starlady: A typewriter.  (tool of the trade)
[personal profile] christycorr asked about my three favorite words, in any language.

My favorite word in Latin is, and has been since probably the second month I started learning Latin (in, god, 1994), olim. It's a preposition used to introduce stories that means something like "once upon a time." I just have always really liked the sound of it, though thinking about it now, I'm not sure in all my reading I've ever actually encountered it in an actual text. Runner-ups: most of Catullus' vocabulary, and some of the verbs we only know from Pompeiian graffiti.

There are a lot of words I really love in Greek--most of them are nouns, Greek prepositions are not my friend, for reasons we'll get into later--but I think my favorite is still ἡ θάλασσα, thalassa, which means the sea, Homer's wine-dark sea (Homer gets a lot of flack for his color metaphors, but color terms are actually really complicated to translate in general, and the epithet refers to intensity of the color, not the hue itself). It's also the source of the English word thalassocracy, which is a great word in and of itself.

My favorite word in Japanese might be 紫 murasaki, which is the word for purple. It's a noun, which I think is pretty cool--in Japanese some colors are adjectives and some are nouns.

I really love a lot of English words, especially the old weird Anglo-Saxon ones, many of which Twitter has recently been unearthing, such as "dustsceawung," and the one about lying awake in bed at night worrying. Also words like "bumpershoot," which is the best possible word for an umbrella, you must agree. English is pretty cool.

[personal profile] troisroyaumes asked about my favorite aspect of Greek grammar. I should warn you, my opinions on this subject are somewhat unorthodox.

I think the single coolest aspect of classical Attic Greek (which is what they spoke in Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries, and is the Greek that you will learn at the college level, and is basically the hardest version of Greek to have ever existed in its 3500-odd-year history) is actually one that's so rare that it's never actually taught, just declined in tables in the back of the book for reference: the dual. This is a mode of speech (mostly pronouns, and some verb endings) that two people use when they are extraordinarily close in purpose/intention--it's basically a unified way of saying "we." You mostly see it in drama--the most famous example is probably in The Libation Bearers. Electra and Orestes shift to the dual after they've recognized each other and agreed that Orestes will kill their mother Clytemnaestra for her murder of their father Agamemnon (and Cassandra, but no one cares about her).

Classical Attic Greek is extraordinarily difficult because it's extraordinarily complex, which, although it makes it a pain in the ass to learn, also means that the language is capable of extraordinary precision and subtlety. It's no accident that most philosophers of the ancient world wrote in Greek, because Latin simply doesn't have the structures to express complicated ideas with the same rigor. (You can try, but then you end up like Lucretius, writing an Epicurean epic in dactylic hexameters and causing students of Latin forever after to curse your name and the atoms and the clay mask all at once. I love Lucretius, but De rerum natura is no joke.) Though I shed blood doing flashcards before the exams and beat my head against my books more than once, learning Greek was a really good thing, because I understand grammar much better and also because all other Greek ever is comparatively easy.

My least favorite aspect of Greek grammar is that the old Indo-European instrumental case (which became the ablative in Latin) dropped out a little bit before the Homeric epics were written down (some of the lines preserve old forms including it, as poetry is wont to do), meaning that its functions were absorbed by the genitive, accusative, and dative cases, meaning that it's impossible to commit a stable set of prepositions for each case to memory the way it is in Latin, because they're all all over the place. You don't know what you got til it's gone.
starlady: (but it does move)
Garrfinkle, Richard. Celestial Matters. New York: Tor Books, 1996.

Marie Brennan recommended this book to me, and she was right that I liked it (I borrowed her copy, in point of fact). Celestial Matters is an alternate history novel of science fiction in which Aristotelian physics are true (so the sun orbits the Earth), and the Delian League, which controls half the world, has been locked in unending war with the Middle Kingdom for approximately all of the nine centuries since the death of Alexander the Great.

