Join us


The Ingenious Language by Andrea Marcolongo review – nine epic reasons to love Greek

Author: PD Smith
Newspaper: The Guardian
Date: Nov 7 2019

The French literary colossus Marguerite Yourcenar once said that she loved ancient Greek for the richness of its vocabulary and its infinite flexibility, which was “like that of a supple, perfect body”. Marcolongo, an Italian writer and classics scholar, agrees. She has written a delightfully spirited yet succinct apologia for “the magnificent and elegant ancient Greek language” (translated by Will Schutt).

Many former classics students may “shudder” as they recall “their fear and exertion, their anger and frustration” while learning the notoriously challenging language. But with the passion of an evangelist, she takes the reader through its distinctive structure and grammar, from its three genders and no less than five cases, to its use of aspect (which describes the quality of an action rather than locating it in time), and the dual number, a way of expressing “we two” much used by Plato.

She argues that ancient Greek offers us uniquely “concise, explosive, ironic, open-ended modes of expression”. As well as making a convincing case for its singularly expressive power, she shows how languages give us new ways of seeing and understanding the world.

Although we have no way of knowing what ancient Greek would have sounded like, it still speaks to us today. As Virginia Woolf said: “It is to the Greeks that we turn when we are sick of the vagueness, of the confusion of our own age.”