BMCR 2015.05.44

A Little Greek Reader

, , A Little Greek Reader. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xvii, 293. ISBN 9780199311729. $19.95 (pb).


[ A Little Greek Reader is based on Mary C. English and Georgia L. Irby’s A Little Latin Reader. (BMCR review at 2012.09.11.]

We learn ancient languages so that we may read texts written in them; and for the most part, these texts will be literary: polished, crafted, complex, meant to impress and please their readers, often having survived only because of just those qualities. The obvious result of this is the lack of ancient language materials suitable for beginners, and while textbook authors have for a long time been writing their own practice sentences, the appeal of Caecilius est in horto and its word order will only take us so far.

This pedagogical desideratum has led to introductory textbooks such as Athenaze or JACT’s Reading Greek and Reading Latin, which, rather than relying on example sentences, impart new grammar and vocabulary through continuous stories written by the authors, or Learn to Read Latin and later, Learn to Read Greek, which offers the usual kinds of practice sentence written by the authors themselves, but then adds a large choice of well-annotated original text passages more or less from Chapter 1. The textbooks we have available thus fit a variety of teaching styles, be they motivated by the desire to get through the grammatical material as quickly as possible (at the risk of a rather dry first few weeks or months of instruction), or by the desire to keep the reason why we are learning classical languages right in front of student eyes the entire time (even though that may initially slow things down and result in large and heavy teaching materials: Learn to Read Greek, for example, comes in four big volumes).

For classes that, after an introductory course, are not ready to take on reading a continuous text yet, there are collections of text excerpts. Usually, these contain passages chosen for their linguistic straightforwardness and/or their contents. A Little Greek Reader ( ALGR) by James Morwood (one of the authors of Athenaze) and Stephen Anderson takes a slightly different approach.

At A5 size and about half an inch in thickness, ALGR is little indeed – but it contains a lot. Its main part are the sections that contain annotated reading passages ordered by grammatical topic. Many of these passages are introduced in such a way as to not just establish their context, but also the (literary, historical etc.) importance of their contents. Each section is set up by means of a brief summary of the topic(s) to be focused on. These are: Indicative Tenses of the Verb; Basic Use of Cases; Adjectives; Time, Place and Space; Personal Pronouns and αὐτός; Indefinite and Demonstrative Pronouns; Participles (two sections); Relative Clauses; Particles; Indirect Statement; Direct and Indirect Questions; Commands, Prohibitions and Wishes; Purpose Clauses; Result Clauses; Conditionals (two sections); Verbs of Fearing, Precaution and Preventing; Indefinite Sentences; Temporal Clauses; Impersonal Verbs and Verbal Adjectives.

We then get two sections of Additional Passages (one Prose, one Verse), and various appendices: one-paragraph descriptions of 23 ancient Greek authors in alphabetical order for easy reference; sections on different forms of Greek (Homer, Herodotus and the New Testament as compared to literary Attic); a section on meter (focusing on hexameter and iambic trimester); a glossary of literary terms (stylistic figures and phenomena such as liminality, irony or closure); a map of Greece and Asia Minor (very helpful, as Classics students often have absolutely no idea of ancient Mediterranean geography); and finally a reference vocabulary of the words used in the reading passages.

The passages are taken from a variety of authors, going beyond Homer and the 5th-century undergraduate canon to include e.g. Theocritus, Callimachus, Lucian and excerpts from various books of the New Testament. The font used in ALGR is appealing and legible; the layout is spacious and useful for note-taking or marginal remarks on any of the readings. The book is straightforward to navigate, but an index locorum ordered by author as well as a regular index of subject matters at the end of the book would have been even more helpful.

As briefly described above, each section of the main body of the book consists of a short introduction to the topic at hand, followed by a selection of prose and verse passages featuring that topic. Some of these introductions are excellent: concise and to the point, providing just the right amount of explanation and number of examples. The introduction to the first section on participles, for example, reads as follows: ‘Participles are verbal adjectives; i.e., they are formed from verbs and so describe an action, but they are adjectives and so in Greek regularly agree with a noun or pronoun, or with a noun or pronoun understood. The future participle, often with ὡς, can express purpose’ (p. 43). This is exactly what one needs to be reminded of before going on to the text excerpts provided to elucidate the various participial uses and functions.

Other sections would perhaps benefit from short examples within the introductory paragraph: in the section on the adjective, for example, we find descriptions of the various possible positions of an adjective in relation to the noun it qualifies. A simple inclusion of, e.g., ὁ ἀγαθὸς ἄνθρωπος, ὁ ἄνθρωπος ὁ ἀγαθός, ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἀγαθός and οὗτος ὁ ἄνθρωπος in that introductory paragraph would have made things clearer without requiring much extra space. The very first section, furthermore, which focuses on ‘The Indicative Tenses of the Verb’ and presumably is included for completeness’ sake, appears slightly incongruous: it is not used to introduce aspect (at least there is no explicit mention of it) but truly just to introduce tense; yet for students who might benefit from a reminder of Greek indicative tenses, a text passage that requires the note “translate the infinitive as an imperative” (p. 1) or one that contains an internally complex genitive absolute (σοῦ δ’ ἀφώνου κατ’ ἐκείνους τοὺς χρόνους ἐν ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις καθημένου, p. 2) might be considered too difficult to be useful. Similarly in the second section (which focuses on case usage): the paragraph on the accusative lists its uses as ‘direct object of a verb, accusative of respect, and after many prepositions, especially those expressing motion toward’. That the accusative of respect is mentioned, but not even given a rudimentary explanation, does not seem ideal at this stage (and the passage used to elucidate accusative usage includes numerous accusatives employed as direct objects, but no accusative of respect). In the sections on more advanced topics (such as commands, prohibitions and wishes), this becomes less of an issue, and particularly the sections on conditional clauses contain excellent text passages.

The passages themselves range from one word (‘εὕρηκα!’) to one page in length, and there are enough of them that an instructor can pick a handful based on the needs and interests of the specific group they are teaching. The annotations sometimes explain single words and sometimes translate whole phrases. The latter would sometimes have been more instructive had a brief literal translation of the expression in question been added; yet this would of course have made the book much longer. Some notes also comment not on grammatical matters, but on literary or other implications of a word in the given context. Especially in the first few sections, more grammatical notes will likely be required; but that is only really an issue for anyone using the book on their own rather than in a classroom context with a teacher at hand.

Overall, ALGR will surely offer a very stimulating addition to Greek language instruction for any teacher who knows the book well and is aware of which elements may need to be further commented on in class (whether while translating together or when assigning a particular passage for homework). Given that its strength lies in its wide range of well-chosen text passages, a possible additional use of ALGR could be as a collection just for teachers, to be drawn on whenever they would like a short literary example of a particular construction, e.g., in an introductory-level class.

ALGR is ideal for those who wish to give their students a taste of a broad variety of authors and genres while reviewing Greek syntax, perhaps especially after a first-year course using a book that did not feature much (or any) original Greek. Given the difficulty of even the passages in the first section, it cannot easily be used to supplement such an introductory book, and, as stated in their introduction, the authors do not intend for ALGR to be employed in such a way (but “throughout or at the end of an intermediate course in the second year of college and university study”). However, it seems that with some more annotation and the addition of a few easier texts specifically in the early sections, such use at lower levels of instruction could have been feasible, making the book more versatile. ALGR does not seem intended for US Classics departments (where courses beyond the introductory level would likely focus on reading a continuous text rather than excerpts), yet within its stated aim, it performs admirably and provides what the best Classics teaching should: texts introduced not just as translation exercises, but also as a constant reminder of why we still study these ‘dead’ languages in the first place.