The place of Classical Greek and the heritage of the ancient Greek world
The Classical Greek language belongs to the Indo-European linguistic family. It is thus related to most of the languages of Europe, to Old Persian and, through Sanskrit, to several major Indian languages.
Classical Greek is defined as the literary Attic–Ionic dialect used by prominent Greek writers in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, such as the playwrights Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the philosophers Plato and Aristotle and the orators Lysias and Demosthenes. Students of Classical Greek also develop the linguistic knowledge to access earlier works, such as the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, and later works, such as Hellenistic literature and the New Testament.
From the 8th century BCE, Greeks established settlements across the Mediterranean area, in Spain, Sicily, Italy, North Africa, Asia Minor and the Black Sea coast. These communities identified as Greek in language and culture, and regularly took part in festivals for Greeks only, such as the Olympic Games. The conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE extended the influence of Greek language and culture in western Asia and Egypt, and resulted in the upsurge in Greek literature and learning known to us as the Hellenistic Age. During this period, a common dialect of Greek known as koiné became the lingua franca of the eastern half of the Mediterranean basin, persisting under Roman administration and surviving the fall of the western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE. The eastern Roman Empire, based at Constantinople, continued as a Greek-speaking, Christian community until it was conquered by the Turks in 1453 CE. Christian missionaries from Constantinople spread Orthodox Christianity and the Greek alphabet to Russia, where the Cyrillic alphabet developed from the Greek.
After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, many Greek scholars moved to western Europe, stimulating the revival of Classical Greek learning, art and culture during the Renaissance period.
The Greek language continued to evolve and to absorb influences from other languages until the present day. Modern Greek uses the same alphabet, and much of the written language bears strong resemblance to its Classical ‘mother’ language.
As Classical Greek is the oldest Indo-European language readily accessible to English speakers, it gives students the opportunity to engage with the evolution of language and the connections among related languages. In addition, the intellectual flowering of the Renaissance brought to English a literary and scientific vocabulary from Greek in order to discuss and describe the new ideas. It is no accident that many school subjects have names of Greek origin such as history, geography, mathematics, physics, economics, music, drama, biology and athletics. The vocabulary of academic discourse is heavily indebted to Greek, and students of Classical Greek acquire a deep understanding of specialised words and an enriched personal vocabulary to enable them to discuss academic concepts.
The enduring achievements and rich legacy of the ancient Greek world are still evident in today’s world, in modern values, customs and beliefs, our laws and the form of our governments, our buildings and our art and literature.
The place of the Classical Greek language in Australian education
In Australia, the teaching of Classical Greek has evolved since the 19th century, when it was taught, in addition to Latin, only to boys aspiring to an upper-class education in accordance with European tradition. During the educational changes of the 20th century, Classical Greek was also offered to girls, as part of the move to widen the curriculum for girls to include subjects previously thought too difficult, such as physics, advanced mathematics and Classical Greek. Since that time, Classical Greek has continued to be taught in independent and selective state schools, maintaining its small numbers steadily. Since the 1980s, the establishment of Greek Orthodox independent day schools, serving the large Greek diaspora communities, mainly in Sydney and Melbourne, has offered a new context for learning Classical as well as Modern Greek.
Pedagogy in Classical Greek has also evolved since the 1980s, and continues to do so in the 21st century. Traditionally, the study of Classical Greek began later than Latin, using the grammar and structures of Latin as a model. When the pedagogy of Latin changed in the 1970s from grammar and translation to a contextual reading approach, the teaching of Classical Greek was similarly influenced. New courses were produced for Classical Greek that did not presuppose a knowledge of Latin. The traditional emphasis on composing Classical Greek was replaced by the reading method, in which students acquire the language by reading continuous, historically accurate texts in Classical Greek, carefully structured so as to introduce the language and its literary features progressively within an engaging historical and cultural context. The pedagogy was designed to offer an enriching experience to a wide range of learners; the study of Classical Greek offered them an ongoing opportunity for the development of deep knowledge and transferable skills, including literacy and critical thinking.
Students may be attracted to learn Classical Greek for a variety of reasons, such as fascination with mythology, love of Greek history and culture, or interest in comparative language study. A growing area of interest is the comparative study of ancient European and Asian cultures and languages; for example, Greek and Chinese historiography, medical writings, or poetry.
In some states, such as New South Wales and Victoria, students have access to Classical Greek enrichment activities provided by teachers’ associations and universities, such as competitions in Classical Greek recitation, literary essays and art; symposia and study days; and classical drama productions. At post-secondary level, Classical Greek is available in all Australian states and in the Australian Capital Territory, and summer schools are held regularly in New South Wales and Victoria, offering courses at all levels, from beginner to advanced.
Classical Greek has a long tradition in Australian universities, and Australian graduates have distinguished themselves in classical scholarship in this country and overseas. Some Australians have become distinguished scholars in Classics, while other students of Classical Greek have used their learning to make successful careers in law, politics, literature, education and many other fields.
The nature of learning Classical Greek
Classical Greek is a highly inflected language, with three distinct genders and numbers, noun cases and verb conjugations, including tenses, moods and voices. The Classical Greek alphabet has 24 letters, ordered from alpha to omega, and is essentially the same as the Modern Greek alphabet.
Students learn Classical Greek systematically within an authentic historical, social and cultural context. They absorb the ambience, history, society and values of ancient Greece as they read, and are encouraged to relate their discoveries to life in the modern world.
As they learn Classical Greek, students make connections with English and other languages. They expand their English vocabulary by exploring words derived from Classical Greek, and examine the complex inflections of Classical Greek, making comparisons with how meaning is conveyed in English. Their growing awareness of grammar equips them to understand the workings of other languages they may already know or wish to learn.
From synthetic reading material, students may progress to authentic Classical Greek texts, encountering selections from famous works of poetry and prose which have influenced Western literature and thought for two millennia. Students are encouraged to discuss the ideas and values embedded in texts and to convey their meaning and tone in English. They analyse how language and style are used to convey the author’s purpose. As Classical Greek literature was composed to be delivered orally, students learn to read aloud, using the restored Classical pronunciation, and are encouraged to listen to oral performances so as to appreciate the impact of these works on their intended audiences.
The learning pathway and curriculum design
In the Australian Curriculum: Languages – Classical Greek, the learning pathway for students is Years 7–10.
A key dimension of the curriculum involves understanding the cultural dimension that shapes and is shaped by the language. The curriculum is designed with an intercultural language learning orientation to enable students to enter and explore an ancient world; to engage with an ancient people’s ways of living, and viewing the world; to consider how an ancient civilisation influences life and thought in the modern world; and to reflect on what is special and valuable about their own language and culture.