The "OTC Moment"

Hello all. Has it really been a year and a half since I’ve posted anything of substance? Well, the sun has completed a few more revolutions around the earth (if I am to think like an ancient), and in that interval my Latin and Greek have not been idle, so here is my most unTweetish update (many more than 140 characters!).

In my initial May 2011 post, I distinguished three levels of intensity of both purpose and effort: Dabbler, Serious, and Intense. I classified myself as Intense, but I hope I made it clear I am not exercising any judgement. Recently, for example, I’ve been Dabbling in the kitchen. I’ve become more curious about what I eat. But my culinary interest and effort will probably never become Intense (my wife’s likely wishes notwithstanding).

In my Intense reawakening of my dormant Latin and Greek, my goal has been to read ancient authors with minimal need for translation or undergraduate-level student edition crutches. And in fact in January 2012 I began taking some graduate seminars where this capability was assumed, with extensive reading in, for example, Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, Cicero’s forensic speeches, and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. This fall I will be taking seminars in Homer’s Odyssey and Ovid’s Fasti.

I call this the “OCT moment.” This is the moment when, after months or years of preparation, you first take the plunge and try your hand at a naked Oxford Classical Text or Teubner edition, where the only help is the critical apparatus. (Incidentally, one reason I was dissatisfied with my Latin in graduate school was the relative difficulty I had reading the given OCT editor’s Latin-language preface.) This can be either depressing or an exhilarating experience. Given that I have a quite realistic notion of the years of practice it takes to get good at this, I’ve been reasonably happy with my second-time-around OCT moments. And so in this post I focus on what I have found it takes to go from bilingual Loeb and undergraduate student editions to a satisfying OCT moment.

As I have done previously, I will discuss separately what I have done in Latin and in Greek. The common themes are (1) developing a natural feel for the language, and (2) building a robust vocabulary. But let me start with a brief commentary on contemporary pedagogical approaches and also finish with some thoughts about the fascinating Hungarian autodidactic polyglot, Kató Lomb.

CI, TPRS, WAYK, etc.

In my initial post I described how I stumbled upon a pedagogical trend in the teaching of foreign languages in the decades since I had left the Classics profession, a trend away from grammar-translation and toward natural immersion (which terms I use in their most general, unrigorous sense), and I described how I reoriented my self-study accordingly, with positive results. In the field of Classics, this trend has the salutary effect of appreciating classical-era Greek and Latin not as “dead,” but as living, breathing, spoken languages. Further, it gets away from intentionally or unintentionally presenting ancient languages as interesting grammatical puzzles, a tendency since the rigorous German academic philology of the nineteenth-century infiltrated pedagogy.

I have in the meantime subscribed to several lively online forums whose leaders and participants are mostly teachers in Latin and Greek at the middle and high school levels. From them I have learned a whole new set of concepts and pedagogical vocabulary, like Comprehensible Input (CI — search on “Stephen Krashen”), TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling), and Where Are Your Keys (WAYK).

These are all fresh sprouts on the branch of the pedagogical tree whose previous limbs include the direct, natural, and immersion approaches. I have at best only a superficial grasp of the underlying theories. Much of it sounds right to me empirically and intuitively, for example, the hypothesized distinction CI makes between acquiring (subconsciously) and learning (consciously, via grammar) a non-native language. However, I have to note that I am not a pedagogue and am not pedagogued. I am an adult, I am motivated, I am an autodidact. Kató Lomb writes, “Let’s stop for a minute and examine a frequently heard delusion [that] adults should learn foreign languages the same way they once acquired their mother tongue. I cannot accept this assertion. There is as little likelihood of squeezing an adult into the intellectual framework of their childhood as there is into their first pair of pajamas.”

Again, CI theory asserts that those who acquire the language can speak it spontaneously (without consciously or subconsciously applying a corrective “monitor” to your “production”). I find that believable from my experience with high school Spanish. On the other hand, with respect to Latin and Greek, my interest is only reading. I want there to be a listening and a speaking component to my learning of Latin and Greek, because that is critical to cultivating a natural feel for the language. But my only object is to be a better reader.

The advocates of these approaches in the online forums emphasize the time and patience needed to acquire the language.  The most experienced practitioners seem to concur that only the rare high school senior is ready in terms either of language-level acquisition or intellectual maturity for, say, Horace. Therefore — and this is where their program becomes radical — they don’t make that their goal. (Some of them have a related social goal of making language learning fun and beneficial for the entire class, not just the advanced and easily-motivated students they dub the “4 percenters.”) This presents a real dilemma, at least in the US, since 99% of US college Latin and Greek programs are pretty much entirely oriented towards producing classical philologists, and they expect that incoming freshmen with Latin or Greek experience have already been operating at some level philologically, mostly meaning they can describe the language in grammatical terms.

