BMCR 2007.09.50

Learning Greek with Plato: A Beginner’s Course in Classical Greek

, Learning Greek with Plato: A Beginner's Course in Classical Greek. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2007. xiv, 503. £19.99 (pb).

This book is intended for those who wish to learn Classical Greek, especially with a view to reading Greek philosophy. It is in fact based on Plato’s Meno 70a1-081e6 and leads the student toward being able to read (or more precisely, to translate into English) this passage. The book assumes no previous knowledge of Greek and “was developed over a number of years in the Department of Philosophy at Warwick University as a one-year course for postgraduates” (p. ix). It aims to enable a student to acquire the rudiments of Classical Greek grammar, to become accustomed to Plato’s style, to begin to read philosophy in Greek, to be able to relate a translation to the underlying Greek text with discrimination, and to follow a commentary on the text with understanding. In an effort to make the book welcoming and interesting to non-specialists, a basic introduction and background to the Meno is provided. The book provides translation exercises throughout and an answer key at the back so that students can check their own progress and even perhaps work though the book without a teacher. Also provided at the end are a Greek-English word list and the principal tenses of “some of the more difficult verbs” (p.488). On the whole the book is a welcome and important contribution to the teaching and learning of Classical Greek.

The idea of focusing on a particular author in a beginner’s course in a classical language is certainly not new. One thinks of the time-tested introductions to Homeric Greek by Clyde Pharr and by Raymond Schoder and Vincent Horrigan as well as the pioneering and creative Latin Via Ovid by Norma Goldman and Jacob Nyenhuis. The author of the present work, Frank Beetham (hereafter β a teacher of Greek at the university level, has also written introductory texts for Homeric and New Testament Greek. B’s idea of focusing on Plato seems felicitous both because of the inherent importance of the Platonic texts and the beauty of Plato’s Greek style.

Learning Greek with Plato has many strengths.

First, the text from the Meno which B has selected as the basis for the book seems very appropriate since it is “a kind of watershed in the development of Plato’s thinking” (p.ix) where Socrates is compelled to abandon the style he generally adopts in earlier dialogues (viz., disillusioning those he is talking to of knowledge they thought they had) and striking out in a new direction. Of course, one could argue in favor of other passages I am sure.

Secondly, the content is manageably organized into 25 sections and an introduction. The stimulating introduction provides background on Socrates, Plato, the Meno and its relationship to other dialogues and works, and Plato’s style. The first seven sections provide vocabulary and explanations of Greek grammar and syntax. Topics covered include the alphabet, the verb “I am”, asking questions, nouns and declensions, adjectives, plurals, verb endings, personal pronouns, the accusative of respect or manner, “this”, the present infinitive, adverbs, the genitive and dative cases, and conjunctions. These topics are covered and included in order to prepare for beginning to translate the text of the Meno in section 8. The array of grammatical and syntactical topics continues basically in the “as needed” order in sections 8 through 25 and each of these sections provides some of the Meno for translation. Sections typically include a listing of new words, lengthy grammatical and syntactical explanations interspersed with “What is the English for” type exercises and in sections 8-25 heavily and very helpfully annotated text of the Meno.

Thirdly, the explanations of the structural material are clear and do not presuppose background in grammar or syntax. The attention B gives to verbs, and especially aspect, seems very good. Some students may find the explanations a bit overwhelming in their complexity. But that is not B’s fault. That’s Greek!

Fourthly, in explaining structure, B provides examples in Greek and English drawn from the Platonic corpus. Thus the student has the advantage of being immersed in Plato.

Fifthly, at the end of the twenty five sections there are Appendices that organize the structural material according to the following headings: Cases and Prepositions; Summary of Voice, Mood, Tense, and Aspect of the Greek Verb; Word Order; Duals; Numerals; the Declension of Nouns, Adjectives, and Pronouns; and a Reference List of Verb Endings and Irregular Verbs. These Appendices will help the student to draw together the material learned piecemeal and “as needed” in the 25 sections. Unfortunately, the heading “Appendices” has been omitted on p. 347 though it occurs in the table of contents (p. viii), and the final section (25) thus without warning morphs into the first part of the Appendices!

Sixthly, the footnotes that B provides in abundance will be very helpful to the student. B has anticipated difficulties and possible points of confusion. The chatty style of the footnotes is a plus. As a bonus B provides very helpful advice on translating Plato’s Meno (p. 82).

