5 Benefits of Learning Ancient Greek
Ever since I began studying ancient Greek, people have continuously been asking me why I chose it as my foreign language. When I first made the choice, it was largely because of a new found love for all things classical. Reading Homer, Plato, and Aristotle, I was introduced to a whole realm of myths and philosophies that I quickly came to love. Moreover, the New Testament was originally written in Greek, so learning the language afforded me the opportunity to read the Bible in its original form.
After a year of college level Greek, here, in no particular order, are the benefits which I have reaped:
1. A More Thorough Understanding of History
Greek is a language class, right? Actually, I found it to be much more. Even though I had already taken world history for several years, I found that I learned much more about the classical period through my Greek class than through any history course that I had ever taken.
Every week my textbook had me translating passages from books such as Herodotus’ Histories, Xenophon’s Anabasis, or Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Somehow, reading primary text is much better for learning history than merely reading a summary of a time period.
Several of my courses, however, had required me to read primary text, so that would make this benefit non-unique, right? Ultimately, translating – as opposed to merely reading – is where Greek put me ahead. You think much more deeply about what you are reading when you are actually indeed translating. You run the words over and over through your mind and you get things much more imprinted into your brain that way.
2. A Greater Familiarity With Philosophy
You didn’t think that my Greek teacher had me exclusively translating historical works, did you? If you did, you would be wrong. In fact, throughout my course I translated passages from Plato, Aristotle, and other less widely known philosophers. By translating the works, I was forced to ponder them for extended periods of time.
When I read a philosophical work written in English, my eyes tend to glaze over and my brain starts hurting after a relatively short period of time. However, when I read one in Greek, I am forced to work at a slower pace, I get to contemplate the author’s meaning on a much deeper level, and I am actively engaged in the reading. Overall, of course, this makes for a deeper understanding of the philosopher’s concepts.
3. A Greater Grasp of English
You might be surprised by how many words have their roots in Greek. After taking Greek, whenever I see the word “calligraphy,” I immediately think kallos + graphe, the Greek words for beauty and writing. When I hear the word “anthropomorphism,” I think anthropos + morphe, the Greek words for man and form.
My understanding of the English language has been exponentially increased by taking Greek. It is quite rare, if I may take a moment to brag, that I have to look a word up in the dictionary. And when I don’t know the meaning of a word, chances are that it is Latin, the next language that I plan to tackle.
4. A Growing Knowledge of Scripture
Being raised in a Christian family I had read the Bible quite a bit, but Greek took my Bible reading to a whole new level. Not only did the process of translating give me a greater comprehension of what I was reading, but I also learned a lot of interesting things along the way. Did you know that “amen” actually means “truly”? Also, did you know that in the King James where Jesus says, “Verily, verily I say unto you…” that what he is really saying is, “Amen, amen I say unto you…”? And did you know that Jesus’ name was actually Ἰησοῦς? (pronounced Iesous)
Of course, that is just trivia that I picked up along the way, but overall I would say that my understanding of what is being said in the Bible is greater. Indeed, as I continue to translate passages of the Bible, I think that my relationship with Christ will be made deeper, as it has been made over the few months since I began translating from the Bible.
5. A Foundational Introduction to Western Art, Culture, and Mythology
I think that one of the greatest lessons that I learned this year was that you should never, under any circumstances, name your daughter Gorgo. That is probably the most masculine name for a woman that I have ever heard, and I pity the poor women that have had to suffer a life under it.
Joking aside, Greek has given me a familiarity with mythology and western culture that I couldn’t have otherwise achieved so quickly and thoroughly. It has also given me a well of legends to draw inspiration and insight through. In fact, you can look forward in the next few months to a post directly inspired by a legendary man that I learned about through my Greek course.
If you are able, I would definitely recommend that you take at least one year of Greek. There are few classes that I have benefited so greatly from in proportion to my time and effort. Greek is hard, but the benefits far outweigh the cost. The time that I spent learning Greek has been greatly rewarded with a wealth of knowledge, understanding, and inspiration from which to draw.