Warrior Words: Recalled to life

I spend three afternoons a week with a few other students learning to bring the dead back to life. Reading ancient Greek is a slow process. I scrutinize every line to render the right syntax and word order, comb through my Little Liddell dictionary to find the perfect translation. Mr. Gabrielson, who teaches our independent study class (and who miraculously knows Greek noun declensions and verb principal parts better than I even know English) helps us with an unfamiliar vocab word here, an irregular conjugation there. Slowly, the complicated enigma of letters and breathing marks and elisions transforms into a story, a message, an emotion — undoubtedly human, undoubtedly living.

It definitely sometimes seems that classical culture took its last breath long, long ago. When I tell people I take ancient Greek, their expressions are first blank and then gradually shift to deep concern. I imagine they want to put a hand on my shoulder and look me in the eyes, breaking the news to me gently: “I don’t know how to tell you this, Evaline, but people don’t really use ancient Greek anymore.”

How do you define “use?”

Everyone reserves a personal, go-to phrase for life’s special moments: accidentally touching a cookie sheet fresh out of the oven, missing a stair while waving hello to friends. Some people have their favorite obscenities, fist-shaking and foot-stomps. Greek, though, has oimoi. It’s the phrase Phaedra exclaims when she hears the name of Hippolytus — her stepson, and unfortunately also her true love. It embodies the darkest, most heart-wrenching sorrow and despair. In other words, it’s the perfect expression to use when English ones are simply too mild to express your level of frustration. It’s adding 11 to your scale from one to 10.

Secondly, classical plays are just as empathetic to human emotion as modern works. Sure, very few of us have probably had to duel a hundred suitors to win back our spouses, disowned our sisters for refusing to help break the law, or poked out the eye of a Cyclops. Still, the emotions — jealousy, anger and feelings of betrayal, triumph and relief — are incredibly familiar and relatable. In a way, we read about others to understand ourselves.

The metaphors and imagery in Greek literature, although written in ancient times, turn everyday life into poetry. The next time you see the sun rise, imagine Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn painting streaks of pink in the sky. The next time you spot a gossip or tattler, use Sophocles’s archer metaphor to describe him or her — a bowman aiming for his target from a distance while separating himself from the terrible deed.

In truth, then, learning ancient Greek isn’t so much necromancy as it is exploration. The words aren’t so clear skimming them through; it takes some underwater diving, some sifting through obstacles and the unfamiliar shadows of language to find the story within — a story hidden, but very much alive.


Evaline Xie is a senior at Wilton High School. She shares this column with four classmates.