This suggests an interesting experiment. Start a reasonably bright and motivated child on the path to acquiring Latin through CI. What is her trajectory? Unfettered by the artificial but real restraints imposed by high school, college, economics, parents, and life, how long would it take her to be ready for her OCT moment? Or, the proponents of traditional grammar-translation ask either skeptically or defiantly, will she be? Ever? I certainly don’t know. My experience inclines me to the natural approach, but as an educated adult I also actually like pouring over grammars (as Lomb says, you can’t prevent an adult from wanting to know the why and the how, not just the what). I don’t experience that as a contradiction. But certainly one way or another, getting to your OCT moment requires patience.



Of course there is nothing new under the sun. Educators have been wrestling since the Renaissance to find the most effective Latin pedagogy. Which brings me back to Comenius. The Comenian curriculum continues to be my preferred trajectory and where I spend most of my time outside of the authors I am studying in school. If you don’t know about Comenius or what I mean by the Comenian curriculum, please read my earlier post Beefing up your Latin Vocabulary, and How I Learned to Love Comenius.

Comenius worked out a trajectory, formalized with the help of an architectural metaphor he beat to death, that consists of a journey through the Vestibulum, the Janua, and the Atrium of the Latin Language. When you have completed this journey you are ready to enter the Palatium, which is reading the actual ancient authors – in other words, your OCT moment.

The Janua sought to present in summary form most of what in the 1600s could still count as the sum total of human knowledge (a century later Diderot and d’Alembert gave us Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des science, des arts et des métiers, and today we have Wikipedia). Comenius wrote the Latin for the Janua and expected others to produce translations in their native language (there are none, to my knowledge, in English). [January 2021: There is in fact at least one edition of the Janua with an English translation.] The student would first learn about the world itself (res ipsae) and then the names of its physical and conceptual objects, first in his native language, then in Latin. The Janua methodically distributed approximately 8,000 unique words over 1,000 grammatically simple sentences subdivided into 100 topics. See the Comenian tree of knowledge.

Comenius’s taxonomy and scope of human knowledge were a lot closer to antiquity’s than to ours, so the Janua affords us just as it did his contemporaries an especially rich source of Latin vocabulary. Later, Comenius shrunk the Janua down to the even simpler Orbis Sensualium Pictus, with the innovative addition of pictures. In my Beefing up your Latin Vocabulary post my recommendation was, and still is, to listen a thousand times over to Evan Millner’s recording of the Orbis Pictus (and, if you are like me, mark up a reprint with lots of marginal notes).

As the vocabulary of the Orbis Pictus begins to settle into your long-term memory bank, the next logical step is to begin absorbing the more extensive vocabulary of the Janua, arranged over the same sequence of topics as the Orbis Pictus. On and off, that is what I have been doing, more recently by way of transcribing the Latin as well as a Greek translation – see below under Greek. (Unfortunately, to my knowledge, we do not have a complete recording of the Janua, by Evan Millner or anyone else.) I say “on and off,” because I have already crossed the threshold into the Palatium. But I believe in Continuous Improvement (coincidentally another CI acronym), to borrow some business jargon.

My final Comenian recommendation is: Don’t skip the Atrium! The focus of the Janua is on “perspicuity” (clarity), and the sentences are by design simple and entirely unadorned (though Comenius does employ certain techniques to avoid the presentation from devolving into nothing but monotonous word lists ). The Atrium introduces the elements of style, or elegance. The corresponding Grammar (the Vestibulum, Janua, and Atrium each have a corresponding Lexicon and Grammar), called the Ars Ornatoria Sive Grammatica elegans (see Comenius’s synopsis), teaches nine types of stylistic variation. In the first chapter of the Grammatica elegans, Comenius gives a quick definition and simple illustration of each type, using the sentence Magister meus docet exemplis perpetuis. The following chapters detail each type, and the concluding chapters give some advice on the use and abuse of these techniques.

