It Was Greek to Me
When Shakespeare's Casca is asked to explain what Cicero is saying behind Julius Caesar's back, the poor Senator is forced to admit he does not know, because the cautious Cicero is not speaking in Latin in order to conceal his misgivings about the dictator. "It was Greek to me," says Casca, thus contributing an idiom to the English language, which conveys the idea that something foreign is incomprehensible.
On Friday, MSA students came to find out that this common idiom leads to misperceptions about the Greek language. Students discovered that Greek, while foreign and complex, is far more familiar and understandable than most assume.
Students learned this and more during "Greek in an Hour," a special presentation by University of Virginia Classics Professor Emeritus, Jon Mikalson. Professor Mikalson demonstrated the ways the Greek language provides insights into the human condition, politics, psychology, and ethics. As in Odysseus' journey, students were taken on an adventure through introductory Greek in an exciting and fast-paced manner.
The “Greek in an Hour” program was designed by Professor Mikalson as a vehicle to present the Greek language to high school students, for whom ancient Greek is not a regular part of the curriculum. The students first were introduced to the Greek alphabet, learning how to correctly pronounce each letter and recognize its forms. Next, students examined the names of the Olympian gods and the way the spellings and pronunciation of their names in Greek is not always the same as how they have been transliterated into English. Students were then given a list of Greek words to pronounce aloud to see if they could come up with their English cognates by thinking about their spelling and pronunciation. For many of these words, including drama (δρᾶμα), chaos (Χάος), and democracy (δημοκρατία), Professor Mikalson shared fascinating information about what these terms meant to the Greeks and the way that the understanding and usage of these terms has evolved over time.
The program concluded with a choral reading -- in the original Greek -- of the opening lines of Homer’s Iliad, a work which the MSA students study as part of the 10th grade English curriculum. As he had done throughout the presentation, Professor Mikalson prompted students to figure things out on their own and make connections to ideas they have encountered in their language and English classes. At the conclusion of the program, students were given the “homework assignment” to write their names in Greek. Professor Mikalson fielded questions from the students about how best to write their names, as well as inquiries about his favorite ancient texts and the study of Greek at the college level.
The presentation was organized by MSA's Humanities Program and MSA's Foreign Language Department Chair, Mary Jo Burke. As a graduate student, Mrs. Burke studied with Professor Mikalson. Known for her expertise in Latin and her enthusiasm for the ancient world, Mrs. Burke was thrilled to introduce one of her favorite teachers to her students. "Professor Mikalson's classes at UVa not only introduced me to some of my favorite Greek authors, but also illustrated how important it is to have a dynamic instructor in the classroom, someone who not only knows his subject matter but can instill an enthusiasm for that subject in his students. It was a great pleasure to see one of my mentors interact in such lively fashion with our students here on the Hill."
Thanks to Mrs. Burke and Professor Mikalson, "it was Greek to me" has a new meaning for students at MSA.