Monday, December 29, 2008


C. W. Shelmerdine, Introduction to Greek. Second edition. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2008. Pp. xiv, 317. ISBN 9781585101849. $36.95 (pb).

C.A.E. Luschnig, An Introduction to Ancient Greek: A Literary Approach. Second edition, revised by C.A.E. Luschnig and Deborah Mitchell . Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007. Pp. xviii, 374. ISBN 978-0-87220-889-6. $34.95. (pb).
Reviewed by Kirsty Jenkins, University of Manchester (

These two second edition textbooks have the same basic aim, which is to teach the fundamentals of ancient Greek to college level students in such a way that they are able to confront real Greek texts after one year's teaching or, in the case of Luschnig, within one year. This is a comparative review of the two presentations. Both texts have previously received individual attention on BMCR: Barbara Clayton reviewed the first edition of Shelmerdine (BMCR 2005.05.14 and Wilfred E. Major reviewed the present edition of Luschnig and Mitchell (BMCR 2007.12.35).

Neither text is designed to be used by a student studying alone, but rather for use in a classroom situation under the guidance of an experienced teacher. Shelmerdine's text consists of 34 short chapters designed to be covered in three meetings a week over the course of one college year. Luschnig's text, on the other hand, consists of 14 much longer lessons. The amount of material covered in each book requires that the teacher and students move at a fairly rapid pace, but the workload is coverable in the time allotted. In addition, the Luschnig text has a website which provides supplementary readings and a forum for discussion about learning Greek.

Both texts also aim to keep the student motivated by providing examples of real Greek for the student to study. In the case of Shelmerdine this consists of slightly adapted readings from Xenophon, Herodotus, Thucydides and in one case Plato, although the majority of readings are taken from Herodotus. These readings are highly enjoyable and useful as an introduction to Greek authors, and their length means that students very quickly become used to reading extended passages of text rather than single sentences.1 Luschnig favours a slightly different approach, and provides approximately 20 readings per lesson, usually of 1-4 lines each, although there are some longer passages starting from Lesson VII. These readings are in the original Greek, and a key to unfamiliar words and phrases is provided after each reading to help the student with translation. The fact that the student is reading actual Greek is of course an impetus to continue. Nevertheless some of these readings are very difficult, especially in cases where crasis and ellipsis occur, and sometimes the key is not very helpful.

Both books cover all the grammar usually associated with classical Greek, although Shelmerdine does not cover the future perfect tense and neither author covers the dual forms. In both books the grammar is covered first and then reinforced by exercises, with the readings coming after this. In Shelmerdine the chapter vocabulary is given at the end of the lesson after the reading, but in Luschnig the vocabulary comes at the end of each section and before the readings.2 Both approaches work well.

Shelmerdine's book is extremely well laid-out with clear tables and large, easy-to-read text. Her table of contents is incredibly detailed, making it very easy to find each topic. Her chapter vocabularies are very helpfully divided into two parts: learning and reading, which come under the same heading but are distinguished in an easily recognizable way, since bold type highlights the vocabulary to be learned (words which will appear frequently throughout the book), while the reading/passive vocabulary is displayed in ordinary type. The learning vocabularies are quite short, especially in the later chapters, and do not place too heavy a burden on the beginning student who will want to spend most of his/her time on learning the new grammatical forms presented in each chapter.

In contrast, the text in Luschnig is small and appears rather crowded. Exercises in particular are difficult to read since they are single spaced in small type, and Greek - English sentences for translation are displayed in lists of up to 80 sentences, meaning that the student flicking through the book to look up unlearnt words will have difficulty in spotting the sentence s/he was translating when s/he returns to the page. The vocabularies too are rather long3 and I fear that coupled with the grammar to be learnt in each section this will prove off-putting and overwhelming to most students. However, Luschnig's vocabulary lists shine in respect to their attention to detail. Where applicable, English translations of Greek words are followed by examples of how the particular word passed into English or in some cases into Latin.4 This makes for enormous fun while reading, as well as leading to a greater understanding of English words, particularly the complex scientific ones which are often derived from the Greek.

The grammatical explanations in both texts are very clear and easy to follow, although Shelmerdine tends to explain technical terms such as athematic once, and then to assume that you will remember their meanings when you come across them again several chapters later. For a beginning student who has perhaps never studied grammar before, this may be a little confusing and at times exasperating. Also, Shelmerdine seems to assume that the student is familiar with basic grammatical terms such as noun and adjective. Unfortunately, I have found with my own teaching of undergraduates that this is often not the case, and that students benefit from a quick review of basic terminology.

Luschnig on the other hand makes no such assumption. She provides a handy grammatical outline (pp.13-19), which explains all the basic grammatical terms and how Greek differs grammatically from English. She even gives the parts of speech in their Greek terms as well as their English ones. This attention to detail is seen throughout the book, with plenty of hints for learning, supplementary information, such as a discussion about the three obsolete Greek consonants, and mini lectures at the end of each chapter covering themes as diverse as Greek colours, street signs, and Socrates. Even the pithy Greek proverbs and sayings which are scattered throughout the chapters are translated. While some students and teachers (myself included) will find this to be one of the charms of the book, others will no doubt feel discouraged by the sheer amount of inessential information the author provides.