For the Atrium itself, Comenius intended to rewrite the entire Janua using these nine elements of style. Perhaps fortunately, he never found the time. So he limited the Atrium to a rewrite of only the first Januan topic, the Introitus. To illustrate, for those of you who already have some Latin, here are the first two sentences of the Introitus:

  1. Style: Perspicuitas. Unadorned, focused purely on precise communication. Not a rewrite, since this is already the style of the Janua.
    a. Lector amice salve.
    b. Si rogas, quid sit esse eruditum? Respondeo, Nosse differentias rerum, et posse signare rem quamque propria appellatione sua.
  2. Style: Transpositio. Changing the word order of the different parts of speech from their most natural, or default order.
    a. Salve amice lector.
    b. Eruditum esse quid sit si rogas: Rerum differentias nosse, et unam quamque suo insignire nomine posse, respondebo.
  3. Style: Transmutatio/Permutatio/Variatio. Changing parts of speech into different parts.
    a. Salve lector meus.
    b. Cui si sciscitari libet, ecquid eruditio siet? Responsum dabo: Rerum non ignorare discrimina, appellationeque sua insignire quamque posse.
  4. Style: Idiotismos. No, not Latin for Idiots :-), but employing purely Latin idioms that can’t be translated verbatim into the vernacular.
    a. Salvere te jubeo, Anagnosta.
    b. Si est ut quaeras, eruditione pollere quid et quale sit? Verbo expediam: Res a rebus intellectu discriminare, appellationibusque germanis disterminare, posse.
  5. Style: Transnominatio. Metaphor, allegory.
    a. Propitiam tibi salutem, Musarum cultor suavissime.
    b. Qui si venando aucuparis, Elegantia Literaturae summa quae sit? Prodam: Res rebus per intimas rationes conferendo, appellationes quoque earundem inter se permutare posse; ut aliud dicatur, aliud intelligatur.
  6. Style: Dilatatio. The “Asiatic” (verbose) style of ancient rhetoric.
    a. Salute impertior te plurima, quisque nostra haec lecturus ades.
    b. Cui si requirere allubescit: Illud quod eruditionem vocamus quidnam et quale siet? Accomodatius quod respondeam vix habebo, nisi ut rerum, in quantum per differentias suas certas in classes abeunt, vel dimanant, notitiam; et unamquamque earum vernaculo sibi nomine appellandi peritiam, esse dicam.
  7. Style: Contractio. The “Laconic” style of ancient rhetoric.
    a. Salve.
    b. Quaeris, quid eruditio sit? Strictum dicam: Rerum et verborum notitia.
  8. Style: Figuratio. Affectation.
    a. O salve salve, Theatro te iterum reddens gnave rerum lustrator, salve!
    b. Ambire ego te, ambitiosum in elegantias, iterum aliquid suspicor: quid sit edissere. Sermonis elegantias utrum me iam docueris omnes, an supersit aliquid, scire aveo. Figuris te orationem colorare nondum docui: ut sive oratio sit native structa, sive transtructa; variataque sive per vocum transmutationem, sive per rerum transnominationem; et diffusa in Asiastismum, aut contracta in Laconismum: eam tamen ipsa eloquendi configuratione ad nervosius penetrandum armare scias.
  9. Style: Ligatura. Prose rhythm and verse. Left to the student as an exercise.

Studying the Grammatica elegans and the Atrium is instructive and confidence-building. It teaches or reminds you of the many ways you can say things in Latin. Latin is flexible, famously so in the hands of the great Roman poets and prose stylists. The Atrium prepares you for these masters. If you find you are unable to understand much of it, you are probably not ready to enter the Palatium. If you get most of it (including its wit), there’s nowhere to go but the Palatium.

The Renaissance

The Atrium may even suggest to you some specific stopping points on the way to the Palatium. Comenius draws heavily from and several times quotes Erasmus’s Copia (De Duplici Copia Verborum ac Rerum Commentarii Duo), a famous treatise on the “abundant style.” Copia is a tract on the use and abuse of rhetorical style. Nowadays it is most famous for a tour-de-force in chapter 33 of its first book, in which Erasmus gives 150 variations on the sentence Tuae literae me magnopere delectarunt (‘Your letter has pleased me greatly’).

Copia is available from Google Books and in reprint, though only in a cramped and blurry edition as best as I can find. I’ve been using an exquisitely legible modern edition with outstanding (English) commentary by Betty I. Knott (the sixth Volume of the first ‘Ordo’ of the Amsterdam Erasmi Opera Omnia (ASD), Elsevier Science Publishers, 1988). Her commentary is especially valuable for giving the specific citations of the many ancient passages Erasmus draws on, often with vague or silent attribution. Unfortunately, most will find the ASD editions prohibitively expensive.

