Looking for a new language? Consider Ancient Greek.

Gregory Crane
Tufts University — Fall 2019
Greek 1: Introduction to Ancient Greek and the Homeric Iliad
MWF: 9:00-10:15
Eaton Hall 209

Are you interested in studying a new language in fall 2019? Whether you want to try something different for your language requirement or you have a year — or even a semester — you have an opportunity to travel thousands of years into the past and to confront the oldest sources in the continuous tradition of European literature.This is not your parents’ language class, and it is not high school Latin. You have an opportunity to participate in the reinvention of an ancient field and the development of a new track within the humanities as a whole. And you also have a chance to begin developing a research agenda of your own, one that can bring together the humanities and emerging fields such as data science. 

No language is poised to benefit more profoundly from disruptive technologies than Ancient Greek. This disruption is fundamentally changing the ways in which we can interact with this, and other ancient languages. And while the changes can enhance the questions that specialists can pose, those who are just starting to learn Ancient Greek are poised to benefit the most. A growing range of reading support tools allow students of the language to interact with the primary sources immediately. The more understanding of the language and the culture students internalize, the richer the experience will, of course, be — there is a big payoff to sustained study. But the tools now becoming available mean that even a semester of study would allow students to engage with sources in Greek directly, at a depth that would have been impossible before.

Disruptive new reading tools challenge us to rethink our understanding of historical languages and cultures such as those of Ancient Greece. None of the scholarly infrastructure that has emerged over generations of modern academic study, over centuries of print culture, and over millennia of sustained scholarship has been organized to match the opportunities and challenges of an interactive reading environment that exploits computational methods in general and machine learning in particular to serve a global audience (not just those familiar with the languages of European scholarship). 

The creative disruption opens up a wide range of opportunities, especially for ambitious students who wish to contribute and to develop a research portfolio. Participation in the 2018/2019 introductory Greek class at Tufts University enabled three students to begin research projects of their own. Two, Madeleine Harris (Tufts ‘21) and Pearl Spear (Tufts ‘22) applied emerging research from cognitive science and natural language processing to begin transforming our understanding of ancient emotions, while Bella Hwang (Tufts ‘22) combined what she learned in Greek and in her courses on computer science to begin modelling the linguistic features that students need to master if they are to read Homeric Greek with fluency. Such projects allow students to make contributions to the study of Ancient Greek, to spend extensive time posing new questions of poems that have fascinated humans for thousands of years, and to begin cultivating the most dynamic analytical methods of the 21st century. 

The 2019/2020 academic year will be the second step in a multi-year process re-engineering the way our students engage with and master Ancient Greek. We will focus on the Homeric Iliad — the earliest surviving literary source in the continuous tradition of European literature. No secular literary work from Europe has commanded the attention of more audiences, from more cultural contexts, over more time than the Iliad. As you begin to study Homeric Greek, you travel back thousands of years, hear the voices of oral poets who worked with a tradition that was already thousands of years old and engage with a world that is both alien and familiar.

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