Learning Greek is the most economical intellectual investment one can make.
-Garry Wills, Outside Looking In
In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, a character named Casca, having just returned from listening to a speech by the famous Roman orator Cicero, is asked what he made of the speech. Casca replies that Cicero spoke in Greek and: “those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.” This exchange shows that by the time of Shakespeare, the saying “it’s all Greek to me” had already acquired the meaning of something incomprehensible to us.
Shakespeare’s audience would have enjoyed the pun; yet it is worth noting that for many in the audience Greek would not have been incomprehensible in the least. Elizabeth I herself, the Queen of England in 1599 when Julius Caesar was first performed, knew Greek. And of course she wasn’t alone. Greek had been a compulsory subject in English schools since the mid-1500s owing to a surge of interest in the Greek classics that accompanied the rise of the Renaissance. And the study of Greek classics required knowledge of the language they were written in. The great Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who had taught himself Greek and made it his life’s mission to have all educated persons learn Greek, had expressed this view with laconic clarity: “In no learning are we anything without Greek.”
Sadly, this sentiment is no longer current. This does not mean that it’s no longer valid. Our culture is rooted in the soil of Greece and cannot be fully appreciated without knowledge of the language that seeded and nourished it.
That’s a conclusion investigative journalist I. F. Stone arrived at through experience. In retirement, Stone wanted to explore the development of freedom of thought. That exploration brought him to ancient Athens, where freedom of thought and speech first flourished. Unhappy with the extant literature on the subject – he found the relevant studies contradictory, reflecting the contrasting views of the scholars producing them – he turned to the original sources. There he found that he could not rely on translations because the Greek terms had no exact English equivalents, forcing the translator to choose among English approximations.
“To understand a Greek conceptual term,” Stone concluded, “one had to learn at least enough Greek to grapple with it in the original, for only in the original could one grasp the full potential implications and color of the term.”
And so Stone learned Greek in his seventies so that he could read Greek classics in the original. He went on to write a best seller about the prosecution and death of Socrates, The Trial of Socrates, a still-puzzling event about the failure of the Athenians to live up to the principles of free thought and speech that they proclaimed. The study of Greek, Stone says, led him “far afield into the Greek poets and literature generally. Their exploration continues to be a joy.”
The grammarian Marry Norris had a similar experience about falling in love with Greek. Norris started learning Greek in her thirties chiefly in order to facilitate travelling in Greece. She was working for The New Yorker at the time and got the magazine to pay for her Greek courses. How did she manage that? By showing that Greek was useful to her job on the copydesk. English contains thousands of words borrowed from Greek. Knowing Greek enhances one’s capacity to understand these loan words and spot errors. Norris recounts this story in a delightful recent book, Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen. The book was reviewed in these pages by Eleni Sakellis. (That review can be found in The National Herald issue of 15-22 May 2019, p.7.)
Having learned Greek to facilitate her travels in Greece (and improve her spelling abilities), Norris fell under the language’s spell. “Greek has been my salvation,” she confesses in her book. “Whenever I have been away from Greek for a while and come back to it, it revives something in me, it gives me an erotic thrill, as if every verb and noun had some visceral connection to what it stands for.”
Greek has that effect on the student. It is the key to a literature of unparalleled riches. And it is a language that sings. A huge benefit of learning Greek is the delight derived from reading in a language that, in the words of British writer Robert Payne, “ripples like water and flashes like dancing flames.” Heinrich Schliemann, who spoke nineteen (19!) languages, wrote that Greek “is the most beautiful language in the world. It is the language of the gods.”
So, dear reader, if the Greek language is all Greek to you, why not take up Garry Wills’ advice in the epigraph at the top of this article? Make it a resolution this year to learn Greek. Then, when you come to an understanding with friends about something, instead of closing off with the tired old cliché “sounds good”, you’ll be able to say with a wry smile: “it’s all Greek.” Doesn’t that sound better?
Basil Zafiriou is an economist based in Ottawa. Retired from the federal public service of Canada, he now concentrates his work mainly on Greek affairs and the Greek Diaspora.