Language Acquisition & Technology

Tony Sig

As Adam Kotsko has said, learning a language is not hard, it just takes hundreds of hours of work. There’s pretty much no way around that fundamental aspect. Even once you understand the underlying rules of syntax, you still have to memorize morphology, vocab, and exceptions for any new language. This assumes one actually wants to have a reliable working knowledge of a language and not just the foundation for future half-remembered phrases.

To that end teachers have long found creative ways to make learning a language easier and more enjoyable. Take, for instance, the songs and poems that my Latin teacher learned as a boy in English schools. Or the work of Clyde Pharr on Virgil and Homer. But what about contemporary technology? Can it aid in this learning?

I was just introduced by a friend to a phone app called Duolingo. The app is free. They also have a website, so one doesn’t even need a smartphone to use it. I’ve found it so helpful and fun that I’ve inadvertently decided to use this Summer to beef up my German. By working through a “skill tree,” competing against yourself and friends, acquiring points, and advancing levels, the system practically makes you want to learn. That it uses all major language-teaching immersion methods – German to English and English to German translation, hearing German, speaking German, reading German, and so on – makes it effective.

What it has done is allowed me to utilize free time – waiting in line, riding a bus, fooling around at night – as time spent learning the language. That is, it makes me put in the time necessary to learn German. What’s more, this is how we ‘young people’ actually use technology. Ultimately there’s no way around the time, so just creating new technology cannot nor will it ever be a quick fix. But if you can integrate it with how technology is actually intuitively used, I think you might be on the right track.

So the question this has raised for me is can Duolingo or something like it be helpful for the Classical languages? Here’s where I think we might brush up against some problems, given the complexity of Classical syntax. I’m not sure one could “learn Greek” on an app. But I think that if done after the manner of Duolingo, the hard memorization of vocab, morphology, and basic syntax could be aided significantly by such technology, even if it was only supplementary to a course. Perhaps it could be structured to follow along with a classic textbook?


Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus: A Translation in Meter (Sort of)

Tony Sig

In Greek this last semester we read through an old proto-stoic hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes. It’s a lovely little poem and is quite unique. It goes against stoicism by the very fact that it’s a hymn, thus personalizing the divine in a way foreign to stoicism. It’s interesting to contrast this with proper Christian theology, which lines up in certain parts yet most definitely not in all parts. Either way I thought it fitting for this blog.

I tried my darndest to put this thing in meter but I found it incredibly difficult. I need to spend some more time at the feet of Allen Mandelbaum clearly. Ostensibly in Blank Verse, that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter, I allowed myself significant “freedom” to diverge. Thus you’ll find plenty of anapest, amphibrach, and trochaic feet, as well as feminine endings. As you can see my scantron is a mess, so it’s a good thing I’m not trying to publish this sucker.

Most Glorious Zeus, the Many-Named, eternally
All-Μighty, First Mover of nature; all things do you
direct with law; We hail you, since it is right
for all us mortals to speak of you. From you
we have our birth, and we alone by lot
have obtained the image of your voice;
alone of all the mortals who crawl and live
upon the ground. In this will I hymn you
and sing of your eternal strength. In truth
for you the cosmos turn around the earth,
obeying you to where you lead – Willingly
is it ruled by you. A fiery, two-edged, sword
you hold in your unconquerable hands –
All works of nature move beneath the blow
of your eternal servant; with it you direct
the universal reason; which moves about
through all things, mixing with the Great and small Light.
Thus you have become so great, the most high king
in everything. No work occurs upon
the ground apart from you, O god, neither
on the axis of the divine heavens, nor the deep,
save when evil men act in their foolishness.
But you know how to make the vain things perfect,
and how to order the disorderly –
Even the unloved is loved to you.
For in this way have you so joined all things
in one, the good in the bad, so that one thing
has come to be, which is for all: Thy Word
eternal; which those who flee avoid, Ill-fated
evil mortals; for these do always yearn
to sieze the good, yet they do not behold
god’s universal law, neither do they
hear it. If by this they would be pursuaded
with understanding they might have a good life,
But they in fact do hasten on without
the good – Each to another thing. While some
above their glory hasten on for strife;
Others, no one with order, are turned against
what’s right; still others turned toward liscensciousness,
even the sweet works of the body; the good
they yet desire but bear along now here
now there. They hasten to become the very
opposite of these good things. But Zeus, All-Giver,
Cloaked in black clouds, Ruler of the Thunderbolt,
Deliver thou all human kind from their
so baleful ignorance, which you, O Father,
disperse from the soul, and give to light upon
the mark by which you trust to steer all things
with justice; that we, being honored, may in turn
honor you, hymning your unbroken works,
as is right for mortals so to do,
For there is no gift greater than for men
and gods in common eternally to hymn your law in justice.

