The Case Against Speaking Ancient Greek: Common Reservations Addressed

On the night of Feb. 1, I asserted online that the ability to have high-level discussions about Ancient Greek texts in Ancient Greek ought to be the standard for Ancient Greek education. When Trevor Evans, an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Archaeology at Macquarie University, asked me why, I told him that the question was a good one, and that I’d write a full treatment of the question and get back to him. This post was intended to be that treatment. I intended for it to have a two-part structure: the first part anticipating common reservations that tend to pose obstacles to understanding the real value of conversational Ancient Greek, and the second part making the positive case for its benefits. 

By the night of Feb. 3, I had written most of the first part of the originally intended post, but none of the second. At this point, Professor Evans decided to share his criticisms of the idea of conversational Ancient Greek – all of which by that point I had already anticipated and written about in draft form – rather than to wait for the promised account. 

While the originally promised post, in light of the circumstances, seemed to be no longer needed (at least not immediately), to discard pages of thoughts that might be useful to others seemed unnecessarily wasteful. I’ve elected, therefore, to truncate this post, including only the completed first half, while promising that the second will come in a future sequel post. This post addresses common points of reservation about the use of Ancient Greek conversationally.

Common Reservations

While one could perhaps formulate other points of reservation about using Ancient Greek conversationally, these four are the only reservations that I’ve heard personally. They’re common, and they’re all useful springboards for thinking about obstacles and possibilities faced by the spoken Ancient Greek community. 

  1. We don’t know how Ancient Greek actually sounded.
  2. We have literary imitations of spoken Ancient Greek, but no record of real speech.
  3. “Conversational Ancient Greek” can only be a modern anachronistic hodge-podge.
  4. Time spent speaking Ancient Greek could be employed more fruitfully either reading or writing.

Putting aside the truth of the first three points of reservation, they implicitly suggest that the primary aim of the conversational Ancient Greek community is to LARP with high historical accuracy. I won’t deny that the LARP element is there – it definitely is, and it’s fun – but I insist that the benefits of conversational Ancient Greek for reading proficiency are vastly more important to us than the pleasure to come from LARPing. In light of this, the first three points of reservation become irrelevant.

1) We don’t know how Ancient Greek actually sounded.

This reservations is probably expressed more often than the others. The key to the question is the word “we;” one who has ignored or hasn’t heard of any of the scholarship on this question, after all, should be expected to take this position. But we have the articulatory phonetic accounts of ancient grammarians at our disposal, as well as tons of examples of spelling mistakes preserved in inscriptions and papyri that have provided us with ample evidence to speak with confidence about the pronunciation of Ancient Greek, not just generally, but also in specific times and places. We might not always know exactly when a specific change happened in a specific place, but even in these cases phonologists are generally able to deduce relatively small windows in which the changes must have occurred. Those interested in reading some scholarly work on this evidence should check the bibliographies of my posts about the Alexandrian and Caesarian Systems.

This point of reservation, however, isn’t relevant to the concerns of the conversational Ancient Greek community. We’re primarily interested in reading proficiency, not an accurate LARP. Theoretically speaking, everyone could pronounce all the plosives as fricatives and all the front vowels as back vowels (and vice versa!) and, as long as they used the same pronunciation while reading, we’d still get the benefits that we care about most. The LARP is cool, but the LARP does not govern.

2) We have literary imitations of spoken Ancient Greek, but no record of real speech.

I’m not sure this argument could come from anyone who isn’t incredibly obtuse, but it is worth considering. In the strictest sense, no, we do not have records of real Ancient Greek speech – at least in the form of audio recordings. How could we? But we do have plenty of writings, both formal and colloquial, the latter of which surely wouldn’t have been altogether different in syntax, word choice, etc. from the spoken language of its authors. For example, we literally have a piece of papyrus, dug up from an ancient trash dump, in which a young son expresses anger at his father for going to Alexandria without him, and threatens to stop eating if his father doesn’t send him a lyre (see here). While admittedly an extreme case, that it has considerable bearing on the ordinary spoken language of its author could only be denied by somebody suffering an especially troublesome case of academic vanity. 

