Thursday, August 09, 2012


Those Were the Days

Compton Mackenzie (1883–1972), Greece in My Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 1960), pp. 4-5:
It was in September 1892 that I got beyond the alphabet and really began to learn Greek. In the course of a year I had gone up six classes to reach the Lower Second A presided over by Mr. Macdougal. Those were the days when to teach a lot of inky little boys assistant-masters were expected to dress with more care than nowadays people would dress for a garden-party at Buckingham Palace. Mr. Macdougal's frock coat always seemed to us the extreme of dandified elegance, and Mr. Macdougal's high silk hat had such a glossy sheen that we were almost shamed into smoothing down our own disordered hair to be worthy of its sleekness. Yet Mr. Macdougal, who with his handsome, florid, clean-shaven face and slightly mincing manner liked to play Beau Brummel in his own classroom, was sometimes driven into shouting as vulgarly as any ordinary schoolmaster, out of exasperation at the failure of most of his class to show the least inclination to grasp the difference between the negative imperative μή and the ordinary negative οὔ.

I no longer have my copy of Rutherford's Greek Grammar, so unsuitably bound in that smooth pale-blue cloth which cried out for the spidery decorations of a schoolboy's pen. Yet if it were beside me at this moment I could open it at the conjugation of that amiable regular verb λύειν (to loose) which did not provide even a strong aorist to compete with its own weak aorist. I could gabble through its moods and tenses as fast as I can say the alphabet today.

But those irregular verbs, those paradigms to repeat which tormented the toughest memory.

'Turn to the irregular verbs in Rutherford, boys.'

That command sounded like a long sentence of penal servitude. βαίνω, ἔβην ... enough, enough! Nor were the irregular verbs the only pages in Rutherford to daunt the neophyte of Greek. The examples it gave of the Attic dialect seemed to us not less perverse. I have always been a devout champion of Athens against Sparta. I was a hoplite at Syracuse; I would have shown no mercy to any island untrue to the Delian Confederacy; there was a time when I even grudged Leonidas the glory of Thermopylae. But the Attic dialect did strain one's loyalty. The Athenians may have built the Parthenon; but it must count against them that they had to change a word like ναός (naos) for a temple and decline it eccentrically as νεώς (neōs).

They had a passion for νεώς, and and one asks if the maritime collapse may not have been hastened by expecting their Ionian friends to use the same genitive for ναῦς (naws) a ship. One can imagine an island like Mytilene withdrawing from the Confederacy of Delos merely because it was expected to employ such a provocative genitive.
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.

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