ἐς Πύλον And Other Stories

Tony Sig

To what shall I compare source criticism? It is like a scholar who stumbles upon a pile of pebbles of similar hue arranged in a definite pattern and proceeds to posit a parent rock for one pebble in particular despite the fact she has never seen the parent stone, there is no evidence primary or secondary to substantiate the conclusion that there is such a stone in existence, and the color of the stone can best be accounted for by direct evidence inherent in the pebbles.

I exaggerate only slightly.

In Greek this semester we are reading the homeric Hymn to Hermes in which Hermes steals some cows of Apollo. It’s a lively story, quite entertaining, and is taken by many to be a a kind of comedy before its time. *SPOLER ALERT*

In the hymn, after Hermes steals the cattle, Apollo is running around looking for them. Being so far unsuccessful he stumbles upon an old farmer digging at his vines. The farmer had in fact seen Hermes with the cattle but the infant god gave a barely veiled threat to the man that he ought keep his lips tied. Nevertheless, the farmer does tell Apollo that he may have seen a little baby driving some cattle, but he’s not really sure. He reveals nothing about the identity of Hermes to be sure.

Conveniently for Apollo, a bird-omen flies by. Miraculously this silent omen tells Apollo what he needs to know. It is revealed to him that it was in fact Hermes who took his cattle. Apollo then flies himself “off to Pylos” to try and find him. Later in the poem, when Apollo is pleading his case against the messenger god to their mutual father Zeus, he explains that the cattle were being driven “off to Pylos.”

The poet never explains how Apollo came to know about Pylos. A certain German scholar takes this as an opportunity to assert that there was probably an earlier and/or another Hymn to Hermes known to the poet and/or that there was some kind of tradition that connected Hermes and/or Apollo to Pylos. Strangely, there’s nothing else in the poem as we have it that suggests that such a source exists, and we certainly have no evidence for it whatsoever, unless the useless, if publishable, ramblings of a German scholar count as “evidence.”

There is another easier and more obvious way to account for Pylos; one which does not invent texts, communities, cults, and other fanciful myths, namely, that the bird-omen, the one which apparently revealed to Apollo who the thief was, also suggested it was in Apollo’s best interests to head off to sandy Pylos. We are never told that the omen said anything, only that it happened — but immediately after seeing it Apollo 1) Exclaimed that Hermes was found out, and 2) Headed off to Pylos. (He was even following the backwards tracks.)

This solution relies on the text as we actually have it, explains quite well how Apollo knew to go to Pylos from internal narrative thrust, and all without taking ἐς Πύλον to some absurd end. While there may be some limited place for the continued practice of source criticism, as a general rule I take it to be hermeneutically suspect, and this is a classic example why.

Again on Ancient Historiography

Tony Sig

In my class on Tacitus, we’re doing a lot of ‘what’s really going on in Tacitus’-talking, a large portion of which proceeds from basic assumptions about either the author himself or ancient historiography in general. Yet these assumptions have been insufficiently established imo.

For instance, the editors of our primary text have an introductory essay on ancient historiography which runs roughshod over the explicit aims of the ancient historians themselves and asserts, despite the contrary primary evidence, the old tired line about the difference between ancient history and ‘modern history.’ Yet here the editors go further than simply suggesting that these performed history poorly and unobjectively (unlike modern history, clearly), as goes the common – and sometimes correct – assertion, and argue, based nearly exclusively on some passing remarks on the rhetorical style of history in Cicero(!) , that history was intended to be quite loose with respect to ‘facts’ and serves more as moral instruction.

