01 October 2009

Learning Greek through Greek

If you ever want to watch an amateur classicist go up in flames and start channelling Cicero at his most denunciatory and his least fair-minded, start up a conversation about the quality of Greek and Latin textbooks. A very few books may get positive comment, but for the most part these books aren't friendly to the autodidact. It's one reason why Textkit's forum is always going to be popular. While there are books I warn people away from, for the most part I don't usually get too agitated about textbooks. For the self-teacher, it is far more important to stick with one than it is to succumb to the temptation to churn through a dozen books hoping to find one that makes the middle perfect of consonant stem verbs easy to learn.

That said, I'm going to complain about Greek textbooks now. Well, make a slightly cranky observation.

When I was in high school, by the time I got to the second year of French and German, the textbooks we used were introducing some grammatical material in the language being taught, along with obvious things like calling chapters chapitres and describing the requirements of homework auf Deutsch. Even the mechanics of day-to-day classroom work were turned into another opportunity to use the languages which, in theory, the classes were supposed to impart. I have seen a few Latin textbooks which do use Latin for more than just the exercises. The only book I've run across doing this in Greek was published in Spain in 1856 (Google Books), and that's clearly an advanced book.

So, it seems to me that by the time you start learning about -μι verbs you should be seeing Greek not only in the terrifying new construction the lesson presents, in the idiotic practice sentences and in whatever adapted passage of literature that lesson has, but also as the chapter headings, in the notes explaining tricky parts of that adapted passage, etc. On the other hand, I've recently been working on a page for Scholiastae.org which describes ancient Greek grammatical vocabulary, Greek Grammar in Greek, intended for people who don't want to drop to English in the Greek- and Latin-only sub-forum. There's a lot of Greek grammatical vocabulary. The beginner to Greek already has to learn to cope with strange incantations like "aorist middle optative" in their native language. Are the benefits of seeing more Greek worth the cost of learning the substantial technical vocabulary when lots of more basic vocabulary also needs to be learned? Since no one is forced to learn Greek any more, I'm inclined to see value in laying on Greek as thickly as possible for those few who do decide to take it up.

22 August 2009

The Tablet of Cebes, or, A Gap in my Education

Recently a Textkit study group has formed to read the Discourses of Epictetus. Naturally I slurped up the text into Scholiastae, and one scholiastic activity I've been involved in is creating a list of the most common Stoic terms and idioms used in Epictetus. A few weeks ago, in the course of my hunting down references, I discovered that Keith Seddon (“The Stoic who Never Sleeps”) in 2005 came out with a translation of Epictetus' Enchiridion. In addition to the Enchiridion, however, the book contains a translation of the Tablet of Cebes — a work I had never heard of until that point.

It turns out the Tablet was once frequently paired with the Enchiridion, with Theophrastus' Characters often rounding out the collection. The Tablet is a brief, 1st century dialog introducing Plato's puzzling doctrine of pre-existence, and the value of philosophy in general (it is invariably compared to Pilgrim's Progress in English references).

It is astonishing to me that the Tablet has no showing in any of the many introductory and intermediate Greek textbooks I have seen in my life. The work, along with its usual company, was once quite popular, both in Greek and in translation — into Latin, of course, but also into European vernaculars and even Arabic. It seems well suited to beginners in Greek. The language is not too trickified; it is short and could be read entirely in even a quarter-system school schedule; it introduces philosophy, a subject which doubtless draws more people to Greek in the first place than does Xenophon; one can even bring in discussion about Hellenistic and Imperial intellectual trends — how many philosophical dialogs start with ekphrasis?

The Wondrous Textual Powers of the Internet give us several reading options.

Drosihn's 1871 Teubner seems to still be the standard critical edition, but I'll gladly hear correction about that. It is available on Google Books, a copy of which is also at Archive.org.

C.S. Jerram of Oxford has a 1878 school-boy edition with extensive notes, including many useful to those with wobbly Greek. Again available via Google Books, with a copy of the Google scan at Archive.org.

Richard Parsons brought some Yankee ingenuity (well, Ohio Wesleyan ingenuity) to Cebes, producing a 1897 edition with less copious notes. It does, however, have a brief vocabulary at the end, which makes his book prime bus-to-work reading material. There are several indifferently produced off-prints on the market now, but if you don't love your printer too much, there are again both Google Books and independent Archive.org editions.