Finally, the autodidactic approach which provides an answer key on pp. 429-461 and copious structural explanations that B includes seems appropriate and practical in an age where teachers of Greek may be in short supply or where a motivated student may have to learn Greek on her or his own. Weaknesses occur in the exercises provided.

B obviously sees Greek as something to be translated into English rather than read and understood without the interlarding of English. Though he sometimes uses the word “read” he obviously means “translate”.

Almost all of the exercises in the book consist of the heading “What is the English for” (with no punctuation) followed by about 10 (the number varies) disconnected Greek sentences or expressions. This approach to drill and practice, with virtually no intrinsic interest in the sentences or expressions to be translated, has long afflicted classical language education and continues to do so and requires a very devoted (some would say devout!) student who won’t care that what (s)he is reading is uninteresting or almost devoid of meaning. The classical language is presented as a code or puzzle to be rendered into English and not as a lingua or glossa to be understood on its own terms. B seems to recognize the need to provide some intrinsic interest to these exercises and as the book progresses provides some of the practice sentences drawn from Greek philosophical literature, thus giving the student direct contact with the thought of the ancients. If B were to revise this book, more such quotations replacing the disconnected made-up sentences now provided would help. Also, perhaps some connected reading passages could be used rather than isolated sentences. Would not a student appreciate variety in the exercises, e.g., Greek to Greek manipulative type exercises? In fairness, occasionally B varies the exercise a little, e.g., on p. 172 there is an exercise headed “What is the difference between:” followed by pairs of Greek expressions but these variations are few and far between and basically are translation exercises. On p. 80 the student is asked to write five verbs, which are in the imperfect, in the present tense. On p. 166 the student is asked to identify 12 verbs as either imperfect or aorist.

So the reader of this review will not think I am overdrawing my case, here is a brief sample of the ubiquitous “What is the English for” type of exercise (from page 127):

1. εἰ τοῦτο ἠρώτησας, σοὶ οὐκ ἂν ἀπεκρινάμην.
2. σοὶ τοῦτο ἐρωτήσαντι οὐκ ἂν ἀπεκρινάμην.
3. εἰ τοῦτο σε ἠρώτης, τί ἂν ἐμοὶ ἀπεκρίνω;

And from page 443 the translations of these sentences:

1. If you had asked this, I should not have replied to you.
2. To you having asked me this, I should not have replied.
3. If I had asked you this, what would you have replied to me?

If the student likes this type of exercise, (s)he will love B. I could be wrong, but I think many students will not like it, especially since there is so much of it.

Beyond the comments on pronunciation in section 1 virtually no attention as far as I can see is given to oral work of any kind. This lack of attention to the sound of Greek seems a shame to me, especially when dealing with an author like Plato where there is so much beauty in the sound of the Greek.

There are also some quirks concerning the presentation and appearance which may be attributed to the University of Exeter Press rather than to B.

Usually new words are presented in two distinct columns making learning the words easier, I think, for the student. But sometimes (e.g., p. 27) they are run together with no columns.

The material in each of the 25 sections is run together throughout with little distinction in typography or spacing. Thus grammatical and syntactical explanations are interrupted by the omnipresent “What is the English for” type exercises, new words, copious footnotes, and sometimes even by other grammatical and syntactical material. Everything jostles everything else. The student is left with little sense of what is important, what is incidental, and what goes together. Even the text of the Meno gets buried in this mixture of things. I would suggest putting the text of Meno in a larger, bolder font the way Schoder and Horrigan print their text of Homer.

Greater attention to typography and spacing in a subsequent edition would, I think, easily remedy problems listed above and make the book more attractive and helpful to the student.

B is remarkably free from typographical errors for a first printing. I noted the following: on pp. 414, 416, and 424 the two words ” O that” are repeatedly run together; on p. 1, BC or AD is omitted with the phrase “4th cent.”; on p. 71 the word “feminine” is misspelled; on p. 59 the heading “What is the English for” is omitted.

How would this book work in a classroom setting or in an autodidactic setting? Without actually having tried it, I suspect it would work very well. An instructor would find its size and scope manageable and be able to vary the exercises and give some attention to oral Greek. Motivated students trying to learn Greek on their own would find the explanations of structure clear and the answer key helpful. Comparing this introduction to Plato’s Greek with other traditional introductions to philosophical or basic Attic Greek (e.g., Francis Fobes’ Philosophical Greek) or to the newer reading approaches to Greek (e.g., JACT’s Reading Greek) is beyond the scope of this review. B has provided us with another option, a new and useful approach to Plato’s Greek for which we should be very grateful.