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Beautiful things are difficult

While my US-based relatives and friends are enjoying Memorial Day, I did something today that I last did 22 years ago. I took an exam.

Fortunately, I’ve never had a test phobia, in fact I’ve always rather enjoyed them, for some strange reason. My exam today was the culmination of my first year learning classical Greek, something I’ve long desired and finally decided to do something about.

Way back in September, the first phrase we learned in Greek was “chalepa ta kala” (excuse the transliteration), which means beautiful things are difficult. I think our teacher meant this to be both daunting and encouraging. And there are certainly difficulties in learning ancient Greek: the multiplicity of tenses, cases and voices does threaten to drive students around the bend.

You should add to that some difficulties inherent in an ancient language. Because you are learning to read and not to speak, there is no chance to develop much of an ear for what sounds right, which happens when you learn languages conversationally. You also have unusual vocabulary to tackle: I know how to talk about oxen, flocks, libations, battles and blindness, but very little everyday language.

But I think it’s worth it. After a year, I can begin to read some real texts, including Herodotus and Plato. My goal, of reading Homer in the original, remains a little way off, but I think I can see a path clear to that summit. And the exam? I think I did well on the Greek to English translations (a few passages from Herodotus), so-so on the English to Greek (“The captain shouted loudly, but we weren’t afraid”), and not very well on the grammar.

But it’s true: beautiful things are difficult.

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