Using a Core Vocabulary in Beginning and Intermediate Greek

Wilfred E. Major

Louisiana State University

The complexity of inflection and syntax in Greek presents a challenge for teachers of Greek who strive to recruit and retain enough students to maintain a healthy Greek program.  There is, however, an area where Greek is actually simpler than other languages.  Utilizing a core vocabulary for beginning and intermediate classes provides a rare opportunity to tell students something in Greek is actually easier, rather than harder, than in other languages. 

Most languages (including English and Latin) have a core vocabulary of 2,000-3,000 words which make up 80% of written texts.  For ancient Greek texts, however, a list of roughly 1,100 words generates the same 80% portion.  In our program, we have adopted such a list as the "Core Vocabulary" for the first two years of Greek.  We make the list, as well as various subsets of it, available as free, downloadable pdf's ( This is not just a list which students are expected to memorize in their spare time.  Students are steadily and progressively held responsible for more of the list, until, by the end of the intermediate sequence (in our case, the fourth semester), they should know the entire list before taking an upper level reading course.

In the beginning sequence, the Core Vocabulary serves several purposes.  First, since beginning Greek textbooks can have unwieldy vocabularies, often dictated by the readings included in them, the Core provides a control and restraint on the vocabulary for which students are responsible.  Students are expected to know vocabulary which the textbook gives and which also appears in the Core Vocabulary.  Such a core list, then, can be used in combination with any textbook and allows for more stability if teachers change textbooks.  The stability of the list also reassures students in a number of ways.  The philosophy behind the list means they have faith that the vocabulary they learn will be useful for them.  More directly, making reference to the list allows for more concrete instruction about forms and concepts.  What does it mean, for example, that "some" Greek verbs to have a second aorist?  Answer: 36 of the 247 base verbs in the Core Vocabulary have a second aorist.  How often do verbs have deponent futures?  (33 of 247)  How rare are feminine nouns in the second declension?  (four feminine nouns versus 74 masculine and 25 neuter)  A subset of the Core arranges third declension nouns by stem type, which helps students (and teachers) make sense of and prioritize the multiple paradigms they are learning.

In intermediate courses, students can fill in gaps, drill principal parts of verbs, and review in a systematic manner.  Vocabulary quizzes can test by stem type, for example, which makes it easier for students to see and learn the patterns verb and noun stems follow (rather than students feeling no Greek verb is regular).  Similarly, students can learn vocabulary in sense groups (groups of compound verbs, parts of the body, etc).  Vocabulapy assistance for readings can be based on the Core Vocabulary and students can even begin developing a sense for vocabulary prominent in particular authors or genres.

Most importantly, however, at the stage of learning Greek when students most often feel overwhelmed and that the material is impossibly random or unmanageable, an integrated, stable vocabulary can instill confidence and reap further benefits as students spend more time reading actual Greek texts.


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page