The first edition of Shelmerdine's book was based on L. A. Wilding's Greek For Beginners5 and this clearly shows in the flow of the grammatical instruction, which is on the whole highly logical and traditional, with opening chapters covering high frequency forms such as the present indicative active of thematic verbs and first declension nouns, and with concluding chapters covering the lesser-used forms such as the perfect. The presentation distinguishes clearly between the forms of middle and active verbs. However, she splits up the definite article by introducing the feminine form of the definite article only, followed by feminine nouns of the first declension in Chapter 3, and then introducing the whole of the definite article at the beginning of Chapter 4, followed by the masculine nouns of the first declension, which seems a little strange to me.6 Also, the text would perhaps have benefited from the inclusion of some discussion about Greek customs or important Greek personages such as that found in Luschnig, as this would have relieved some of the tedium of learning endless tables of forms and lists of words.

Luschnig takes a different approach and begins by giving both the active and the middle - passive forms of the present indicative of ω verbs. Where possible she continues to introduce middle or middle - passive forms with active ones. This approach means that the student avoids the situation encountered in most Greek textbooks, where s/he is suddenly confronted after nine or ten chapters with the disconcerting discovery that there is an extra set of verb forms to be learnt, and is, I think, to be praised. What is not quite so understandable is the fact that she introduces the perfect and future perfect before the subjunctive and optative, even though the latter are far more frequently encountered in Greek than the former.

When it comes to exercises Shelmerdine by her own admission concentrates on translation, both from Greek - English and from English - Greek.7 Like the rest of the book, the exercises are nicely laid out, with plenty of space between each question, and because there are relatively few exercises in each chapter it is perfectly possible for all of the exercises in each chapter to be carried out either during the class or as homework for the next class. But only having a few exercises per chapter is also a potential drawback, since it means that there is no room for the teacher to pick and choose between exercises, and there is no scope for students who might wish to do extra work on their own outside the class. Also, the concentration on translating whole sentences means that on occasion the opportunity to reinforce forms is lost.

Luschnig's text contains an extraordinarily huge number of exercises of all varieties, including sentences to translate, exercises in conjugating and declining and exercises in parsing forms, which is extremely useful to students. There is plenty of scope for the teacher to pick out the exercises which s/he thinks would be most beneficial for the class, and there is room for the student to put in extra practice on those areas at which s/he feels weakest. Unlike in Shelmerdine's book there is no possibility that all of the exercises can be covered in class or for homework, so picking and choosing the most relevant exercises is of extreme importance.

Both books contain a number of errors, but these are mainly minor typographical errors and can easily be spotted by an experienced teacher. In the case of Shelmerdine a complete list of errata is given on her publisher's website and I feel that it is necessary to mention only one error, which is quite serious and likely to be a source of confusion to students. This error occurs in Chapter 14 on p.82, where the principal parts of labial stem verbs are presented. The text wrongly states that when labials τ, β and φ are added to ς the phonetic change becomes ς. τ should in fact be π and the phonetic change is of course ψ. In Luschnig, a reading in Lesson III is repeated in Lesson V, and in Lesson XIII on p.267, in the example sentences showing the use of μή in object clauses after verbs of fearing, αὐτὸν is wrongly written as αὐτὴν, but these are mainly irritating and not likely to cause any real confusion.

Both of these books are extremely useful guides to learning or teaching Greek, and I would have no hesitation in recommending either of them or in using either one myself. They can quite easily compete with existing Greek textbooks such as Athenaze and Reading Greek,8 and choosing between them will no doubt come down to personal preference rather than any real problem with either text. The website connected with the Luschnig text is a nice bonus and will doubtless be invaluable to many students and teachers. My personal favourite is the Luschnig text, simply because of the sheer wealth of supplementary information it contains, which provides a respite from the hard slog of learning by rote which successful acquisition of any language requires.


1. These readings are not introduced until Chapter 8, in order to allow students to build up their grammatical knowledge to the point where they are capable of reading extended texts, after which there is one reading per lesson.

2. For example, in Lesson I Luschnig discusses the present indicative active and middle - passive of ω verbs and nouns of the first η and second ο declensions, and provides a separate vocabulary for each section. This pattern continues throughout the book. The readings, of course, have their own key.

3. In Lesson I a total of 69 words are presented for learning, a pattern which continues throughout the book.

4. One example is ἀγγέλλω (Lesson III); which is translated as announce (angel; evangelist); the words in brackets are the English derivatives.

5. L. A. Wilding, Greek For Beginners Second Edition. Faber and Faber Limited, 1959.

6. It would make more sense to provide either the whole of the definite article before introducing nouns or to give masculine and feminine nouns together with their corresponding forms of the definite article and subsequently to introduce the article altogether.

7. However, the book provides a variety of exercises such as translating only the underlined part of a sentence, and identifying and translating forms of verbs and nouns.

8. Maurice Balme and Gilbert Lawall, Athenaze: An Introduction to Ancient Greek 2 vols., rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, and Joint Association of Classical Teachers, Reading Greek 2 vols., 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.


  1. This is a very useful review--thank you. I have the first edition of Shelmerdine/Wilding and have wanted for some time to use it. But I will look at Luschnig now, too. I know of very few teachers that are happy with the dumbed-down Athenaze or the brutal and merciless Mastronarde.

  2. I am currently using the Luschnig book, and while I appreciate the number of exercises, I do wish there was at least a partial key. Immediate feedback in that way is very helpful for a new learner.