Every so often I get the philological bug and start going back and trying my hand at a dead language. This time, I finally picked up that old monster of Greek, and started having a serious go at it — like, vocabulary notecards in the inside pocket of my sports coat, muttering paradigms in the elevator, spending my nights declining sigma-stem nouns kind of go at it. I’ve made serious progress in just three weeks, if I do say so myself, and I’m getting obsessed.
It’s just downright infinite. It’s like Borges’ “Book of Sand.” I learn a paradigm, turn the page, and there’s another one, all seemingly different (I just wrote “seem” and my brain coughed up “dokei.”). At the same time, though, you can see patterns underneath the paradigms: order arising out of the chaos of inflections and declensions. Then, once you grasp a pattern, you pull back and there’s a larger weirdness that seems irregular, and then eventually you stare at that long enough and there’s another pattern. It’s no wonder some of the greatest minds the west ever produced grew up on this language: just conjugating a verb required a mind that could grasp fractal levels of complexity.
Tonight I hit the wall, which happens in learning anything this complex. I ran into a sentence so filled with things I only vaguely grasp — imperfect verbs with their foggy secondary verbal endings, sigma- and liquid-stem nouns, and the incredibly slippery prepositions . . . It was like walking into a crowded room and hearing people screaming words at you in disjointed cacophony. I get frustrated. I wanted to punch the book, I was so annoyed. So you look at it, and look at it, and think about it, and look up a few words, and work backwards (let’s see — Oou must be the second person middle voice singular ending -so, undergoing sigma-deletion and contraction with the theme vowel -e- to produce eo which becomes ou, which means there must be augmentation of the first vowel, so it can’t be omega-iota-subscript but omicron followed by iota which makes the root . . . oiomai — Aha! “you believed!”) Doing this is not knowing a language; it’s decoding it. But it’s the first step.
Meaning swims out of noise. What appears at first to be alien symbols quickly becomes an alphabet. Then the alphabet becomes words. The endings, rules of conjunction, and all of that eventually becomes habit and instinct. And then they stop being words and become meaning.
It baffles me: our brains do that. What Vonnegut calls a “dog’s supper” of fat and nerve tissue can reconcile the rules of Greek grammar and turn gibberish into meaning.
How, ma Dia, can anyone who admits that someone can learn ancient Greek simultaneously deny that magic is real?