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Getting started on ancient Greek
Getting started on ancient Greek

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1 Subjects and objects

Before turning to Greek, let us start with English. Imagine a reader who understood the meaning of every English word, having read a dictionary from cover to cover and digested all of its definitions. Although the reader’s knowledge of English would be formidable, it would nevertheless fall short in important respects. This can be illustrated through the following examples:

The dog chases the cat.

The cat chases the dog.

These two sentences contain the same words. Yet their meanings are different, indeed diametrically opposed. The dictionary cannot explain the difference because it deals with the meaning of the words in isolation. A reader needs to understand the words within the context of the sentence as a whole, to identify their roles, and to ask who is doing what to whom.

Activity 1 Finding the meaning

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

How do you know which animal is doing the chasing? How do you know which animal is being chased?


In English, the order of the words shows who is doing what to whom. The noun before the verb is responsible for the chasing. The noun after the verb is being chased. If the nouns exchange positions, the meaning of the sentence is reversed.

The extra ingredient, beyond the meaning of the individual words, is grammar, or to be exact, syntax. Syntax covers the rules for combining words into sentences. It explains why ‘the dog’ (or ‘the cat’) is doing the chasing. It also explains why some arrangements of words are meaningful, while others are gibberish. The word ‘syntax’ derives from Greek: σύν means ‘with’ or ‘together’, τάξις is an ‘ordering’ or ‘arrangement’, including the arrangement of soldiers in battle formation.