For those of us who grew up speaking Greek at home and attending Greek afternoon school, it can be something of a surprise when you first hear that there are many non-Greek people who choose to learn Greek and especially its ancient form and make it their life’s work. It certainly should flatter Hellenism that people from various cultures would choose Classics as their major in college and painstakingly study ancient Greek, pouring over the texts written by our revered ancestors that have somehow survived through the millennia. When those Classics majors then write charming books about how much they love Greek, it should encourage everyone to continue to support Greek education and Classics departments.
The Ingenious Language: Nine Epic Reasons to Love Greek by Andrea Marcolongo is one such charming book. Originally published in 2016 in the author’s native language, Italian, the book appeared in English in 2019, translated by Will Schutt. Marcolongo is an Italian journalist, writer, Classics scholar, and former speech writer for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The Ingenious Language was a bestseller in Italy and in many of the other dozen countries in which it has thus far been published. She is also the author of The Heroic Measure.
The Ingenious Language takes us on a journey through Marcolongo’s experience learning ancient Greek beginning in high school and eventually teaching it to her students. She reminds us of how interconnected language and culture are and how much Greek has evolved over time and how influential the language has been and indeed continues to be. Marcolongo also touches on the history that shaped ancient Greek and the changes that eventually made Koine Greek the common language of the Mediterranean world, and how ancient Greek evolved into Modern Greek.
With humorous anecdotes from her own life as well as sidebars highlighting specific aspects of studying ancient Greek, Marcolongo has created a fascinating exploration of the language. In the chapter titled Three Genders, Three Numbers, she shares the story of how her father gave her a man’s name, Andrea in Italian, as in Greek, is the equivalent of Andrew, to demonstrate the arbitrariness of gender in various languages as Andrea in other languages is a woman’s name.
For those of us who spend at least some of our time translating, the chapter titled So, How Do You Translate That? is especially insightful. Marcolongo writes, “Translation calls for fluency, consistency, and trust in ourselves and the language. A text speaks, we just need to listen […] I understood then that the only way to proceed was to think like the Greeks.”
Her advice on translating is highlighted by an ancient Greek passage by Xenophon translated using two different approaches, both correct, but one is “subserviently academic” or scholarly while the other “dynamic” translation is loose, capturing the spirit of the text without sticking to a word for word translation.
Marcolongo’s love for ancient Greek reminds the reader what an extraordinary language it is and how lucky Greek speakers are today as the heirs to such an impressive heritage.
As Marcolongo explains in her entertaining book, Greek is unsurpassed in its beauty and expressivity, while also offering us new ways of seeing the world and our place in it.
The Ingenious Language: Nine Epic Reasons to Love Greek by Andrea Marcolongo is available online and in bookstores.