Why Greek Rules

Why Greek Rules

John Adams considered it the supreme language.

Cicero’s grandfather was wary of anyone who spoke it.

And of course, the New Testament is written in it.

I’m not singing the praises of the Greek language because of my heritage, or the fact that some of the greatest works in the Western tradition were composed in it. Fact is, aside from some phrases, I don’t really speak it. But there is something about it that I wish I could explain, something compelling that makes me want to sit down and study the grammar, memorize a long list of words and maybe, just maybe, write some thoughts down in it.

It’s a romantic idea, to be sure. I have this rather unused Moleskin journal that I keep wanting to make entries in when the mood strikes me. Of course, I’d leave it on a table somewhere and inevitably, a friend will pick it up and flip it open to be greeted by line after line of deep insight in a language they can’t decipher. It’s a way of showing off while maintaining some privacy, you know?

Being able to communicate in a foreign language, for me, is a supreme gift that people don’t place any value on. In our country, speaking a language other than English is something to be discouraged or looked down on, while in Europe, there’s a better tradition of it. But the lyricism of Greek just pulls at me in a way that Spanish, French or even English can’t. I write these words quickly in English, my mother tongue, but to express the sound of the birds, the movement of leaves in the wind, or a four stanza thought of God in Greek: oh man, how that captures my imagination and brings me closer to what it feels like to be Greek. To smell the air drifting off the wine-dark sea and the sounds of a symposium late at night, debating the nature of love, or even lovemaking itself: this is my olive tree paradise.

And the music! There is a sorrowful quality to the language of a song composed in Greek. It’s not mournful or dispiriting, but you can sense it even in a pop song (sorry, I don’t like rembetiko!) bubbling under the surface. It’s a tone, a feeling, a sense that comes from thousands of years of civilization, destruction, rebuilding, speculation, occupation, peace and war. It is the unique sound of the Greek language.

Did I tell you I’m a romantic?

The pull of Greek represents a culture that continues to effect us even to this day. It was the language of refined comedy and unrivaled intellectual prowess. The flexibility and power of the language was called into service by some of the greatest minds in Western history. They conceived of ideas—scientific and philosophic—that outshone the cultures around them, Egyptian and Persian. The Egyptians were much older, yes, but their language was never called into service the way Greek was. The Egyptians were preoccupied with death and the afterlife: the Greeks offered their libations, composed their poetry and speculated on the nature of the world and the universe. Words poured forth, were created and changed, expanding the vocabulary to keep up with the inquisitive, insatiable Greek mind.

No, I don’t say this at the expense of any other people, as if to denigrate the impressive multiculturalism of the Persians or the mysteries of the Egyptian world. But our traditions are nourished in Greek and more importantly, on the drive that caused these dead white men to write down their ideas. The West may have lost the knowledge of the Greeks only to be reintroduced to it by the Muslims who kept it all alive, but it was buried in the Western psyche, waiting, slumbering to open up again and see the light of day. Once unleashed, the power of Greek thought and its language informed the men of the Enlightenment, even when direct knowledge of the tongue had been lost to the Latin West.

What Greece lacks in resources, it makes up for in its language. When I write the phrase thelo na grapso in Greek, I make this connection to the past, one that stretches further than I can imagine. It is no Homeric verse, to be sure, but in three words, my mind is kindled with the power of the language in service to the intellect, to the passion of my heart and this yearning in my soul. I’ve conjured up all those better minds who explored the universe without ever leaving Greece. I have this sudden understanding of what it feels like when the Ten Thousand cried out “I thalatta, i thalatta!” (The sea, the sea!)1

Perhaps it is just a dream, a fancy or an elitist wish to express my appreciation, my need to learn Greek. To write down some thoughts that will forever be mine. To stare at the shadows and the light during the day when I’m at home, nurturing my mind on the appearance and combination of the letters and feel the knowledge of centuries pass through my fingers as I write unto paper. No matter how easily English flows from my mind to my mouth or my pen, or the pleasure that I get from trying out my French, it’s Greek that enraptures me and makes me want to open my mind to whatever world it wants to explore. All in the language of Homer, Thucydides, the Apostle Paul and Cavafy.
Hesiod once said that the beginning is half of the whole. To learn Greek is to unlearn what I’ve stuffed into my head and approach it with mind of a child. Will I master it? Probably not. Will I be able to remember all those case endings and the verbs? Not necessary. Why? Because to feel a language is the key to understanding it; to drop the automatic translation from English to Greek is the foundation stone for expressing yourself free of another language’s preconceptions.

It is to begin anew.