Now, I have no objection whatsoever to examining whether in performance any historian, ancient or modern, is able to stick to their principles – they may say they value a certain style of history yet fail on purpose or accident to do thus – but there’s gotta be something like an honest assessment of the primary work to bear it out, one that relies more strongly on the explicit aims and methods of history according to how the historians describe their work, rather than a convoluted meta-hermeneutic that reads over these passages a reading-into the performance of their histories. As if all the talk of historiographical method in these authors was just a purposeful misrepresentation of what they were really getting at, which, to understand properly, one must ignore instead for a reading-between-the-lines approach that will at long last finally lay bare their true purposes. According to this method, ancient history was really a puzzle game for those in the know. Anyone who thought they were trying to report things that actually happened is a pathetic knucklehead (though if they could read and have access to Tacitus, they couldn’t have been that stupid!) who has missed the point.

The same goes for certain styles of biblical criticism as far as I’m concerned. For instance with regards to some of the wild claims about the genre of the Gospels and Acts. Thankfully we have works like Samuel Byrskog’s Story as History – History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History, or Richard Bauckham’s important Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony to illuminate more properly just what these historians were saying about the work they were doing. Here again, as in establishing critical texts or in giving historical-grammatical examinations, biblical studies blazes ahead for Classics.

On Some Translations: Homer

Tony Sig

A while ago I wrote up a post to recommend a few Greek and Latin resources for working through Homer and Virgil. I also said that I was going to make some recommendations on translations, on which I never followed through. I was going to do so soon but was given another reason just today. A friend informed me of the news that the great translator Allen Mandelbaum died today. Though famous for a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, he also happens to be my favorite translator of the Aeneid. I pay homage by recommending his text.

For both The Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, I will briefly describe the translations of three major modern poets and explain where my preferences lie and why. Knowing the languages gives my opinion a certain bias. Those who know original languages notoriously are either endlessly critical of any translation, or naively unfeigned in their abundant praise. I read these classics for two reasons and it’s my desire to be greedy and demand both be sated by any translation I use. The first is for sheer pleasure. I’ve found that I am quite fond of epic poetry. Something there is in it that moves my soul. Especially Homer. The second  is for my academic interests. These poems have formed the cultural context and imagination of grand swaths of Western history, including late-antiquity. I need to be able to check my own primary language work against a reliable translation. This tends to make me lean toward ‘conservative’ translations. I understand basic translation theories, why people prefer dynamic equivalence or ‘literal’ or whatever, but whereas at one time I enjoyed these with no concern for ‘accuracy’ – since I didn’t know the languages – I now need more than simple aesthetics.

There are four (and now apparently a fifth) major modern translators of Homer. I pass over Stanley Lombardo for two reasons. One, I’m not familiar with his translation, and two, his is written specifically for oral performance. It is thus slightly less a piece of ‘literature’ as we conceive it generally today. It would be a great experience, though, to see a performance. Luckily, my preferred translation can be read aloud with pleasure, and indeed, I believe one should try and do at least some portions aloud.