Along with their quest to discover or re-discover ancient manuscripts, learned men of the Renaissance concerned themselves with the discovery and rescue and reconstruction of a pure classical Latinity. Certainly Erasmus for one, and Copia draws heavily on Lorenzo Valla and Valla’s Elegantiae linguae latinae. You probably won’t want to read all 800+ pages (in six books) detailing points of classical usage and idiom, though sampling them is instructive about the Renaissance and the history of Latin. But you may be inspired by Valla’s Preface, in which he exalts the legacy of the Roman language and liberal arts, which has long out survived and exceeded in human achievement the conquests of Roman arms, nay exceeded the gift of many a God and Goddess. Valla laments the current state of that legacy (Latinitatem a barbaris oppressam), which he compares to ancient Rome when she was occupied in all but the Capitoline by the Gauls. And he ends by exhorting an army of literary Quirites to be the Camillus who rescues the literary Capitoline and restores the city (Camillus vobis, Camillus imitandus est, qui signa, ut inquit Virgilius, in patriam referat eamque restituat). (The only edition of the Elegantiae I could find on Google Books lops off the beginning of the Preface. Fortunately I was able to find at my college library a legible 1962 reprint [Turin] of Valla’s Opera Omnia [Basel, 1540].)

In trying to recreate a pure Latin, Erasmus and Valla obviously went to the source, especially Quintilian, the complete text of whose Institutio oratoria was only discovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1416. You may know of Poggio and his discovery of the first known manuscript of Lucretius after centuries of darkness from Stephen Greenblatt’s popular book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011). But now we are squarely in the Palatium.

Thanks to Wikipedia’s article on Copia for its reference to Raymond Queneau’s delightful Exercises de style (Gallimard, 1947), the retelling by an observer in 99 different styles of two men getting into an altercation on the “S” bus (Paris) and later of one of the men at the St.-Lazare Station getting advice on adding a button to his overcoat.

Reading Latin Fluently

Reflecting on my own experience with Latin in college, and based on what I observe in the college classes I have been taking, other than the lack of a robust vocabulary the one thing I see in particular that stands in the way of a completely satisfying OCT moment is some residual discomfort with the variability of Latin word order. In that regard I am a fan of Dexter Hoyos’s Latin: How to Read It Fluently, a Practical Manual (1998). [January 2021: At the time I wrote this, Dexter’s pamphlet seemed to have gone out of print. In any case, it is available now in an edition dated 2016.]

I should note that I have discussed this lingering discomfort with Latin word order with my young graduate student friends. They happen to be the product of grammar-translation, but they don’t find gtrammar-translation or Latin word order to be a problem. And my purist Comprehensible Input advocates argue that Hoyos’s approach perpetuates the problem, despite Hoyos’s rejection of grammar-translation. So perhaps I am recommending Dexter’s pamphlet for a problem that does not exist, or God forbid even committing some kind of pedagogical sin. Anyway, I commend the pamphlet to you, adult autodidact, as a help in clearing the last hurdle to a satisfying OCT moment.

The unpretentious spirit of this pamphlet is captured by its opening citation of the “traditional lament”:

Latin is a language
As dead as it can be.
It killed the ancient Romans,
And now it’s killing me.

Smoke on that, Lorenzo Valla! (Actually, he couldn’t smoke, since he lived before Christopher Columbus.) The pamphlet lays out 10 sequential “Reading Rules” for reading a Latin sentence. (As an IT professional, I spot an algorithm here. I have actually corresponded with Mr. Hoyos about a computer application applying these rules, though that isn’t going anywhere at the moment. [January 2021: And it never did.]) The first 5 rules are fundamental and can be summarized as: Don’t translate as you read. To help you avoid this temptation, you must get good at recognizing not just individual words but word-groups, viz., main clauses, subordinate clauses, and phrases. (On the combination of words into phrases, I like the simplicity of Comeniuss’ 15 types of phrases in the Rudimenta Grammaticae (the Grammar of the Vestibulum), layed out more fully in the Grammatica janualis and more richly in the discussions De transpositione vocum in phrasi and De transpositione phrasium in sententia in the Grammatica elegans. Keep in mind one big advantage of Comenius: You are reading about these things in Latin.) This leads to Rule #6 and the discussion I found especially helpful, on recognizing word-groups and the relationships between word-groups. Rule #6 states the “embracing principle”:

a.  A Main Clause must be completed before another Main Clause can start.
b.  Once a subordinate clause or phrase is begun, it must be completed syntactically before the rest of the sentence can proceed.
c.  An embraced clause or phrase must be completed before the embracing one can proceed.

The point is, word order in Latin is, yes, much more flexible than in English, but it is not arbitrary and it obeys some fundamental and common-sense rules. Internalizing these rules helps you to readily spot word-groups and their relationships as you progress through the sentence, and so not get totally lost in a complex sentence and begin to resort to self-defeating reading habits like, say, hunt-for-the-verb.

