Saturday, November 03, 2018
Is Age Sixteen Too Late to Learn Greek?
A dead language which is not learnt till the age of sixteen will, I fear, as a general rule, not be learnt at all. There is something in the mastering of grammar and dictionary difficulties which naturally belongs to the earliest stages of instruction, when learning is more or less compulsory. A boy who is conscious of making real progress in one or two languages (I speak from my own school experience) will be the very person to resent most the drudgery of having to carry on, pari passu, the low, childish taskwork of another tongue. And if this is true of any language, it is true of Greek in a very high degree. The mere strangeness of the character has something repellent in it, so that even one who can read Greek pretty fluently (I speak not merely of what I felt as a boy, but of what I feel to this day) will often prefer, in reading an unfamiliar author, to read him with the help of a Latin translation. Then, again, the fact, noticed by Mr. Sidgwick in another connexion, that Greek has influenced modern languages so little, renders it specially difficult, and by consequence specially repulsive. Who that has groaned under the unfamiliarity of the German prefixes an and mit, über and unter, ver and zer, the force of which it requires such an effort to calculate beforehand, can doubt what annoyance a clever boy of sixteen would feel in constantly having to turn to his lexicon to satisfy himself about the effect of ἀνά, κατά, μετά, and παρά in composition?I.F. Stone (1907-1989), The Trial of Socrates (New York: Anchor Books, 1989), p. xi:
In my day, even in a country high school, one had four years of Latin to prepare for college, and Catullus and Lucretius were among my early enthusiasms. But I had only one semester of Greek in college before I dropped out in my junior year.From I.F. Stone's interview of himself, New York Times (January 22, 1978):
I decided in retirement to learn enough Greek to be able to grapple with conceptual terms for myself. I started on my own with a bilingual edition of the Gospel of St. John, then went to the first book of the Iliad. But the study of Greek soon led me far afield into the Greek poets and Greek literature generally. Their exploration continues to be a joy.
I well remember that terrible morning in the basement stacks at American University, before I had acquired my office and title, when I discovered that Bishop Thirlwall, the great Whig historian of Greece, had already learned Greek at the age of 4. Luckily, I was not armed, or I would have shot myself there and then beside the shelves of classics. How could I dare, in my late 60's, to begin the long and rocky ascent to the distant peaks of that intricate language at my age?