The plot follows Aias, the scientific commander of the lunar ship Chandra's Tear, who is tasked by the league with a task of Promethean scale: i.e. to steal fire from the sun and bring it back to Earth, where it can serve as the engine of the ultimate weapon to end the war by devastating the capital of the Middle Kingdom, Hangzhou. Aias is accompanied by his friend and co-commander, Aeson (representing the Athenian and Spartan traditions, respectively), and his bodyguard Captain Yellow Hare, who is Cherokee by birth but Spartan by avocation. The ship's Chief Dynamicist, Ramonojon, is Indian, and the rest of the crew are of similarly varied origin--and also even gender.

This book was really interesting in a lot of ways. Garfinkle has clearly put a lot of thought into his alternate physics, and the worldbuilding of the science aspects is really great and thorough. I also thought the way he handled Aias' fundamentally Hellenic worldview, and particularly his interactions with the gods, was a really well done update of the mindset of ancient Greek literature, and I thought the characters in general were well-drawn. That said, a little more attention to social and cultural development might have been good, though I did like the much greater gender equity of this version of the Delian League.

The pacing of the book is somewhat uneven, however--despite spies and assassination attempts, the story lags until a skirmish just off Selene a little more than halfway through the book, at which point it races to the finish. I would have liked more Middler science earlier, and even more banned Buddhism, though I thought the depiction of Daoist science, when that does come, was also really well-done. (Reading any Daoist text for me is basically like reading elementary quantum mechanics, so on the one hand, Garfinkle has it somewhat easier.) I also thought the way that Garfinkle depicted the hardening of science into ideology on both sides was pretty great. All in all, this was a very interesting and unusual read.

A brief disquisition on transcription, and why you shouldn't mess with established systems to show off )
starlady: "I can hear the sound of empires falling." (burning empires)
The American painter Cy Twombly died last month at the age of 83. He's been one of my favorites for years, since I realized that I knew enough about art to have taste in it and to realize that my taste encompasses some very contemporary work. But Twombly married his modern sensibilities to some decidedly (neo)classical subject matter in a way that was guaranteed to appeal to me, who's always straddled the ancient and the contemporary.

The series of his paintings that I know best--I make a point of going to see them every time I'm at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where they're ensconced in an out of the way gallery of their own, is Fifty Days at Illium, paintings 6-15 in this gallery on Twombly's website. The Times is right that his paintings don't reproduce well, at least not at the scales the PMA sells them at; part of the problem in this case is that they only reproduce Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It, when my favorites are the others, particularly The Shield of Achilles. The shield is supposed to be incredibly elaborate, depicting all the delights of civilization and peace in exquisite detail; in Twombly's painting it's reduced to a circular smudge with a blood-red smear of crimson at the center. There's no room for civilization on the battlefield, and violence is just violence, particularly when you're the greatest warrior in Greece--but the Illiad, and Twombly's art, are just the sort of responses around violence that are the stuff of culture, and civilization. As The New Yorker says, he brought a very human vision to some very chilly received subjects, and that sort of humanity is always a loss.
starlady: (burn)
First, in the Unsettlingly Apropos Dept., wildfires menace Athens, stirring memories of the fires in the Peloponnese two years ago and threatening the survival of Greece's center-right government.

I went with my friend C to see the Public Theater's production of Euripides' The Bacchae in Central Park last night. We got tickets (which are free) through the virtual queue and had a grand old time, despite the miserable stickiness of the weather and the thunderclouds which menaced the production, but did not make good on their threat. The theater itself is pretty cool--it overlooks the castle in roughly the middle of Central Park, and the set was an oval shape, with risers rising to an irregular, curving point, evoking the mountains behind Thebes.

The father of the most glorious of mortal daughters... )
starlady: (the wizard's oath)
Oh man, it's been years since I'd thought about the aorist optative. I'm such a bad lapsed Classicist. But here's a line from this week's Economist about the study of ancient Greek that I thought was too damn good not to share:

Intellectual elitism, as much as an appreciation of Aristophanes’s bawdy humour, is the glue that binds Hellenists together—stoked, in some schools, by a feeling of official neglect or hostility from peers.

The article concludes by saying that the real threat to the classics in general and Greek in particular is not modernity but globlization. I could see that. In the meantime, off to the grocery store.

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