We also have plenty of speeches and artistic representations of speech, which, while often high-brow and better than even many well-educated speakers could produce on-the-spot, could not have achieved their intended effects if they diverged too much from patterns of ordinary speech. Consider the diction of the best comedian you can think of; in the rare instances in which it’s unrealistically elevated, the comedian is probably mocking somebody given to excessive grandeur. The same can be said of Aristophanes. In comedy, abnormal speech brings more ordinary registers into stronger relief. Consider also the speeches of Lysias, known for a remarkable directness and simplicity of diction that seems to have been intended to give the impression of honesty in legal proceedings. Surely these are polished works of art, but could they really have achieved their intended effect if they seemed to reflect the patterns of speech of a literary elite – especially at a time in which an oligarchy, despised by the people, had just fallen – or if they appeared so polished as to resemble a performance piece rather than the language of ordinary human interactions? Lastly, consider that Plato, however poetically adorned his dialogues may be, could not have achieved the purpose of showing how philosophy can arise organically from dialogue about ordinary human concerns if the dialogue in his works seemed especially contrived to his readers. Poetry may distort some things, but it clarifies others. Only someone especially inattentive to how literature works would completely reject literary evidence as having bearing on the patterns of speech of Ancient Greek.

Finally, because the point of conversational Ancient Greek is to read Ancient Greek more effectively and efficiently, modern speakers of Ancient Greek speaking in an artificial literary register would hardly be problematic. If the goal is to read literature better, this would very much be a good thing! I would love to have this problem. But I can assure you all – as an active participant in this community who actually has evidence for its patterns of speech – that we speak much more like that angry little boy in Egypt than we do the interlocutors of Plato’s dialogues (εἴθε γίγνοιτο!).

3) “Conversational Ancient Greek” can only be a modern, anachronistic hodge-podge.

This argument isn’t altogether false, but under-estimates just how much can be gotten right. One cannot deny that knowledge of newer Greek vocabulary or syntactical patterns (whether ancient or modern) will affect one’s spoken Ancient Greek, nor that being an L1 speaker of a modern language will create patterns of interference different from, for example, those of a native Latin speaker. Anyone with experience with prose composition, however, knows that the first of these problems can be fixed considerably through careful reading and then selective integration or culling in light of what’s been learned, and anyone with experience learning a modern L2 knows that the second problem will go away with enough comprehensible input – even if one rarely ever speaks.

So, yes, Christophe Rico, for example, did spend years using παρακαλῶ as if it were an equivalent to the Modern Greek usage or to the English “please.” But he eventually figured out that he shouldn’t, and he stopped. More importantly, I bet he could improvise a historically-accurate, grammatically-correct monologue in Ancient Greek more quickly than the critics of conversational Ancient Greek could read it, and I bet he could read a book of the NT faster than his critics could finish a couple of chapters.

Supposing, however, that the anachronistic hodge-podge problem couldn’t be solved, this would not be a problem. First, anybody who knows anything about the history of Koine can tell you that Atticism – a movement dedicated to restoring the style and diction of the greatest Attic authors – began in the 1st century BC, lasted for many centuries, and regularly produced comical errors and anachronisms. It is historically accurate to speak using an anachronistic hodge-podge. But secondly, our primary goal is to read, not to LARP, and to this end speaking an anachronistic hodge-podge would probably help rather than hurt.

4) Time spent speaking Ancient Greek could be employed more fruitfully either reading or writing.

This point of reservation deserves to be taken seriously. If the primary goal is to read better, to persist in speaking Ancient Greek, were it truly a less efficient way to learn, would make little sense. Answering this point of reservation requires an account of the benefits of spoken Ancient Greek for reading, with special focus on what it can provide that reading or writings cannot. I originally intended to include that in this article, but, owing both to the articles current size and the circumstances of its composition, I’ve decided to save a full discussion of this point for a sequel. In the meantime, don’t knock conversational Ancient Greek until you’ve tried it. Stay tuned.