BMCR 2005.05.14

L. A. Wilding’s Greek for Beginners.

L. A. (Longworth Allen) Wilding, Cynthia W. Shelmerdine, L.A. Wilding's Greek for beginners.. Newburyport, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins Co, 2001. xvi, 216 pages : maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 1585100102 $32.95 (pb).

I know of no one who teaches first-year Greek who is completely satisfied with his or her textbook. I am a big fan of Hansen and Quinn’s Greek, An Intensive Course, but it too has problems, not the least being that it was designed for an eight to ten week summer course, not for use over an entire academic year. So I was very happy to give C. Shelmerdine’s Greek for Beginners a try this year. As the title indicates, this text is an expansion of an older Greek text by L. A. Wilding. Shelmerdine’s preface indicates that for the most part she has kept the original practice sentences and readings, but added explanations of morphology and syntax (which were absent in the original version), and changed the order somewhat. She suggests that courses meeting four or five times per week should be able to finish the text with plenty of time to read Greek, and I found this to be true. Our course, meeting four hours per week over a total of 27 weeks of instruction, finished shortly after our spring break, leaving six weeks in which to read a significant amount of Plato’s Apology.

The format of the text is straightforward. There are thirty-two chapters, each designed to be covered in one or two class periods. Exercise sentences always appear in groups of twenty, ten to translate from Greek to English, and ten to translate from English to Greek. Chapters requiring more than one class period have exercise sentences midway through as well as at the end, and for the most part I found that these exercise sets establish a reasonable pace with little need for adjustment. Yet there are almost no drills, so some instructors might feel the need, as I did, to create drills to supplement certain sections. Beginning with Chapter 8 (i.e., after between three and four weeks of instruction), every chapter concludes with an extended reading passage. The passages are mostly adaptations from Herodotus, but they also include several selections from Xenophon, and, near the end of the text, an adaptation from Thucydides that is carried over three chapters. These passages are far and away the best part of this textbook. Some of the most memorable parts of Herodotus are included: Xerxes thrashing the Hellespont, Artemisia sinking a Persian ship, Polycrates recovering a ring from the belly of a fish. They are enjoyable to read, and the material forms the basis for many of the practice sentences. The text ends with a summary of forms, a Greek-English vocabulary section, and an English-Greek vocabulary section. There is, unfortunately, no index, so students or instructors wanting to find previously presented material will need to go to the table of contents. An accompanying answer key for the exercise sentences is available as well.

This text is not shy about taking on the Greek verb. All tenses in the indicative active are presented in fairly short order. Passive and middle voices come later in Chapters 14 and 16, which still gives students plenty of time to practice these forms. However, I found that the presentation of verbs and verb forms required some emendation. Although students encounter the notion of principal parts when the verb is first introduced in the second chapter, principal parts are not included in the vocabulary (students do not see a full set of principal parts until Chapter 16), nor is it made completely clear that all verb forms are based on these principal parts. Verb endings are presented with consonants from the stem included. For example, the future endings are given as ‐σω, ‐σεις, ‐σει, etc., the first aorist as ‐σα, ‐σας, ‐σε, etc. the perfect as ‐κα, ‐κας, ‐κε, etc. This becomes confusing for students later on when they encounter future and aorist stems that don’t end in sigmas, or the fourth principal parts of verbs like ἄγω and γράφω. A chart of verb endings in the summary of forms section reiterates this misleading approach; there is no paradigm for the second aorist in this section.

There are several other problems with the presentation of verbs, the most serious being mistakes in the paradigms themselves. The ending for the first person singular pluperfect active indicative is incorrectly given as ‐ην, not ‐η. This mistake is repeated in the paradigm at the end of the text. The paradigm for τίθημι includes incorrect forms for the second and third person imperfect indicative active, both in Chapter 32 and in the summary of forms at the end of the text. I found two instances of spurious principal parts: βούλομαι is given an aorist middle both in the verb list on p. 107 and in the Greek-English vocabulary at the back. Similarly, ἀκούω is given a perfect middle/passive in the Greek-English vocabulary section, although not in the verb list cited above.

Presentation of the subjunctive and optative is delayed until Chapters 24 and 25, which may be late for some tastes. In general, I felt that the first third of the text was quite noun-heavy. Students encounter eight different paradigm sets for third declension nouns over the course of six chapters, involving 32 different noun patterns. Mine were overwhelmed, and needed help prioritizing. On the other hand, even without a great deal of complicated syntax (which comes primarily in the last eight chapters, after the introduction of the subjunctive and optative) the extended reading passages of the middle chapters are challenging, and read far more like real Greek than is often the case when original texts are modified for elementary use. These adaptations have been skillfully done.

One would not expect nor want a beginning textbook to cover everything. Nevertheless, some of the omissions in Greek for Beginners constitute serious flaws in my opinion.

1. There is no mention of the dative of agent with perfect and pluperfect passive verbs. Exercise sentences have ὑπό plus the genitive in all passive constructions.

2. Presentation of the infinitives does not explain that certain of these accents are fixed, and in the paradigms for perfect middle/passive consonant stems, two of the infinitives are accented incorrectly.

3. The paradigms for third declension comparatives give the alternate forms for the masculine/feminine nominative and accusative plural ἡδίους, but not for the masculine/feminine accusative singular or neuter nominative and accusative plural ἡδίω.

4. Aorist optative active paradigms do not include the alternate forms for the second and third person singular, or third person plural. The aorist optative passive paradigms do not show alternate forms for the first, second and third person plural.

5. There is no mention of the potential optative, although there is a section on the optative of wish.

6. There is no clear presentation of temporal conditional clauses.

Finally, although not an omission per se, I take issue with the presentation of finite verbs in indirect statement after verbs in a secondary tense. The text reads: “In this construction, it is always correct for the verb in the indirect statement to be indicative. A second option also exists when the verb of saying is in a secondary tense. In that case, the verb in the ὅτι ὡς clause is sometimes put in the optative mood (same tense as the indicative).” It seems to me that it is more correct to say that the change to the optative is to be expected when the main verb is in a secondary tense, while the indicative may be retained for vividness.

I will not list all of the mistakes I found in the text, some of which are clearly typographical, others clearly grammatical. Suffice it to say that there were far too many. Unfortunately, the answer key has numerous errors as well. There is hope that a second edition would eliminate these. More serious to my mind is the text’s presentation of verb formation that does not clearly delineate the role of principal parts, as well as the omissions enumerated above. I would not use this text again, even in an error-free second edition, nor could I recommend it in its present state. However, the extended reading passages are so well done that I would encourage anyone who is not currently pleased with his or her text to take a look at Shelmerdine’s Greek for Beginners and hope for a corrected second edition. I would not be surprised if for some, the advantages of the amount and quality of the Greek students read in this introductory text outweigh the disadvantages as I see them.