In you’re sure 6b and 6c are “elementary, my dear Watson,” great. Otherwise, it just takes a little practice. To help you practice, the pamphlet offers two tools, Line-Analysis and Arch-Diagrams. (Dexter tells me he has dropped Arch-Diagrams as graphically impractical when applied to any sentence of significant length, and he now prefers the term Structured Analysis to Line-Analysis.) I would add: Try using a blank index card to cover the sentence and then move the card to reveal one word at a time (it would be much easier to have software do this for you). Ask yourself what each new word adds to the sentence structure, what possibilities it creates or eliminates. Identify the word-groups as they complete and their mutual relationships, e.g., subordinate, embracing, embraced. Embrace me, my sweet embraceable sentence ♪♪.


In the Latin thread in prior posts on this blog, I described how I used “Adler + Millner + Ørberg” not just to re-study Latin grammar but more consequentially to develop a better natural feel for Latin than I felt I had had in graduate school. I also described how I used Comenius, especially the Orbis Pictus, to build a robust vocabulary. These are the two biggest prerequisites in my opinion to a satisfying OCT moment. In this post, in the continuation of the Latin thread, I have indicated how I have since been using Comenius’s Janua and Atrium to build on this foundation.

In the Greek thread, I described how I used primarily Athenaze and Reading Greek to get back into Greek. At the time, I had not found a Greek counterpart to Adler’s Ollendorff-style grammar with progressive exercises for speaking and writing, to Millner’s recorded spoken Latin (with the exception of Assimil), or to Ørberg, with the partial exception of Athenaze and Reading Greek‘s Dikaiopolis narratives. Here I will tell how I am filling this gap.


As a counterpart to Ørberg’s Familia Romana, I can recommend several graded readers: C.W.E. Peckett & A.R. Munday’s Thrasymachus (Bristol Classical Press, 1970); Anne Mahoney’s updated edition of W.H.D. Rouse’s Greek Boy: A Reader (Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Company, 2010) — the original title was A Greek Boy at Home; and Charles Melville Moss’s A First Greek Reader with Notes and Vocabulary (revised ed. 1893 on Google Books, new ed. 1900 on

I especially like Thrasymachus. In a dream (spoiler alert!), Hermes, commanded by Zeus to do so, takes Thrasymachus on a tour of Hades (actually, Hermes conducts Thrasymachus to Hades and then hands him off to Aeacus). There Thrasymachus encounters Hector, a headless Agamemnon, three quarrelsome Goddesses, and more. Later, in another dream, Thrasymachus meets Homer, and Homer tells him stories from the Odyssey. Each of the thirty-two chapters focuses on a specific grammatical topic, with a grammar précis after the reading and corresponding exercises in the back of the book. Thumbs up, 5 stars, “a wickedly clever piece of work,” say the critics, and I agree.

W.H.D. Rouse pioneered the Direct Method, whose “learn by doing” approach for teaching Latin and Greek avoids translation and places speaking and writing on an equal plane with reading. Rouse wrote A Greek Boy at Home to provide reading for each chapter of his First Greek Course (3rd ed. 1916). In addition to her updated edition of the reader, Anne Mahoney has issued an extensively revised First Greek Course (Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Company, 2011). Her excellent edition, which doesn’t shy away from such linguistic terms as Sandhi, retains Rouse’s conversational and writing exercises for use by those who have the appropriate environment.

I have so far given only a cursory glance to Moss’s A First Greek Reader. It consists of approximately 150 very brief vignettes (the exact number depends on which edition you use). Recently, some online colleagues have started a project to record these vignettes using Koine pronunciation, along with some associated teaching aides, such as an English translation and some Greek paraphrases. The first recordings sound very good to me. They aren’t organized yet for public dissemination, but stay tuned. [January 2021: Someone at least has done it.]

Greek Ollendorff

Heinrich Ollendorff was an early nineteenth-century German who promulgated an oral method for teaching French. The method caught on and spawned “Ollendorffs” for other modern languages (see the Wikipedia article on Heinrich Gottfried Ollendorff – these were among the first fully-developed modern language courses). George J. Adler, a fellow German and professor of German at New York University, created an Ollendorff for teaching German to American students and went on to write his famous Ollendorff for Latin, A Practical Grammar of the Latin Language: With Perpetual Exercises in Speaking and Writing (1858). At about the same time (1851), Asahel Clark Kendrick, a professor of Greek at the University of Rochester, New York, published his Greek Ollendorff: Being a Progressive Exhibition of the Principles of the Greek Grammar: Designed for Beginners in Greek, and as a Book of Exercises for Academies and Colleges. Some people are still trying to finish reading the title.