  • Robert Fagles is probably the most widely read contemporary translator of all three of these poems. They’ve been my required translations in mythology and even in my Latin Aeneid course. (No doubt in large part because one of our major profs had him as doctor father.) One of the reasons he’s so widely read is his work was adopted by major publishers, including Penguin. Another is that his style is contemporary, informal, lively, and punchy. Indeed, I’ve often wondered if I should use him to read to my girls when they come of an appropriate age. Nevertheless, of the three here mentioned, he is far and away the most loose in relation to the ‘literal’ sense of the Latin and Greek. He was of almost no help whatsoever in translating. Most damning, in my opinion, is that this looseness leads to his work being, as was said of Alexander Pope so long ago, more the work of the poet Fagles than the poet Homer or Virgil. Homer is plucky, plain, and repetitive. He will very often repeat whole lines and otherwise follows strict formulas to fit his work into dactylic hexameter. Sometimes entire paragraphs are repeated verbatim. Of this repetition and style, arguably most the most important, and certainly among the most enjoyable aspects of his style, are the repetitive epithets and name-adjective formations. “god-like Odysseus,” grey-eyed Athene,” strong-greaved Achaians,” et. al. These are nearly never repeated and very often entirely skipped in Fagles work. Virgil on the other hand is stilted, formal, and full of pathos. He fares better here if only because Virgil can’t very often follow a pattern in his work because he’s making up his tradition as he goes along. (Homer was an oral poet and part of a tradition of oral poetry. Virgil was a writer and his was the first such epic dactylic hexametered poem in Latin.) Yet even here, as I noted, he is not close enough to help with translation. The ready availability, including a lovely boxed set, make Fagles a tempting offer, but only if your interest is more for the enjoyment of reading and don’t need it to get a feel for the original.
  • Robert Fitzgerald too has translated all three major epics, and his work has been chosen by the ever-handsome Everyman’s Library series. Though it’s probably a rather unfair way of putting things, I often think of Fitzgerald as a medium between Fagles and Lattimore. His style is much closer to the original than Fagles, though this is muted by the his format of rather short lines of poetry. He is still not quite as formulaic as Lattimore (or thus Homer), but – on the Latin side – before I had a copy of Mandelbaum, he was much more helpful for translating Virgil than Fagles. Importantly, more so than the other two, Fitzgerald is concerned for his poem to also be a work of English literature. He keeps in plenty of English archaisms (as did the writers themselves keep archaisms) yet the pace still keeps up. Interestingly, he gives significant praise to Lattimore for his translation. Here it really depends more on personal opinion. I enjoyed reading Fitzgerald and, given the lovely editions, I see no reason not to recommend him for either Homer or Virgil.
  • Richmond Lattimore is, though, far and away my favorite translator. But, he did not translate the Aeneid. He was a Greek man through and through. He did, however, co-edit with Greene and sometimes translate a University of Chicago Press edition of the complete Greek tragedies. Unfortunately, as is the case (till recently) with Lattimore’s work, for reasons I’m not entirely aware of, these went out of print and, though they can often be found in used bookstores, they can cost you a pretty penny for the later editions. If you can get your hands on them, I strongly advise you do and skip the Penguins. I will comment more on editions in a second, for now I’ll talk about his translations. Lattimore somehow worked a feat of magic. His style feels homeric. He, more than any other English translation I’ve read, keeps in the repetitive phrases and epithets. Thus it is only in his work that this crucial feature of homeric style is preserved. He’s not quite systematic about it, but he’s pretty damned close! Moreover, while it is standard fare in a translation for there to be two sets of numbers, one for the original lines of text, and one for the English lines, somehow Lattimore is able to translate to the line, so that the lines of his poem are the same as those of the Greek. This means that for both reference and translating, his is unequaled. Yet not only is his work not then awkward and nonsensical, it is outright enjoyable in the manner of Homer’s simple, high-formal, and descriptive style. With no hesitation do I recommend his work, especially to those most likely reading this blog. A significant problem with Lattimore, though, is the poor quality of currently available editions. I myself have an old U of Chicago Press set in stately hardcover, and it is not hard to find other older editions, but publishers just haven’t kept up with him. I mean, Penguin and Everyman’s are to go-to series for classics and so it’s understandable that since he’s been neglected for these, he won’t be easily found. This Haper Perennial Modern Classics edition of the Odyssey is the only modern one I know of, and it’s pretty trashy. The paper is flimsy, the text is small, not very strongly printed, and it’s poorly edited for reference. I did not enjoy using this for class. Yet there is good news! U of Chicago Press has just this year put out a fresh edition of the Iliad, with substantial introduction, helps, and thoroughly up to date bibliography, in both soft and hardcover. I can’t testify to the physical quality of these, but I can at least assume that the hardcover, though quite expensive, is pretty nice and likely the soft will be as well. I do not know if there are plans to also rerelease a thus updated Odyssey, but one can hope. In addition, both the Odyssey and the Iliad have companions keyed to his translation that act as intermediate running English commentaries.

Homer & Virgil: Resources for Original Language, English to follow

Tony SigThis semester I am taking both Greek poetry and Latin poetry.  For Greek we are running through Homer’s Odyssey and in Latin, Virgil’s Aeneid.  I thought it would be fun to post a few resources I’ve found quite helpful for reading them in case there were some readers who thought running through them would be fun.  And indeed they are fun!  I’ll admit I continue to find Latin hard to deal with, which is counter intuitive as it is clearly the simpler language, but it just hasn’t ‘clicked’ for me yet even though I’m in my fourth semester.  So I tend to get frustrated with Virgil because sometimes I feel like he’s keeping me from reading my Greek.  But that’s not always the case, two scenes in particular were a blast to read; the one where Neptune rebukes the winds and the one where Laocoon urges the Trojans not to take the horse into the city and throws a spear into the side of it.