There is a 1997 Bryn Mawr Greek commentary by T.M. Banchich, about which I can find little information.

A project at the Université catholique de Louvain has text versions (in Greek and French). I am as yet uncertain, given the editorial markings, of the provenance of their text. And I do wish they had a clear statement of copyright for this very tasty pot pourri.

Finally, Archive.org houses a rather florid 1910 English translation — to say nothing of the typesetting — The Greek Pilgrim's progress; generally known as The picture.

13 July 2009

Well, that's one way to curate

One thing I was concerned about after the death of Bill Harris was that his magnificent web site would silently disappear some day. I was happy to see this notice today:

Bill truly enjoyed sharing with all of you, and he greatly appreciated the contact he had with so many of you from around the world, especially in his latter years. We invite you to continue using and enjoying his web site. Bill Harris' web site will be maintained on the Internet permanently as part of the digital archives of Middlebury College.

I'm certainly not going to complain about this... but I still wonder what a librarian would think about this approach. "Just leave it there" may not be the best way to go in the long (permanent) run. I'm not sure anyone knows the answer to these questions yet.

09 June 2009

Numquam what?!

I have this problem that no matter what it is, any text that passes before my eyeballs gets read, often at a barely conscious level. I can't stop it. I assume many literate people have the same problem. Today I was on campus, and while waiting for the bus and admiring the splendid, ah, charlie-foxtrot that is University Ave. during this construction season, my brain forced me to do a double-take... "numquam tickle?!"

I took a closer look at the book bag: Draco Dormiens Numquam Titillandus, "a sleeping dragon is never to be, um, tickled?" Finally the rest of my brain kicked in, and I realized I was looking at Harry Potter-ware. A college-age male — and not a freshman, I'd guess — was sporting a Hogwarts book bag. He's the right age for it, I suppose. I haven't yet decided if I want this to be an ironic gesture on his part or not.

A little googling tells me was displaying Gryffindor colors, in case anyone was curious.

07 June 2009

What other Chariot? A Textual Crux in Mimnermus 12

I recently received email asking me about a textual decision in the Aoidoi.org version of Mimnermus 12 (open that in a new window to follow along). They wanted to know why I kept the paradosis reading ἐπέβη ἑτέρων in line 11 when nearly everyone else accepted Schneidewin's emmendatation ἐπεβήσεθ’ ἑῶν. It turns out nearly everyone else does not include M.L. West. I use his Iambi et Elegi Graeci for sanity checking and a reasonably current apparatus. West's apparatus does include some emmendations, but not Schneidewin's ἐπεβήσεθ’ ἑῶν, which I got from Campbell's 1967 Greek Lyric Poetry for the Aoidoi apparatus. I decided to do a little more digging.

First, for Schneidewin. In his 1838 Delectus poesis Graecorum elegiacae, iambicae, melicae (pp.16-17) he declines to include this emmendation attributed to him. So, either he saved this speculation for a later edition or published it in some paper I haven't been able to find.

Next, of course, comes Bergk. In his 1866 Teubner Poetae lyrici Graeci (p. 412) quite a lot gets said —

V.11 ἑτέρων VL, ἑτερέων BP, conieci σφετέρων vel προτέρων, Schneidewin ἱερῶν vel πτερινῶν vel ἐπεβήσεθ’ ἑῶν, Ahrens στερεῶν vel ἐπεβήσετ’ ἄρ’ ὧν.

Well. Except Ahrens' ludicrous στερεῶν, these emmendations are strikingly banal. But what problem are they trying to fix?

My email correspondent and his colleague were concerned about the sense of ἑτέρων. Helios, sleeping the night away, has been born along by the waves in a golden, winged bed made by Hephaestus. When he arrives in the land of the Ethiopians, "where his swift chariot and horses stay," he gets on his other (ἑτέρων) chariot. The question is, what other chariot? Where's the other one? Some of the emmendations seem to be inspired by this same discomfort — σφετέρων, ἑῶν, ἱερῶν, κτλ. One of Bergk's emmendations, προτέρον, seems more concerned with the hiatus, since "his earlier chariot" doesn't remove that extra chariot from the picture. Hiatus for a long vowel in princeps position is sanctioned by both Homer and other elegiasts, but without more information it's hard for me to know for sure what motivated Bergk here.