[January 2021. I have mostly retained the text of the original post below, but to my knowledge my Ollendorff recordings have not gained any traction, and in the interests of housecleaning I have decided to remove them and associated material from Dropbox. You can still access Bedwere’s (Greek-only) recordings of the exercises on his ἑαυτὸν παιδευόμενος blog site. You can purchase his edition of the Ollendorff as well as his Anwer Key at]

Evan Millner’s invaluable recording of Adler enables us to hear the Latin we are learning. This is for many of us the closest we can get to an immersion experience. A year ago I set out to accomplish the same thing for the Greek Ollendorff, and I finally finished this spring. I also created a vocabulary index and an Answer Key for the Greek-to-English and English-to-Greek exercises, something Adler himself had done for his Latin Ollendorff. Like Evan, I created two recordings for each lesson, one in English and Greek, one in Greek only (the file names for the Greek only have ‘GO’ in the title). Like Evan, I recorded the content of the lesson as well as the exercises. I grouped the 97 lessons into eight logical “albums” to facilitate goal setting. You can access a fuller description of what I did, along with the recordings and the Answer Keys, on Dropbox. [January 2021: See above.]

I recorded using my best attempt at restored classical Attic pronunciation. Simultaneously and unbeknownst to me, Roberto Lionello (aka Bedwere) was also recording the Ollendorff (exercises only, Greek only), using Koine pronunciation. He and I collaborated on the Answer Keys to come up with agreed-upon translations and to eliminate errors. In my introductory document on Dropbox, you can get the link to Roberto’s recordings along with a print edition of the Greek Ollendorff text that Roberto published on

Self-recording the Ollendorff (not because I’m in love with my own voice, but since no one else had done it) has been my means of internalizing a more natural feel for classical Greek as a living language. I have found the material in the Ollendorff well-suited for this purpose. Everything is designed for simplicity (as Kendrick explicitly states in his preface). Lesson 1 introduces the definite article and the first declension, in a very simple exposition. And so each lesson proceeds, in a very slow and logical order. You don’t get past the present tense until Lesson 38 (out of 97) or past the indicative mood until Lesson 64. Most fundamental syntax is covered, such as the basic types of conditional sentences, but only with very elementary examples. The exercises remain very simple throughout, at the level of school-boy prose. I have found repetitive listening to these small and progressive chunks (which are, I suppose, not unlike the “i+1” comprehensible messages of CI, especially if you are listening to the Greek-only recordingspaa good way to gradually build a solid natural foundation from the bottom up.

(Ancient Greek, though, stretching from Linear B to Byzantium and across multiple dialects, has a lot of shoemaker’s lasts — for the metaphor, see on Kató Lomb below — so I have also been going at it top down with frequent perusal of Herbert Weir Smyth’s indispensable descriptive Greek Grammar.)

Comenius in Greek

[January 2021. I have retained the text of the original post below, except that I have removed the link to Dropbox. All my Comenius activity can be seen on my Comenius channel on YouTube. Also watch for a post that will summarize what I did and did not manage to do with my Comenius project.]

And that leaves the biggest remaining gap on the way to my second-time-around Greek OCT moment, a robust vocabulary. Comenius’s Janua should logically be an equally rich source of vocabulary for any language it is translated into. And a long time ago voilà, I found on Google Books a 1642 translation of the Janua by a Theodor Simon into ancient Greek. Unfortunately for me at least, the first typeface for ancient Greek after the invention of the printing press simply perpetuated the Greek minuscule of medieval Greek manuscripts. Its cursive script and elaborate ligatures were Greek to me.

However, as I was putting my Ollendorff recordings to bed, I ventured to try deciphering the Janua Greek one more time. From colleagues on online forums I got some excellent tips on sources for studying the minuscule script. I did this for a couple weeks, not nearly enough to become the paleographer I don’t want to become, but enough to have begun decoding Simon’s translation. And in the process, I discovered a couple of Greek translations of the Orbis Pictus (one in a quality scan of an 1820 edition with a very legible, non-cursive font). Stop. Did you get that? Of the Orbis Pictus — εὕρηκα! — do you feel my excitement?

So my Ollendorff project has now been succeeded by my Greek Janua project, actually, my Latin & Greek Janua project, since I’ve never gotten anywhere close to the back door of the Latin Janua yet. Specifically, I am transcribing the Latin and the Greek in MS Word. If I or others can complete this, we will have a treasure trove of legible, editable, recordable Latin and Greek vocabulary. My goal for the end of this summer is to get through the first 19 of the 100 sections (226 of the 1,000 sentences). In Comenius’ taxonomy that means having worked from the firmament and the four primary elements down through plants and animals, and being ready to pick up with De homine in section XX. And since I’m taking classes this coming fall and spring, that probably won’t happen before another revolution of the sun.

