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Getting started on ancient Greek
Getting started on ancient Greek

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2.6 Context

Meaning also depends upon context, which tends to be implicit rather than explicit. The statement, ‘The house is on fire!’ is, on the surface, a description of a state of affairs. Yet it is clearly more than a description. It is an urgent warning and much the same as an instruction to ‘Get out!’ or ‘Call the fire brigade!’. The context here is a general, background understanding of the way the world works – that burning buildings are to be avoided and fires to be extinguished.

Other contexts are more culturally specific. A wide range of background information can be used to interpret a Greek text: mythology, history, literature, philosophy, religion, archaeology, architecture, art, geography and so on. Some contexts are quite detailed. This course has hinted at a few of them: the representation of Ajax and Achilles on vase paintings, the use of coins to project the image of Greek rulers, the layout of ancient Athens, the nature of writing in the ancient world, and the practice of ostracism. All aspects of Greek life are potentially relevant for a rounded, three-dimensional understanding of a piece of Greek. The study of Greek language and Greek culture are mutually reinforcing, with each potentially shedding light upon the other.

Contexts fall under the area of language study called ‘pragmatics’, a term derived from the Greek word πρᾶγμα, ‘thing’ or ‘deed’. Pragmatics focuses on how language is used in practice rather than in the abstract.

Hints and tips

The study of context and background provides an opportunity to draw from your own interests and areas of expertise. These might be related to previous study of ancient Greece, but they could come from other disciplines and experiences. This kind of cross-fertilisation of ideas can be productive and is to be encouraged.