), "The Personal Muse" (a nice, albeit very brief, introduction to the early Greek poetic tradition from Homer to Anacreon), "The Human City" (on fifth-century Athenian politics), and "Three Medical Symbols" (a discussion of the symbols of Asclepius and of the AMA, and the staff of Hermes). These are well-written by co-editor Catherine Freis (who also wrote most of the exercises included in the lessons); each is one to two pages in length and supplemented with clear black & white photographs or line drawings of relevant monuments or artifacts. The editors, in their "Words to Teachers," say of these essays that they "are not meant to provide a full overview of Greek culture, but rather they present a series of openings to engage students with some important ideas and to draw them into further Greek studies" (p. xix). This is an accurate description. A teacher of students in college or high school will find in them ample opportunity to get the students started on individual research projects, should that be appropriate. Otherwise, they provide a good starting point for class discussion.

This textbook is nicely laid out for classroom study. Its format and drills are less appropriate for self-study or reference, for which one would do better to select a more straightforward, traditional grammar textbook. More grammar-intensive than such reading-in-context books as Athenaze and more varied in approach, vocabulary, and cultural material than such textbooks as Hansen & Quinn or Chase & Philips, Ancient Greek Alive steers a middle course, and it seems appropriate for either high school or college use. I have not had the opportunity to use this book in my own classroom, but I can already foresee how I might be able to use it well, what is in it that I might leave out, and where I would supplement it with my own explanations and assignments. Errors are minor, few, and easily corrected by the alert teacher.

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