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Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

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1 Characteristics of the Greek and Latin languages

If you embark on the study of Greek or Latin, what sort of language will you be learning? What are their distinctive features? What do they share in common with other languages?

We can start with one obvious characteristic. Both are referred to as ‘classical’ languages, a word which seems to endow them with a special status. But what does that really mean? There is no single or simple answer to this question. The attempt to answer it, however, can shed light on important features of both languages. It also leads directly to another central issue for any student of Greek and Latin. What can these languages offer us today and why do they continue to deserve further study?

Activity 1

What does the term ‘classical’ suggest to you? What do you think it means when applied to Ancient Greek and Latin?

Jot down your thoughts in the box below.

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Your answer will no doubt differ from the one below, but you might have noted that the word ‘classical’ can be used to describe some of the following:

  • something old and traditional that has stood the test of time (and is, we might say, ‘timeless’)
  • an artefact of great quality
  • a thing that deserves to be copied or emulated
  • something that sets the standard by which other things should be measured
  • something old (and possibly out-of-date) in contrast to something new; for instance, ‘classical languages’ as opposed to ‘modern languages’, or ‘classical physics’ as opposed to ‘quantum physics’
  • a particular style, embracing concepts such as balance, harmony, restraint and correctness. In this sense, ‘classical’ might be contrasted with the word ‘romantic’, denoting a more intuitive and free-spirited approach.

You might also have observed that the term is now applied very widely – to music, ballet, guitar, cuisine, economics, and so on. The range of applications can be extended even further by including the related word ‘classic’, as in ‘classic’ literature, films, cars and so on. Indeed to describe something as ‘classic’ sometimes amounts to little more than a vague statement of approval.

We shall look in more detail at the application of these terms to Latin and Greek at the end of this section. For the moment, note that each description in the list has at one time or other been applied to both Latin and Greek.