The Gift Greek Bears

This is a pretty spontaneous post, typed directly into the woefully inadequate WordPress app which gives me a ridiculously narrow column width, possibly so it can fit into portrait format on a mobile device. You will note also that I haven’t said anything of significance before the fold.

I think both Sarada and I have been employing ourselves well during the lockdown. I wrote a seven thousand word story yesterday which has already been read by ninety-seven people since I submitted it late yesterday afternoon and have had an idea for another which I’ll begin and possibly finish today. I’ve also had some dealings with my publisher about ideas to promote my novel and Sarada will be glad to hear that they will now be putting the Hugo nomination on the front cover. Meanwhile, Sarada has been learning Ancient Greek. I know I’ve already blogged about Greek but this is a new angle, because it’s not so much about the internal gubbins of the Greek language as its uses and the experience of learning it.

For some reason it’s made me inordinately happy that Sarada is learning Greek. She’s picked up the alphabet now and is presumably making further progress. I think maybe the fact that unlike most other European languages it doesn’t use the Latin alphabet daunts people. However, it only has twenty-four letters nowadays and of those eleven of the capitals have practically the same form and pronunciation as their Latin counterparts. Some of the others are false friends because they look like our own letters but are pronounced very differently. The lowercase letters are squiggly and a little harder to grok, and one of them, sigma, has a different form for the end of a word than elsewhere, but the same is true of Latin up until the beginning of the nineteenth century with the “long S”, which was employed as a joke in ‘The Vicar Of Dibley’. What is is about esses which makes them behave this way? Arabic has at least two forms for every letter, but that’s because it’s cursive, and Hebrew also uses final and medial (as they’re called) forms for several of its letters, but Greek just does it for sigma.

Another oddity of Greek writing is the presence of rough and smooth breathings at the start of words before vowels. The hard breathing looks like an opening inverted comma placed before a capital initial vowel and above a lower case vowel or the letter rho. It represents what we think of as an H sound, although in fact an H in English is always a whispered version of the vowel following it, which I presume is why modern English never has an H sound after a vowel or before a consonant. It seems odd to contemporary literate speakers of a language using the Latin script that Ancient Greek has no letter for H but does have a way of writing it, because it seems like a proper sound which ought to have a letter, but it isn’t. What seems less odd to speakers of languages like English which elide vowels at the start of words is that Greek also has the smooth breathing, which is the apostrophe-like symbol put in the same places. This in fact represents the glottal stop, as in “wo’ a lo’ of li’le bo’les”, which is widely acknowledged to begin words widely understood to start with vowels by some other people. Hebrew and Arabic both represent the start of a word using a letter which indicates a glottal stop in such situations, but there are other languages, such as Samoan, where some words begin with vowels and others with glottal stops. It happens in most Germanic languages, with the exception of English, meaning that I once said “das ist ein Problem” to my ex’s mother but she thought I said “das ist dein Problem”, which was inappropriate. In Greek the rough and smooth breathings were originally respectively the left and right halves of an H-shaped letter, and nowadays Greek always drops its aitches.

Sarada’s assiduous attention to learning the script revealed a gap in my knowledge, or rather confidence, which I’d never got round to addressing. Some vowels in Greek have a sign like the Spanish tilde (~) above them, which represents stress or rather accent, because Greek used to be a tonal language and even today has words of different meaning according to stress, which as far as I know only occurs in English in words derived from each other. This is know as a pitch accent, and in the tilde’s case is a quick raising and lowering of pitch here. Similar phenomena occur in other ancient Indo-european languages including Sanskrit, and I’m aware that Punjabi did the same until quite recently although I don’t know if that’s a remnant of the Sanskrit practice, but it probably means that Proto-Indoeuropean itself was a tonal language too. Latin lacks this feature.

Now for the notorious issue of dead white males.

One criticism made of classical studies is that it’s about dead white males, more specifically written documents by wealthy slave-owning men, often in fact the paterfamilia who had the power of life and death over his family and slaves. On the whole I agree with this claim but I also think it isn’t that simple. First of all, Roger Scruton, with whom I generally violently disagree, came up with the concept of οικοφοβία (there’s a rough breathing missing there due to the way I typed it, over the ιωτα (and over that too!)) – “home fear”, a word which had been used before but in Roger’s case applied for the first time, as far as I know, to an aversion to the familiar. Scruton would of course have taken this up and run with it to justify white supremacism, but there is nevertheless a point to it. For instance, democracy is a predominantly Western idea and so are civil liberties, and they’re both good things. There are also apparent universals in human experience, so the chances are that Greek artists and scholars will have managed to uncover and express those too. For instance, most of what Aristotle says seems to be balderdash but his biology and ethics both work pretty well. It’s said that Aristotle’s zoology mentions things which scientists didn’t realise were so until the twentieth century, and his account of vice and virtue, where a happy medium exists towards one end of two vices, certainly seems true to me as well, and neither of those depends on a rich white male perspective. Nor is it true that they were all male. Ψάπφω (Psappho, usually known as Sappho) is of course widely reputed to be a lesbian poet, living in fact on the isle of  Λέσβος (Lesbos), so she was literally a Lesbian even if she wasn’t literarily one.

This last aspect of aversion to Classics is, I think, cause for concern. One of the big advantages the Old Right has over the New Left is their classical education, and that crucially includes rhetoric. Rhetoric is of course the art of persuasion, and I know a little about it but not enough. The practice of spin has been going on since the Bronze Age in written form, and doubtless much earlier in speech, and although we have propaganda, marketing and advertising nowadays, we’ve also had three millennia of experience which we on the Left tend to ignore. This is the crucial thing about Boris, I think. Because he has a degree in Classics, he is able to use that to run rings round people and persuade us of whatever is expedient at the time. Unlike many Lefties, he’s not an amateur in this respect. When I compare the internal machinations of the Conservative and Labour Parties, I do see much in common, which is fascinating, but one big advantage the Tories have over us is their long schooling in the art of persuasion, at which they are professionals. Labour members tend to be amateurs at this, and their lack of expertise is often very glaring. I can remember sitting in the hustings of my local constituency being “persuaded” by someone on the Labour candidate’s team and it was transparently obvious what she was trying to do and offensively manipulative. This is because she wasn’t good at it, and the reason she wasn’t good at it was that like other people on the left, not all by any means but too many, she had a disdain for the traditions of rhetoric and was having to rely on a recent reinvention of the technique which had turned its back on the fine tradition of emotional manipulation to which the Tory Party is heir. And this really bothers me, because I know I’m on the right side. I’m absolutely confident of that fact.

To finish off, Greek and Latin and their associated cultural paraphenalia are passports to the world of the intelligentsia, and I’m proud that Sarada has chosen to avail herself of this advantage.

On a final note, I seriously wish I hadn’t used the Android WordPress app to type this because I’ve lost the whole blog post three

3 thoughts on “The Gift Greek Bears

  1. Here’s a procedure that I recommended to my wife to follow when traveling and using the iPad version of WordPress: Draft the blog in a stable text-editor (Pages on the iPad and something else on Android devices). Then copy and paste the text into WordPress when ready to publish. Since doing this, material losses have been greatly diminished as have tears, curing, etc….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I do normally do that but this was supposed to be a spontaneous one-time thing. It was also a lot easier when I was using an old-fashioned laptop, as it were. But yes, a sensible person would’ve done that!


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