At least one thing about Homer is that he is not as transparently idealogical as Virgil-the-court-poet giving a founding myth for Rome and incorporating some blatantly political similes in the mix.  Homer uses similes in a very different way, a way far more whimsical and random.  For instance in that Neptune scene I mentioned, Virgil compares Neptune calming the sea to “some man” who quells a revolutionary riot (the Romans have never liked res novae have they? 🙂 ), but in book VI, Homer compares Nausicaa playing ball with her handmaidens to Artemis dancing upon the mountains, chasing deer and boar with the nymphs dedicated to Zeus, which delights her mother.  Homer, too, has a crapload of archaisms in his work, words and phrases that were so old apparently he didn’t even know what they meant, some of which may have gone back to pre-Indo-European languages – those especially connected to places.

Alexander Pope once said “Homer makes us hearers, but Virgil leaves us readers,” and that at least is true.  Homer’s work has its roots and form in oral poetry, but Virgil’s is a literary work;  Homer most often can finish a thought per line of hexameter but Virgil sometimes makes you wait a few lines before you get the verb – which is perfectly normal Latin but it makes for a heady kind of poetry.  You have to connect more dots that way.  Still, I’m excited to continue with both of them.

If you are already confident with the languages then you can do no better value-wise than getting the Oxford Classical Text of both.  Not only are they very affordable for a basic critical text they are housed in a classy high-quality blue hardcover of a more manageable size than the Loebs.  The more expensive paperback Teubner editions don’t strike me as worth the effort unless the OCT in question is woefully out of date.  I should note, though, that the prefaces are in Latin!   A huge plus with Virgil is that his is a single volume that contains all of his works.  Homer’s Odyssey is in two volumes (I and II), as is his Illiad (I and II); his hymns to the gods and fragments complete the five volumes of his total works.

If you’re rusty on the languages and/or want a one stop shop you could instead get the Loeb editions as they contain an edited original language text with facing English translation as well as a very helpful introduction, minor commentary and index; but at least for Homer I have another English translation that I want to recommend, plus the textual apparatus in the OCT is more complete than the that in the Loeb.  That said, the Loebs of course are great and scholarly… an extended apparatus is really only for the very serious scholar of classics who would have the wherewithal to make textual decisions.  I only wish the Loeb’s would make their books a bit bigger.

The text we’ve been assigned for Virgil is an edited and expanded edition of the famous work of Clyde Pharr.  It’s a huge help, indeed sometimes too much of a help!  The notes are helpful, the more sparsely used vocabulary is glossed on the page, and there are lists for vocabulary memorization according to how many times a given work appears in the books examined.  This is a ‘standard’ intermediate text of Virgil.

For Homer, we’ve been assigned the W. B. Stanford text out on Bristol.  The introduction is just great and includes historical and morphological notes as well as an explanation of dactylic hexameter.  Unfortunately I’ve found the endnotes far less helpful as a general rule; they often interact with other secondary literature of which I have no knowledge, besides, the grammar is most often straightforward, what takes time with Homer is the endless looking up of vocabulary.  Which led me to find these amazing books (books VI-VIII & IX-XII) put out by a Phd who teaches high school kids the classics, Dr. Geoffrey Steadman.  He takes pedagogical style from Pharr and uses it for Homer.  So on the left side of the open book there are 20 lines of text and on the side opposite, minor grammatical notes and most importantly, all the non-major vocabulary glossed with stats on how often the word appears.  So instead of spending 80% of your time getting vocab, you can get more familiar with the text.  I’ve found his book absolutely essential.  But I should note that Steadman self-publishes because nobody seems interested in his texts, so there will be minor mistakes here and there, but I’m able to catch them quickly.  There are two things which would perfect his work, 1)  A more extensive introduction such as Stanford’s, and 2) Grammatical references to Smyth’s Greek Grammar as in the Mather-Hewitt Xenophon text. Steadman has also made all his books available in PDF form for free on this site, though he asks that if you use them often perhaps consider purchasing a book to support his work.  Finally, in case you didn’t know, there is a lexicon dedicated exclusively to Homeric use that one ought to have.

Finally, there is the Perseus website – an indispensable resource for studying ancient literature in the original langages.  You can find most of the standard classics there.  The texts are morphologically tagged so if you click on a word it will parse it for you and give you statistics for where it turns up.  These statistics can be used to compile helpful vocab lists as well.