"But Isn't It Hard?": Making First Year Greek Easier

Wilfred E. Major

Louisiana State University

Retention levels in Greek courses are a source of alarm at many institutions.  Undoubtedly, the greatest block to retention is the difficulty for students of learning the fundamentals of the language.  The Greek program at my institution is experimenting with several initiatives and shifts of emphasis in its beginning Greek courses, all aimed at streamlining the work required of students, while improving their comfort level at reading Greek.  This paper will survey these experiments and report on our assessment of their success.

The Writing System: We now spend more time on the writing system of Ancient Greek than we did previously or than textbooks seem to expect.  The difficulties of the writing system for English speakers and readers go beyond having differently shaped letters for certain sounds.  Words in English have a relatively fixed spelling but pronunciation can diverge radically.  Greek writing reflects minute changes in pronunciation, so learning to write Greek as a representation of pronunciation is a nontrivial skill for new students.  In practice, this means taking class time and quizzes to work on sound combinations.  For consonants, practice includes "adding" consonants together (pi + sigma = psi and so on).  Similarly, vowel combinations are taught.  While presentations of the alphabet routinely include diphthongs, this is also the best time to present vowel contractions.  The two ideas complement each other, after all (vowel combinations whose second vowel is ι or υ are diphthongs; the rest are susceptible to contraction).  Students can better focus on contractions when they are not simultaneously learning new morphology, syntax and vocabulary.  At this early stage, transliteration is a valuable tool for both pronunciation and recognition.  To indicate the seriousness of our commitment and to reward students' effort, the first exam in Greek is devoted exclusively to the alphabet, transliteration, and sound combinations.

Morphology:  Here the extra time spent on the writing system has paid off in the time required for memorization of forms.  The formation of the stems of tenses is easier to present and to learn, because the spelling changes associated with the stem changes (augments, reduplication, addition of σ) make sense to students comfortable with sound combinations.  Memorization of principal parts can focus on common verbs with truly non-intuitive stem changes.  Recognition of regular stems (or those with only mild irregularities) improves.  Contract verbs, nouns, and adjectives become straightforward items.  Moreover, many of the plethora of paradigms for 3rd declension nouns become intuitive, or nearly so.  While there are always exceptions in Greek, students develop a better grasp of what is the norm and do not get lost in a sea of irregularities.

Vocabulary: As Helma Dik has observed, many of the most frequently appearing words in Greek are presented late or not at all in most beginning Greek textbooks.  The most common pronouns, prepositions, and connecting particles deserve substantial attention early, along with practice and reinforcement.  We are also refining the "80% list" generated by the Perseus Project Vocabulary Tool to produce a core vocabulary of a little over a 1,000 words, to be memorized by students over the course of a two-year program.  This list is independent of what textbook we use, of what readings we use in the second year courses, and based on a much wider range of texts than previously published vocabulary lists.  Using this list brings coherence and consistency to our expectations for vocabulary.  It also emphasizes one area where Greek is easier than other languages, in that it has a more restricted core vocabulary (English and Latin each require twice as many lemmas to generate a comparable list). 

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