When I first read this line, I had a passage from Hesiod's Theogony in my mind, 746-757, which describes Day and Night passing each other on the threshold to the same house each day. While Hesiod mentions no vehicle for them, chariots taking celstial divinities across the sky is a common idea across Indo-Eurostan. A little digging shows that Dawn herself, mentioned in line 3 of Mimnermus' poem, is given her own chariot in the Odyssey (23.243-246), and several times in Vedic and Avestan literature (M.L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, p.223.). We don't know enough about Mimnermus' model of the celestial mechanics, but it's certainly possible that the other chariot refers not to another of Helios', but someone else's.

Finally, the word I've been translating chariot, ὀχέων (a funky heteroclite in Homer, ὁ ὄχος, τὰ ὄχεα, but normal 2nd. declension plural in other authors), has a wider range of meaning. While chariot is certainly the common sense, it can mean anything which holds or carries something. In Odyssey 5.404 it describes harbors, λιμένες νηῶν ὄχοι. And it can even describe a ship, ὄχος ταχυήρης "a swift-oared vehicle." The related word ὄχημα covers the same range, from chariot to ship to vehicle. Right now I'm inclined to see ἑτέρω ὀχέων being contrasted not to some other horse-drawn conveyance, but to Helios' splendid sea-faring bed. In any case, I see no good reason to meddle with the paradosis.

18 April 2009

Octavating a Tenor Guitar (Martin LXM "Little Martin" Tenor)

In the last year or so I've started spending more of my spare time playing music again. For quite a long time my only instrument were the tin whistle and Irish flute (a keyless, wooden flute which is fingered the same as the tin whiste). Then I made a little stretch, and got a mandolin, which I played for years, again mostly Irish, some Scottish stuff, and any random other thing that grabbed my attention, such as the medieval Lamento di Tristano, so often played at absurdly slow speeds. Somewhere along the way I got myself an old 20s Gibson Oriole tenor banjo, which I've always treated as an unusually noisy mandolin, including tuning it down to GDAE from the usual tenor CGDA.

Unfortunately, neither the tenor banjo nor the mandolin have much sustain. There is only one way to fake out sustain on these instruments — tremolo. After years of playing the mandolin, however, I must now admit that I have a really serious hang-up about tremolo. It doesn't matter what you're playing — bluegrass, jazz, celtic folk, whatever — once the tremolo starts I have a spaghetti sauce ad in my brain. Also, playing the high course on a mandolin (two very small wires tuned in unison to E) is not unlike playing a tuned cheese slicer.

So, a few weeks ago, I finally gave in and ordered a tenor guitar. This instrument was invented around the 20s when the guitar fad overtook the banjo fad (which in turn had replaced a mandolin fad), so that musicians used to the 5ths tuning of the tenor banjo could just pick up a guitar and go. This is perfect for my needs — I don't have to learn yet another fingering system, and I get more sustain out of the deal. It's normal for people coming from an Irish music background to tune both tenor banjos and tenor guitars down like an octave mandolin, GDAE an octave below a normal mandolin. So I got some heavier strings put them on my new Martin (.012, .022w, .032w, .042w). There were a few problems.

First, a .042 wound string will not fit in the nut on these guitars. Neither will the 0.032w. Second, these big, fat strings flop around, even at correct tension, and were buzzing... a lot. Finally, these new Martins are, as they say, modest instruments. Some unevenness in the frets was exposed by the patterns of buzz. Fortunately, I'm on a first name basis with a local luthier, who handed my Martin over to an apprentice to (1) widen the grooves in the nut for the lowest two strings, (2) file the frets into evenness and (3) raise the action a bit with a new saddle. This has improved things quite a bit. If I'm lazy about my finger placement and land too far behind a fret I still risk some buzz, but nothing like before.

So, any celto-mandolin or celto-tenor players wanting to venture into tenor guitar will find the LXM Tenor an affordable option, but you'll need a little extra work done to it to make it work best down in GDAE. If you're prepared to sand down a new saddle for yourself and aren't scared of a file, you could perhaps do the adjustments yourself, but I doubt any repair shop will charge too much to do them.

30 March 2009

Internet Stemmatics

In June 2005 the Times Literary Supplement carried an article by Martin West containing a much fuller version of Sappho 58 than we'd had before. The extra text had been found in mummy cartonnage at the University of Cologne. This was cause for great excitement, and it didn't take very long at all for a transcription to appear on the Classics-L mailing list.

