AB INITIO Greek at Cambridge


The programme for learning Greek ab initio at Cambridge is, as we found in discussion at Oxford in September 1994, not typical of such programmes at other universities, and not even, strictly speaking, ab initio.

Cambridge colleges offer places to about 50 people a year who have no A level or equivalent in Greek. An A grade in Latin is virtually required. (What it is worth is another matter.) The candidates are told that if successful they will be asked to come up early for a week of pre-term teaching (10 hrs, 2 a day), and it will be assumed that they already know at least the first six sections of Reading Greek and preferably the first ten; they will need therefore, if they are complete beginners, to attend a summer school or equivalent. The faculty, fortunately endowed for just this sort of thing, will defray the costs. The JACT Greek summer school, now in its thirtieth year, is strongly recommended, and to it they go, virtually without exception. (Some, having gone, then find that they have not made their grades, alas. The faculty does not reclaim its grants: they are regarded as bread upon the water, and the candidate may well pursue Greek elsewhere, which is good.)

You will see why I say that strictly speaking Cambridge does not teach Greek ab initio, at least not to classicists. (Beginners' courses in both Greek and Latin are run by the faculty every year, starting in October, for non-classicists, but their pace is different, and the courses are not in my remit to teach or organise. In this too, Cambridge is different from other universities, where the separation of classical and non-classical students often cannot be made.) At Cambridge we deliver 80 hours of intensive classes to each student, four per week spread over the year. At summer school students get about 30 hours of classes in a fortnight. Before our lot come up they will thus have had one third of the teaching they get, 30 + 10 out of 120 hours. And that first third is the most important third, and is delivered to students congregated in a special atmosphere and unpressed by work in Latin, Ancient History, Greek vases, Theory of forms, etc. The worth of it is enormous; but then, our aim is high. At the start of term proper, students are sorted into six or seven groups of six or seven each, and they start to read the set texts, Lysias i (in which almost every item of Attic syntax is to be found, right down to dat. of agent with perf. pass. and - three times!- i{na + impf. for unfulfilled purpose), Odyssey x, Plato Crito, and Euripides Troades choruses and all. Many members of the faculty do a stint of this teaching during the year, including post-doctoral students and others; few directors of studies don't have first hand experience of intensive Greekers, which is good.

Students are examined on the texts at the end of the first year; in the paper are also two unseen passages, chosen from two of the set authors: thus they are also tested on their vocabulary and general understanding of the language as well as on their determination to mug up set texts. In addition to their two hours a week on set texts they have one hour's teaching which their college is expected to supply (writing some Greek and/or reading further authors is common here) and another hour in which they come in their groups to me for stuff on the language.

No course existed when I started at Cambridge six years ago; I made it up as we went and have continued to amend it every year. I start with items of syntax and associated morphology; those who were not beginners at summer school are often less secure in such things than those who were (sixth form crash courses seldom deal effectively with the linguistic nuts and bolts, and students' vagueness can be very persistent), and some re-covering of items supposedly known does no harm at all. Knowledge of the verb is at a premium in dealing with indirect speech, conditionals, indefinites, and use of participles. As far as possible I draw examples from the texts being studied: hence my desire that Lysias i shall be a set text for ever! Reading Greek is by now something for the student to consult privately. A session on the scansion of the Homeric hexameter precedes the start of Odyssey x; then back to syntax, to some extent according to demand and need - the programme is not inflexible in sequence or substance, but I do need to remember what I've done with who - and then to the use of cases, and a study of the prepositions. The reading of Plato requires sessions on the particles; that of Euripides more on metre. Word order, so important and so seldom treated in course books, where it would be difficult anyway, I try to expose by preparing for translation into Greek a piece of English based on the texts: such a piece minimises the problems of vocabulary, morphology and syntax so that emphasis can be studied with some clarity of focus. Otherwise I use translation into Greek very little. But I do run a separate weekly class for elementary prose writing, in both Latin and Greek, and it is now possible for intensive candidates to offer Greek prose in prelims. and in pt. I translating a piece specially set for them. After sessions on crasis, duals and accents I finish the course with classes on word-formation, mindful of the fact that vocabulary is hardest of all to learn and that most prefixes and suffixes have functions which can be easily and usefully laid out: prag-, pra'go", pra'gma, pra'xi", pragmatikov", prhkthvr, pravttein etc. leads to levgein, levxi", lovgo", logikov", lovgimo", logivzesqai and so to genevsqai, gegonevnai, givgnesqai: root variation needs study; sing/sang/sung/song deserves a context. How far I take these things depends to some extent on the capacity of the group; within the year I aim to reveal all of the language at least in outline to everyone.

Size of group, at six or seven members only, is at first sight a luxury. To maintain it requires considerable manpower. But it is at the same time an economy. Since we require intensive students to attend their classes in Greek, the experience must be different for them from that of a lecture: they must take part. The fewer there are of them, the more they can. I want eye contact with each student most of the time; I want to question them and to receive their questions and comments; I want them to be learning there and then, and not at some future moment when they may (or may not) read up their notes. Indeed, the fewer notes they take, the better: the more they will be using the occasion.

I do a very little fourth term teaching; otherwise, apart from college support, students are largely on their own. I think they could all manage Xenophon, were he on the syllabus, quite comfortably; most read their Homer, Herodotus, Euripides and Plato without too much trouble; I tend to warn weaker candidates off Aristophanes and Sophocles, with regret but from experience. At the end of the first year they are mostly fairly self-propelling (I stress both adverbs). How much better were we in our generation? But theirs is a much thinner competence, and it is liable to a much quicker fade.

How well do they fare? Intensive candidates are to be found amongst the firsts in fair proportion, overtaking many who arrived with a top grade in A level Greek; they are also to be found among the weaker ones, though they are not always the weakest. A fair number find our philology papers an attractive option; others simply have no eye and ear for an inflected language, and have long passed the age at which its acquisition would have been easier. I would like to find a larger number in the solid centre of our class lists; the ambitious nature of the programme may cause some dispersal to either end. What I can say with great assurance is that their competence in Greek will match their competence in Latin; which is not comforting. Some are to be found re-learning, or just plain learning, their Latin morphology and syntax on the basis of their work on Greek, and there are students with A level Greek who beg to join the intensive classes. If their A level was got in one year, we tend to let them. The signs are increasingly that, if we could staff it, the intensive programme could usefully be extended to students who are not officially so designated; Bob Lister offers support classes in Latin already.

Our programme thus has a fairly set form with variable content; the set texts change from time to time, and I vary my language classes to suit the group. But the situation in which we teach continues to change. More classes for more people seems inevitable, and when we start to teach both languages to students unskilled in either, then their rate of progress must be expected to slow down. Pressure on manpower and class size will increase. I hope we can resist the latter for a long time.

Anthony Bowen

Jesus College, Cambridge

CUCD Bulletin 25 (1996)
© A.J. Bowen 1996

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