Feature Posts

To the Letter (A Review)

What follows is a review by Ruth Breindel of an article, “Greek to Me,” by Mary Norris, published in the January 2019 issue of The New Yorker.

The New Yorker, January 14, 2019

Mary Norris, the “nit-picking comma queen” of The New Yorker magazine, has written an article about learning Greek.  She came to Greek via a different path than most of us – in her 30s she learned modern Greek first, then ancient Greek; as she says, “I never did get around to Latin…” Entranced by the alphabet, she traveled to Greece to explore both the language and culture. As her studies in ancient Greek continued, Norris was excited by the number of words in English that relate to Greek.  

Norris begins the article by discussing Virginia Woolf’s essay, “On Not Knowing Greek.”  Reassured that Woolf had studied Greek, Norris took to hear Woolf’s statement: “We can never hope to get the whole fling of a sentence in Greek as we do in English.”  As teachers, learners and scholars, we recognize this statement as true, and it is affirming to find it as gospel in a respected magazine. As classicists, we can skip most of the rest of this page and half of the next, where there is a history of the alphabet.

Two other items of interest to us: a discussion of the use of particles and the excitement and danger of translating.  Particles in Greek are much more common than in Latin, and certainly give added nuance; the only problem is, we’re not always sure what the nuance is!  “… I was amazed at how much nuance those syllables give to Socrates’ speech – they act like nudges, pokes, facial expressions.” [Disclaimer: I would have voted to condemn Socrates, since he is the most annoying debater around, constantly changing the parameters of an argument so that he comes out on top!] Norris quotes scholars on the subject of particles, some of which is quite amusing.

On translating, Norris discusses what we all know – that epithets can be translated in many different ways; she uses polutropos – wily, many turning, ingenious, manipulative and glaukopis – grey eyed, gleaming eyed. She ends her essay with this:

On my first trip, crisscrossing the Aegean, I was nursing an ouzo in a small glass, and staring into the water, when I suddenly understood the meaning of Homer’s “wine-dark sea.”  Homer wasn’t saying that the sea was the color of wine. He was saying that the sea had the depths found in a cup of wine; that is was mysterious, hypnotic, dangerous. It drew you in, and you could lose yourself in it.

Life Lessons in Latin

The following essay was written by Brendan Morrison, the winner of CANE’s Thomas and Eleanor Means Fund scholarship for educational travel to classical sites. This scholarship is granted annually to a middle or secondary school student who shows particular interest in the classics. If you are interested in applying for the Means Fund, please go to the application form here.
Whether I was marveling at the magnitude of the Colosseum or strolling through the gardens at the Villa D’Este, I had one thing on my mind – I wanted to see more. Seeing all the ruins of places I had only ever read about and imagined was truly a growing experience. No view could be more breathtaking than that from the top of the Villa Jovis, and I’ve never been as interested in Latin as I was trying to read the infuriatingly abbreviated inscriptions in Herculaneum. Despite hopping from city to city and seeing everything in between, I was surprisingly not very tired. My only wish was to go exploring in the ruins through the night and into the morning. Going out and seeing the places that I have been studying for years was far more appealing and educational than simple classroom learning. Seeing how connected the ancient and the modern are (especially in Rome) was fascinating. I first laughed at how ironic the contrast was between the unabashed advertising of the retail magnates and the solemn, silent stones of elder days as well as the fact that nobody seemed to notice. Then, however, I realized that this contrast was just the nature of the world. The old quarrelling with the new, yet somehow living in harmony. It made me think of the applications of the classics. While studying Latin and Greek is frequently dismissed as a pointless ritual, a vestigial field of study, it has never been more clear to me why I love to learn about the Romans and the Greeks. The succeeding generations must fight to preserve the beauty of the ancients’ works, whether works of literature, architecture, art, or otherwise.
It wasn’t just the ancient ruins, though, beautiful as they were. Immersing myself in another culture, learning the ins and outs of Italian table-manners, learning rudimentary Italian – none could ask for a more perfect introduction into the “real world”. The “real world,” as we like to forget, involves much more than just what’s immediately around us. As Americans, even as New Englanders, we tend to get caught up in how life is right here, all without taking into account the other 7,000,000,000 people and what a typical day looks like for them. As a result, we struggle to understand and empathize with our fellow man when we hear of conflict abroad. What better way to correct this schizophrenia than to go out and experience? What better way than to play the modern Sal Paradise, traveling from city to city with the humble request of seeing it all? The greatest gift of this Italian odyssey has not been the experience itself, great as it was – no, the most valuable aspect of my trip was the change in mindset that it brought about.