One of the only fluent speakers of ancient Greek in the world, Dr. Christophe Rico, spoke on the importance of studying ancient languages and his work to make achieving fluency easier. Rico made his remarks during a lunch with students last Thursday.
Dr. Rico is the director of POLIS — The Jerusalem Institute of Languages and Humanities. POLIS is a non profit academic institution founded by an international group of scholars and is located in Jerusalem, according to the website. At the Institute, many ancient tongues, including Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew, are taught as living, spoken languages. According to Rico, learning an ancient language is essential to understanding texts written in that language.
“We don’t speak ancient languages for the sake of reading ancient languages — that would be completely silly,” Rico said. “We do it because it is the only way to read a text without a dictionary and without translation. If you can’t do it then you will never be able to read Plato as if it were English or French.”
Understanding ancient languages has importance beyond being able to read a certain text. According to Rico, the purpose of his Institute is “for the revival of the humanities.”
“We contribute to the renewal of the humanities,” Rico said. “How? By reviving and speaking ancient languages.”
As well as teaching ancient Greek, Rico is currently working on a thematic dictionary of Classical and Neo-Classical Greek, which will provide instructors and students with the tools they need to speak ancient Greek fluently. According to Rico, Greek in its original form stopped being spoken around the 16th century, when the Ottoman Turks ruled Greece and influenced the language. Now, because the language stopped evolving, ancient Greek speakers have to come up with words to describe modern items that didn’t exist 500 years ago. Rico’s dictionary will help to fill in those gaps.
Another issue that faces ancient Greek speakers is approximating an authentic accent. According to Assistant Professor of Classics Patrick Owens, however, it’s not as hard as it seems.
“There’s a literary tradition of writing diacritical marks and accentuation into texts, so it’s not impossible for him to approximate an accent,” Owens said.
Rico said that ancient texts leave other clues for modern scholars.
“We can better understand the evolution of Greek by looking at mistakes,” he said. “When you see a spelling mistake in writing, it’s because the language is changing.”
Although Rico said that he could never pick a favorite philosopher, he said that he loves to read Plato.
“What I like in Plato is that very human way of making philosophy. It’s dialogue, and there is always a tension in the dialogue between two people,” he said. “And there is always a quest for the truth.”
Rico also loves to read Sophocles. “I think he’s a real genius — more powerful than Shakespeare,” he said.
Ultimately, Rico said that reading ancient works in the original allows us to deeply understand both the author and the text.
“When you read in translation, you read in black and white,” Rico said. “When you read the original, you read in color.”