Teaching the Ancient Greek Optative and Subjunctive by Staging Cultural Practice

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Timothy Pepper, Classics

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2009

One of the most difficult aspects of teaching the second semester of Ancient Greek is helping students gain an understanding of two verbal moods that are very common in Greek but either underdeveloped or nonexistent in the English language: the subjunctive and optative.[1] Both moods present a challenge not only in their morphology (their conjugation is notoriously challenging), but also in their syntactical use within the sentence. They are used with a wide variety of grammatical constructions, are often confused, and will yield a vastly different interpretation of a sentence if misunderstood. Mastering their constructions requires a deep practical understanding of their use within the language, and the thin and scattered context of an introductory language course makes gaining that understanding quite difficult.

I decided that a major part of the problem was that an almost structural understanding of syntactic and morphological parallels and differences was necessary to gain familiarity with the uses of the subjunctive and optative. My first teacher of Greek had also recognized this problem and had tried to lay out the different constructions in a handout. While I had found a comprehensive written presentation of the constructions helpful, such a presentation would be most useful to visual learners. I finally hit upon the idea that the structures of Ancient Greek culture could provide the required framework. By acting out the uses of the optative and subjunctive we could approach the contextual use that would make these moods immediately apparent to any native speaker of Ancient Greek. As a recent MLA report notes, the cultural context of a language should be an integral part of any language course[2], and there is no reason why that should not also be the case for an ancient language. The Greek institution of blood sacrifice, adapted to the classroom as a melon sacrifice, provided the framework as an institution that was differentiated into separate stages (following Burkert’s reading[3]) and involved actions well suited to optative and subjunctive constructions (wishes, reported speech, etc.). I wrote a skeleton outline of the ritual and the sort of constructions we could use at each stage (such as undertaking the ritual using a hortatory subjunctive or forming a prayer using the optative), and then asked them to make the needed speech act in Greek that would get us to the next stage of the ritual. I let them draw on their own vocabulary in constructing the speech act, and only occasionally assisted with helping find the right vocabulary or construction to accomplish it. With only a few pieces of supplied vocabulary and a few “events” (such as the melon rolling away in fear to illustrate fear clauses), the students were able to describe and walk me through the essentials of the ritual in Ancient Greek. While translating from English to Greek was a regular assignment in the class, staging the actions in the language provided an immediacy that was sometimes easy to overlook when we were manipulating the language as text. At the end of the ritual, I reinforced the lesson with a handout that gave sample constructions and most importantly some short examples from Ancient Greek discourse (such as Socrates’ prayer to Pan at the end of Plato’s Phaedrus). The final part of the class involved an assigned quiz in which each student now took two optative/subjunctive constructions in Greek and rendered them back into English.

The exercise was even more successful than I expected. In a few cases, I saw a construction on the quiz “click” for a student who had previously struggled with it. The spectacle of the sacrifice also captured their imagination, and I heard that the constructions we had used in class had become an in-joke among the students outside of class — a result that was helpful in a large class in which the time for individual participation was far less than I would have liked. I continued to stage a few other “memes,” and hope that they will continue to circulate orally as a lasting memory much like the Greeks thought their kleos (roughly, “fame”) did.[4]

[1] English lacks an optative and uses the subjunctive only rarely (but uses the indicative and imperative moods more or less like Ancient Greek). Herbert Smyth’s Greek Grammar (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1920), 380, puts it best: “The meanings of the subjunctive and optative forms and the difference between the tenses can be learned satisfactorily only from the syntax.” Roughly speaking, a verb in the subjunctive in Greek functions as subordinate to a main verb, whether in the realm of assumption, probability, or other thought focalized outside the assertions of the speaker. The optative, on the other hand, is used for wishes and hypothetical statements. Reported speech, however, generally takes a subjunctive when subordinated to a verb that represents a repeated, general, or future action, and an optative when the verbs represents an action that is one-time, specific, or completed in the past.

[2] MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages, “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World,” Profession 2007: 111. Available at http://www.mla.org/flreport.

[3] Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 55–59.

[4] Curiously enough, another of these “memes” a somewhat gimmicky way of presenting mi-verbs called the mi-verb moose, circulated quite widely, and I ended up being asked about it by a student I had never met for an oral history project!