Meanwhile, though, I’m definitely looking for any volunteers who would like to participate. Please email me if you have any interest. In any case, you are welcome to see, use, and keep up with my (and hopefully others’) progress on Dropbox. [January 2021: See above.] I’ve also collected there in one place the several editions of the Janua and the Orbis Pictus with Greek translations.

When I was a boy, I spent my summers swimming and playing baseball. Summers were blissful and seemed to last forever. Now summers come and go in a wink. I intended my Greek OCT moment to be Xenophon’s Anabasis this summer. And I have started the eastward march through Asia Minor, but ἄλλα πράγματα have intervened, and it does not seem like I’m going to be looking down from the mountain with my fellow hoplites and shouting θάλαττα θάλαττα! before commencing the return voyage across the wine dark sea with Odysseus in school this fall.

In fact I’ve started perusing Clyde Pharr’s introduction to Homeric Greek, and coincidentally I see that Pharr in his preface [1920] makes an impassioned case for starting young Greek students with Homer rather than Xenophon. Personally, I still believe it’s better to start with prose than poetry, but you should read what you are passionate to read, which is the perfect segue to Kató Lomb.

Kató Lomb (Read a Book!)

“Language is present in a book like the sea in a single drop.”

Kató Lomb, Polyglot: How I Learn Languages (1970)

When are you ready for your OCT moment? Reflecting on my own experience, I have suggested patient preparation that consists of

  1. grammar (If you feel that with a good immersion or Comprehensive Input environment you can acquire the language without learning about it in grammatical terms, and such an environment is available to you, go for it and please tell us about it.)
  2. the cultivation of a natural feel for the language
  3. a robust vocabulary

But earlier this year I reread Kató Lomb’s fascinating memoir Polyglot: How I Learn Languages (available as a free .pdf from several sources on the net), and that suggested another perspective.

Kató Lomb (1909 – 2003) was a remarkable person. Born in Hungary, she earned a PhD in chemistry during the Depression but concluded she had no good job prospects. She abruptly switched course and decided she would make a living teaching foreign languages. However, she didn’t know any! So she set about learning English by intensively studying a novel by Galsworthy. In 1941, several odd jobs and almost a decade later, without ever suspecting the Russian occupation of Hungary several years hence, she fortuitously decided to teach herself Russian — in part by secretly reading a camouflaged copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls in a bomb shelter. As an adult autodidact who didn’t even start to learn foreign languages until after her college years, she was ultimately able to effortlessly switch between Hungarian, Russian, English, French, and German (she made her living in part as a simultaneous translator), to translate literary texts in Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and Polish, and to translate at least technical texts in Bulgarian, Danish, Latin, Romanian, Czech, and Ukrainian.

“Spurred on by the two incentives of necessity and thirst for knowledge,” she writes, “I worked out a method for languages [while teaching herself English] that I use to this day.” But Polyglot is not some dry academic exposition of a “method;” it is a witty, humane, historically interesting and entirely non-technical autobiographical account of how she learned languages, of interest to any literate person. In the telling, she makes some suggestions drawn from her experience (she offers no “recipe,” she says, because there is none) to complement and perhaps hasten the progress you might otherwise achieve from the “classic” approach of teacher-led instruction.

The closest I can find that she comes to giving her “method” a name is her reference in the Introduction to “the method I had worked out for approaching a foreign language through interesting reading” (my emphasis). If you wanted to boil her advice down to three words, it would be, read a book!

A book has no schedule (unlike a classroom). It is infinitely patient and always there for you. The key thing is, pick a book that is of interest to you. “Language is present in a [book] like the sea in a single drop.” Much of the language’s regular grammatical patterns (its shoemaker’s lasts, in her metaphor) and a good deal of vocabulary will be found in a single book. Read from a printed copy you own, so you can underline and write in the margins to your heart’s content. “If you have the patience to turn the text up and down, inside out, break it into pieces and put it together again, shake it up and let it settle again, you can learn remarkably much from it.”

Read first with initial dynamism, skipping over the words you don’t know or discovering their meaning from the context: A precondition of successful learning is a sense of achievement, which comes from self-effort. Then read the book a second time, more critically. Dare to see if the author has broken any rules. “I can predict the result in advance. It will turn out that André Maurois speaks better French, Vera Panova better Russian, and Taylor Caldwell better English than you. In this fight you cannot prevail but you can win. Your knowledge develops and becomes consolidated.”

