22 March 2008


The customs of the Lydians are like those of the Greeks, save that they make prostitutes of their female children. They were the first men (known to us) who coined and used gold and silver currency; and they were the first to sell by retail. And, according to what they themselves say, the pastimes now in use among them and the Greeks were invented by the Lydians: these, they say, were invented among them at the time when they colonised Tyrrhenia.

The page-123 meme is going around again. Not that anyone has tagged me; this is a do-it-yourself version. The book is volume I of the Loeb Classical Library's edition of Herodotus's The Persian Wars.

And what is this doing on my desk? Well, I've tried about three times to teach myself classical Greek, and I always bog down, though I will say I get a little farther each time. Aside from time constraints, my biggest problem is that neither of the two textbooks I've used has enough exercises (so I make up my own and hope I'm getting things right) and nothing like enough to read. I've learned a lot of old dead languages, usually by the method of skimming through a grammar, opening up a text and a dictionary, and painfully parsing and translating every. dashed. word. It's not as if I need to know how to conduct a conversation in Old French (though I am sorry my Latin is not good enough to comprehend papers delivered in Latin at Kalamazoo---I haven't noticed any such recently, but they used to happen).

Anyway, Herodotus is my newly-acquired attempt to supply the something-to-read that I need. When I was under 25, memorizing paradigms came easily; when I was under 20, I could acquire vocabulary by reading through a list once or twice. The older I get, the harder languages are to acquire or hang onto. The grammar of languages I learned early on stays fairly intact, but vocabulary disappears into the ether. For later acquisitions, even the grammar is dicey. Similarities between Greek and other Indo-European languages I know help a bit (hey, the 2nd-person singular verb ending is like the vosotros ending in Spanish!), but what actually gets a language to stick in my head for any length of time* is narrative. Or aphorisms, nice memorable little chunks of wisdom. I need continuity and something to think about.

What I really want to able to read in Greek is Marcus Aurelius (speaking of aphorisms), but as all his translators note the peculiarities of his style, even I realize I should start with something more straightforward.

My upcoming sabbatical (nine weeks off, and yes, I'm counting) has to go to finishing my book. And it will. But my secret ambition was to make more progress on the book this year, so that I could spend the sabbatical being a classics major, to make up for my mis-spent undergraduate years: really work at the Greek, revive my Latin, get in touch with my inner nineteenth-century British schoolboy.**

*Notice I've given up hope of really learning new languages now, and will settle for a renewable acquaintance.

**What? Don't you have an inner nineteenth-century British schoolboy?

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