Search 72,496 tutors
FIND TUTORS

Beginning to Think in Greek

This wonderful passage is an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ autobiographical Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (pp. 140-141) and should provide some inspiration to anyone attempting to learn Ancient Greek:

I arrived at Gastons (so the Knock’s house was called) on a Saturday, and he announced that we would begin Homer on Monday. I explained that I had never read a word in any dialect but the Attic, assuming that when he knew this he would approach Homer through some preliminary lessons on the Epic language. He replied merely with a sound very frequent in his conversation which I can only spell “Huh.” I found this rather disquieting; and I woke on Monday saying to myself, “Now for Homer. Golly!” The name struck awe into my soul. At nine o’clock we sat down in the little upstairs study which soon became so familiar to me. It contained a sofa (on which we sat side by side when he was working with me), a table and chair (which I used when I was alone), a bookcase, a gas stove, and a framed photograph of Mr. Gladstone. We opened our books at Iliad, Book I. Without a word of introduction Knock read aloud the first twenty lines or so in the “new” pronunciation, which I had never heard before. Like Smewgy, he was a chanter; less mellow in voice, yet full gutturals and rolling r’s and more varied vowels seemed to suit the Bronze Age epic as well as Smewgy’s honey tongue suited Horace. For Kirk, even after years of residence in England, spoke the purest Ulster. He then translated, with a few, a very few explanations, about a hundred lines. I had never seen a classical author taken in such large gulps before. When he had finished he handed me over Crusius’ Lexicon and, having told me to go through again as much as I could of what he had done, left the room. It seems an odd method of teaching, but it worked. At first I could travel only a very short way along the trail he had blazed, but every day I could travel further. Presently I could travel the whole way. Then I could go a line or two beyond the furthest North. Then it became something of a game to see how far beyond. He appeared at this stage to value speed more than absolute accuracy. The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the real Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus andship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, and behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding.

The ability to think in Greek should be the goal of any student of the ancient language. It’s difficult to get there – sometimes I find it flowing, and then catch my mind slowly pulling the text back down into English translation like a hidden current. The New Testament is notoriously the most difficult. The English translations are already so present in most readers’ minds after reading and re-reading them countless times throughout their life. They have to actively shut out the ghosts of the NIV or they never fail to obscure the Greek. Maybe that’s the key – just plow through the texts until it’s been so long since you read a word of English that you can’t help but think in Greek!