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Getting started on ancient Greek
Getting started on ancient Greek

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2.5 Meaning

Syntax and morphology describe the internal workings of language and the rules for putting words together into larger units. To reach beyond words to the world outside requires something extra. The following utterances are syntactically the same, consisting as they do of a subject, a verb and a complement. But thanks to the meaning of the words, the consequences of saying them are different:

  • The book is on the table.
  • The house is on fire!

The difference here is one of meaning. It is meaning that allows speakers to do things with words: to describe, question, teach, persuade, amuse, frighten, annoy, to warn someone to flee a burning building … almost anything in fact.

The study of meaning is the field of ‘semantics’, from the Greek verb σημαίνω, ‘I show’ or ‘I point’. For students of language, studying meaning usually takes the form of learning vocabulary. That is reasonable, especially in the early stages when vocabulary is limited. It is worth recalling, however, that larger units such as sentences have meanings that cannot be reduced to the meanings of their individual words (this was covered in Session 6).

Some examples of vocabulary have been provided throughout the course. Can you remember the meanings of these words, presented in Section 5 of Session 4 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ?

  • ἄγγελος
  • γῆ
  • θεός
  • ἵππος
  • λόγος
  • νίκη
  • ποταμός

You were also introduced to the dictionary forms of nouns in Sessions 5 and 6.

Hints and tips

If you already have experience of learning a second language, you have probably developed some preferred techniques for learning vocabulary. If an idea has worked well for you in the past, consider whether it could be applied to ancient Greek.

Here are a few suggestions, but the list is certainly not exhaustive:

  1. Use flash cards to test your recall. These could be of the traditional, paper-based variety, or you could search online for electronic versions.
  2. Use English derivations as a prompt.
  3. Experiment with a combination of reading, writing and speaking. If a word will not stick, try writing it down. Or repeat it aloud a number of times.
  4. As you start to read longer chunks of Greek, look for little phrases or sentences containing the word you wish to learn. Seeing a word in use, within a larger context, might be more memorable than seeing it in isolation.
  5. Review words in groups. There are many possible types of arrangement, including:
    • a.grammatical type: e.g. nouns, verbs and adjectives
    • b.words with similar roots (e.g. ναῦς, ship; ναύτης, sailor; ναυτικόν, fleet)
    • c.words with related meanings, like ‘speech’ (e.g. λέγω, I say; ἀγγέλλω, I announce; φωνή, voice) or ‘warfare’ (στρατηγός, general; στρατός, army)
    • d.words from particular authors or works.