rachelatarms (rachelatarms) wrote,
rachelatarms
rachelatarms

On Learning Inflected Languages (and How Cool It Is)

Learning languages for Classics is something of an odd undertaking. Most language majors (German, French, etc.) do so first by learning to speak the language before moving on to reading works in-depth, which—probably because Latin and ancient Greek are 'dead'*—is not the case in Classics. 

In case you're not familiar with this particular type of linguistic structure, I should explain that Latin and Greek are both inflected languages (a trait derived from their common Indo-European root, which is also the source of Sanskrit and many other languages). This means that the ending of the word changes (sometimes in vowel grade alone, sometimes through the addition/exclusion of other phonemes) based upon the grammatical function that the word serves in a sentence. Similarly, verbs themselves contain person, number, and tense/mood/voice (and aspect, if you're in Greek or very, very early Latin) all through a simple morphological process. Thus, rather than needing to say "I had gone to the store" and compose the pluperfect through the use of an auxiliary, you could simply use ONE verb and ONE noun—but still contain a complete thought. 

While this gives Latin and Greek their own kind of precision and concise thought, it also means that there are many, many forms of every word. As a result, it's very common that students learning Latin and/or Greek do so through repetition of the forms and their meanings. 

I didn't. 

Before I explain why that is, I should explain something. I am very weirdly left-brained. Absolute rubbish with math, but give me patterns, linguistic formulae, meter and quantitative syllables in ancient poetry, and my soul is happy. I can do rote memorization (that's how I learned Latin, and largely still the basis of my reading in Latin to this day), but the place I do best is in patterns. Behavioral patterns, story patterns...and, as luck would have it, morphological patterns. 

You see, I began taking Greek about a year ago, and I was petrified. I'd heard how difficult Greek was, and that it was the bane of every undergraduate Classics student's existence—which did not make me the-perfectionist-young-honors-student horribly excited. But I had to try, because a Classicist without Greek is a sad thing indeed. 

Through one of the most fortuitous events of my collegiate career, my Greek class was taught by a professor who has a rather unconventional (but quite superior) method of teaching. Rather than focusing on sheer memorization, he used the core structure of the words—how they were built from their semantic core and up, with sound changes and dialectical variations—to teach, tying certain aspects of how Greek creates words to the root Indo-European cause and how it can be traced through the various language families. So while I still had to remember the case endings and the verbal stems, I now had a reason behind it. These inflected endings and aspect markers and whatnot were not decided by an act of whim—everything had meaning. It turned into a system—reliable, organized, and thoroughly predictable. 

I connected with this way of thinking about language very deeply. I loved the blend of artistry and poetics present in the rhythm of ancient Greek, how all the syllables fit together, but I also loved the fact that it was almost mechanical and technical in the way it was constructed—a system that can be learned and understood. That something is a machine doesn't mean that it can't be amazing and beautiful—our very word poetic comes from a Greek verb, ποιέω, meaning to make or do. It's a very generic term. As a result the semantic core of a poem is a thing which is made. A creation. 

This is the paradox about language. It's the simplest and it's the most complicated thing in the world.  Even tiny children grasp and respond to language long before they can use it for themselves, and yet it manages to link every single person on this planet in some way, bypassing all the horribly complicated things going on in our brains having to do with pathways and cells and whatnot, and even though we have endlessly different experiences and points of view, we can string together a simple set of sounds and create comprehensible meaning from the lips of one person to the ear of another. We have relatively few characters in Indo-European alphabets, and most of our words aren't terribly long, but even the smallest word can be the most profound—the most sad.**  Languages stop being spoken and lie about on tablets or stone, immortalized while their civilization turns to dust around it and entire worlds forget that it even ever existed, but they never truly disappear. The effects of a tongue always leave something behind—maybe a faint trace, a linguistic ghost in the etymology of a rare word, but it's never wholly gone. Language preserves within its infinitely complex structure maintains the impressions of those who spoke it long after they've ended. 

And yet, if there's no one to read that writing or hear that speech, it's entirely without meaning. It is beautiful, and it is tragic.

Language is a paradox, and language is power, and language is magic. Remember that.

*In truth, they're hardly dead. They are static, they are unchanging, they are history—but they are not rotting and decrepit. They are frozen in time, not lifeless. 

**BLATANT DOCTOR WHO REFERENCE, Y'ALL.
Tags: classics, greek, languages, latin, philology
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