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.

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