Unfortunately, there was a small problem — there were two typos in the text, one a spacing issue, and one an interesting metagrammatism — *ἔμαπψε for ἔμαρψε — presumably caused by interference between English "P" and Greek "Ρ" (rho, an /r/ sound). Within hours of appearing on the mailing list, however, the poem — with errors — was all over the internet, on blogs and web pages. There are still some sites that have these errors.

I've recently started loading up Scholiastae.org with some of the major texts, to make it easy for people to drop scholia in without having to deal with some of the initial wikification of a large text (dividing into sections, line number marking, etc.). So I've been spending time looking over already-digitized texts of authors available on the web, which don't appear to be breaking copyright rules and which will be easily converted into wiki format.

When deciding on a text to use for Hesiod's Theogony, I realized that all but a tiny handful of versions of that on the web are from a single source, apparently based on Rzach's old Teubner edition. I know they're from the same source because they all contain the same error in line 268:

αἵ ῥ᾽ ἀνέμων πνοιῇσι καὶ οἰωνοῖς ἕμ᾽ ἕπονται

The underlined word is nonsense, a corruption of elided ἅμα which anticipates the start of the next word — a common enough scribal error. Last time I googled, only four hits show up on that line with the correct ἅμ’, though I've fixed copies I've found on open wikis, and I'll be sending out a few pieces of email. But I do wonder how long the error will persist.

24 February 2009

RIP William Harris

I have learned through Nick, who learned from Harris' son, that Bill Harris died last Sunday, February 22nd.

I got to know Bill from his web site, Humanities and the Liberal Arts. I had just started to study Greek on my own again, and stumbled on his web page, probably looking for sites about Homer. I emailed him about a stray link in May 2000, and we corresponded ever since, sometimes very regularly, sometimes with quiet spots. It was a casual comment by him that led to the creation of Aoidoi.org — I still have the email, July 10, 2002. From that time on we communicated regularly about our own web sites, sharing new work for the other's comment. Without his enthusiasm about the project — there's a lot of email between us about it — Aoidoi.org might have faded away early.

I know that plenty of other people have been encouraged in their studies by him.

His death is a shock to me, the tears coming only today, because we had been mailing each other about some of his work only a few weeks ago. 83, about to start his second round of chemo, and he had been recording himself reciting verse — Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas — and was intending to record some Sappho, in both English and Greek. He was always interested in getting verse off the page and into people's mouths, in whatever language. Last month was the first time I ever heard his voice.

I hadn't told him about the Scholiastae.org site yet, because I wanted to be able to show him a success, after a few more people got involved and posted things, taking control of their own education. That site, too, wouldn't exist but for him. I should have told him sooner.

21 February 2009

New site: scholiastae.org

After years of waiting for web software to allow collaborative editing of documents like the ones I produce for Aoidoi.org, I finally gave up and wrote an extension to MediaWiki, the software that runs Wikipedia.

Testing of the extension is done, so now there's Scholiastae.org. You can see an example of the output — and the markup from the "view source" tab — for Catullus 48.

There aren't many texts there yet. I have a few works of Lucian I will be working up in the next few weeks, but of course I hope other people will be moved to create an account and add and comment upon works.

04 January 2009

New Year's Gallimaufry

2008 was not a year of many blog posts. I thought I'd make a few random comments, before moving on to 2009.

I got my house re-sided at the end of the summer. Naturally, I take out a substantial debt to pay for this, just before the market exploded. My timing is, as always, impeccable.

The last few months of the year saw me start playing music again. In another month I hope to have my callouses back enough that I can slide notes on my mandolin without slicing open my fingers. I also went off the deep end, and got a 5-string banjo, on which I play old-time and celtic tunes — no bluegrass for me, thanks. In part, I blame Cathy Moore for playing all those funky, non-old-time tunes on the 5-string and making it work.

To make time for the music, my desultory attempts to get Latin back into my brain have been shut down.

I've mostly been reading Greek prose the last few months, but I have several things in the pipeline for Aoidoi. These will not see fruition for a month or so. A piece of web software I would love for Aoidoi does not yet exist, but I am afraid to write it.

Given the lovely state of the economy, paying to take classes in Greek seems like an extravagance right now. I'll probably not be doing that in the next year. Another sign of the economy and the strange state of contemporary American politics — for the first time in her 80 years, my grandmother voted Democratic last November.

I never had warts as a child, but I enter 2009 with a giant one on my face — very attractive. Good thing I don't believe in omens.