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An image from a collection of advertising posters Prof. Ismini Lamb uses on the Georgetown campus for the Modern Greek Studies Program. (Photo: Courtesy of Prof. Ismini Lamb)
As International Greek Language Day approaches on February 9, I think of the countless times I have been asked about the value of learning Greek. I always respond by noting Greek can improve test scores! By one account, 25 percent of the words in the Merriam-Webster dictionary are derived from Greek. Students who know Greek can spell better and decipher unfamiliar words. If a word begins with ‘dys,’ they know it means something bad or difficult, as in ‘dys-functional.’ They deduce even esoteric words, like ‘anhypnia,’ knowing ‘an,’ means not, without, lacking, or deficient; ‘hypn’ indicates sleep; and ‘ia’ is a state or condition, i.e. the state of lacking sleep. Students tell us that knowing Greek root words, prefixes, and suffixes improves performance on all sorts of standardized tests.
Greek also deepens appreciation of classic literature, allowing one to delve into the revered texts that animated Western civilization! Reading Homer’s epic poems, Sophocles’ tragedies, Socrates’ dialogues, Plato’s philosophy, Aristotle’s science, Euclid’s geometry, Hippocrates’ medicine, and Herodotus’ and Thucydides’ histories in their original Greek is a mind-opening (if not mind-blowing) experience, as many great minds testify. George Bernard Shaw advised people to “Learn Greek” for “it is the language of wisdom.” Leo Tolstoy remarked, “I knew nothing before I learned Greek,” and “without a knowledge of Greek there is no education.” Goethe, the famous German intellect, observed that “of all the peoples the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life best.” Albert Einstein admitted, “I have always been far more interested in [the Greeks] than in science.”
Modern Greek has a wondrous continuity with ancient Greek! That is why many modern Greek language programs are embedded in departments of classics, which is the case at Georgetown University where I teach. Modern Greek students do not find it hard to master ancient Greek, and they also can access the Nobel prize-quality literature of modern Greek poets and novelists! The Modern Greeks are not appreciated as much as their ancestors, but they deserve to be! The Greeks manned the gates of Western civilization for centuries. Greek culture dominated the Byzantine Empire, which outlasted the Roman Empire by a thousand years. After the Byzantines fell under the autocratic hand of the Ottomans, they maintained their identity through their Greek language and culture. The West helped liberate the Greeks from the Ottomans, but tiny Greece repaid the debt with critical contributions to ending both world wars. My greatest pleasure is sharing these and other aspects of Modern Greek history and culture with students!
The Greek language beguiles and rewards adherents with its intrinsic beauty and precision. No other language surpasses Greek for richness of expression, a point often illustrated by noting English has one word for ‘love’ while Greek has no less than five. Greek precision is an attribute of the almost mathematical structure of Greek word composition. Greek syntax is also incredibly flexible, allowing speakers to communicate with great nuance. Great minds have rhapsodized about Greek language for centuries. In his philosophical dictionary, Voltaire explained why Greek was “the most beautiful language in the universe.” Winston Churchill argued clever students should “learn Latin as an honor— and Greek as a treat.” For Helen Keller, if the violin was the most perfect musical instrument, then the “Greek language is the violin of human thought.”
Christians have an additional reason to study Greek. It is the language of the New Testament! After the fall of the Byzantine Empire’s capital in 1453, Greek scholars fled with their manuscripts to Western Europe. A revival of Greek studies followed, and then, in 1516, Biblical studies exploded with the publication of the New Testament in Greek, which in turn helped propel the greatest period of Christian evangelism since the first century. The value of reading the New Testament in its original Greek has been remarked upon ever since. Jim Elliot the missionary murdered by natives in Ecuador, wrote in his diary that when he read John 19 in the original Greek it seemed as if he was reading it for the first time, so much more vivid was it than any English translations. Learning Greek is one way to know God Himself better!
George Horton, the famous U.S. Consul General in Smyrna when the city was sacked and burned in 1922, once offered another speculative, but nonetheless intriguing reason for learning Greek. Horton spoke Modern Greek fluently, translated ancient Greek works, and often extolled the beauty, precision, and lyricism of the Greek language. Horton told his daughter he was convinced, “God speaks Greek in Heaven.” Horton, a dedicated Christian, passed away in 1942, so he now knows the truth of his supposition. Alas, we do not. However, I am inclined to side with Horton. Why else would God choose to communicate His message of salvation in Greek?
Ismini Lamb is the Director of the Modern Greek Studies Program at Georgetown University where she has taught and researched Greek language, history, and culture for more than 30 years. She is the co-author of George Horton’s biography: The Gentle American: George Horton’s Odyssey and His True Account of the Smyrna Catastrophe, which is available from Gorgias Press, Amazon, and other vendors in hardback (ISBN 978-1-4632-4449-1), and in an eBook edition from Gorgias’ publishing partner, De Gruyter (doi.org/10.31826/9781463244507); hardback: https://bit.ly/3jgKzq5;
eBook edition: https://bit.ly/3Ye4THd.
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