Much of my own language learning proceeded along these lines. In fact as an undergraduate I dropped out of college several times to liberate myself to do just this type of reading (and to listen to a lot of music – besides having loved high school Spanish, much of my initial interest in languages revolved around opera lyrics). My tastes were eclectic, but the key is that I read what I was really interested in at the time. I only had one, rather miserable semester of German, but I read Rainer Maria Rilke’s novel Malte Laurids Brigge. I took one year of elementary French my senior undergraduate year at City College of New York. My pronunciation at first was so horrible that my professor, who was a Frenchman in his first year of teaching in the States and not much older than me, later told me when we became friends that he knew for sure in the first weeks of the class that I would never survive. But I soon read Voltaire’s Candide and Zadig. I don’t recall a book in Italian, but I read many Verdi and Puccini librettos. I had one year of Greek (Crosby & Schaeffer) at New York University, followed by another dropout period in which I read much of the Illiad. In fact one of my professors at NYU found out I was doing this and wanted to read it together, and that was a wonderful experience. In recent years I have come to love Brazilian popular music, and a few years ago I set out to learn enough Brazilian Portuguese to be able to understand some of the lyrics. I quickly went through a little pocket grammar, then I read Um Homen Illuminado, Helena Jobim’s biography of her brother Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Each of these books turned out to be “like the sea in a single drop.” Plowing through so much new vocabulary could get really tiresome, but my effort was sustained precisely as Lomb says by the great interest I had in what I was reading.

It may be less obvious than with modern languages which specific Latin or Greek work you have a burning desire to read. But if you have such a desire, maybe the answer to the question, when are you ready for your OCT moment of reading an unabridged, uncommented classical author, is not: after months or years of patient preparation. Maybe it is: when you are really interested in doing so. And willing and able to spend the time. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Let me close with a comment on reading classical authors “uncommented.” When you hear others, including myself, claiming to read Cicero (for example) “without crutches,” take that with a grain of salt. The further away a written work is from us in time and culture and context, the more of a specialization it becomes to read it. Forget about us, why otherwise the ancient scholiasts? Last fall I took a seminar in Cicero’s forensic speeches. For example, the pro Sex. Roscio, which begins

Credo ego vos, iudices, mirari quid sit quod, cum tot summi oratores hominesque nobilissimi sedeant, ego potissimum surrexerim, is qui neque aetate neque ingenio neque auctoritate sim cum his qui sedeant comparandus.

With all my patient preparation, I didn’t need to look up a word in that sentence nor think twice about, say, surrexerim or comparandus. The meaning of the sentence was clear, except perhaps a question about this business of who is standing and who is sitting. But as you continue reading, you realize this and the other forensic speeches, published for a contemporary audience, assume a familiarity with legal processes and historical currents that are difficult if not impossible to understand without some learned commentary.

As another example, in the spring I took a seminar on Lucretius. I was perfectly able to read the opening hymn to Venus without dictionary or commentary. On the other hand, when working through the really “atomist” passages, which are the bulk of the poem, there’s no reason you wouldn’t want or require Bailey’s Commentary by your side.


Published by Randy Gibbons

I am retired. I have several strong interests, in particular classical studies (Greek and Latin); a lifelong passion for music, especially jazz; and more recently, dabbling in philosophy. For more information about me, click on About Me.

Join the Conversation


  1. Hello. Thank you for all of this. This has been of great help guiding in my studies of Latin and Ancient Greek. I was trying to download your recording for Greek Ollendorff from Dropbox, but I can't find them. Can you provide them to me, please?


  2. Hi Randy, Another excellent blog post. Thanks again for sharing your study methods and also for the Greek Ollendorff audio. I really enjoy your updates and look forward to each post. They are very interesting to me and make my desire to study Latin and Ancient Greek to be able to read Classical and Medieval literature and history in the original seem like a productive use of my time. I hope that you continue to update the blog and look forward to your future thoughts, study methods, and resources. Best wishes in your studies.Jon


  3. Thanks Greg.\”Litera\” (also spelled \”littera\”)in the singular means letter of the alphabet. \”Literae/litterae\” in the plural means a single document or epistle (see Oxford Latin Dictionary \”littera\” lemma # 7, and most grammars, for example, Bennet's \”New Latin Grammar\” section 61). It can also be used to represent multiple letters, so context is determinative, but I'm pretty sure Erasmus means it in the most common, singular sense, \”your [recent] letter pleased me.\”Randy


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