Thursday, November 5, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Jean-Victor Vernhes, Hermaion. Discovering Ancient Greek Step by Step: A New and Efficient Method, translated and adapted from the French by Monique L. Cardell. Paris: OPHRYS, 2009. Pp. 487. ISBN 9782708012196. €30.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Kirsty Jenkins, University of Manchester

This Ancient Greek textbook is an English translation of ἕρμαιον. Initiation au grec ancien.1 Through the use of thirty-five steps, it aims to give beginning students a fundamental introduction to Ancient Greek which will provide them with the ability to tackle ancient authors in the original. In order to make the assimilation of the language more efficient, the author has limited the amount of vocabulary to be learnt by the students to approximately 700 words (p.ix) which have been chosen with regard to their usefulness and frequency of occurrence in Greek texts (p.ix). The book is designed to be used by both self-taught college level students and by those learning in a classroom environment. Although no time frame is provided for studying the material, given the density of information and the sheer amount of exercises which Vernhes provides, 10-12 months of intensive work would seem to be optimal.

The book covers all of the material which would normally be associated with a beginners-level textbook and does in one book what Athenaze2 takes two to achieve. However, the sheer amount of material presented in the book leads, by necessity, to a rather cluttered looking layout with very dense textual sections which can at times be a little hard on the eye. The text, particularly the notes, is often quite small and sometimes difficult to read.

The steps consist of four parts; grammar, vocabulary, exercises and basic texts. Each step is very clearly laid out as to content, and the grammar is introduced logically. Students are never at a loss as to what it is necessary for them to do next, thanks to the use of a hand with a pointing finger symbol which tells them where to go next in the text.3 The material is introduced slowly, and the students are advised not to advance to the next section until they have completed all of the steps recommended in the "How to use your textbook efficiently" section (p.15). The students are also provided with tips on how best to assimilate the material and on the process of reviewing past steps. Accentuation is dealt with from the start, but self-taught students are advised to ignore it for the time being. The students are then advised as they progress through the text on the appropriate time to start focusing on accents, if they intend to study them at all. Self-taught beginners are helpfully reminded when parts of the text are designed for those studying under a teacher rather than for their own attention. There is also a useful check-back system which easily enables learners to refer back to earlier grammatical explanations.

One unusual point concerning the grammar is that, until the seventeenth step, only the 1st person singular, 3rd person singular and 3rd person plural of verbs are introduced. In the seventeenth step the 1st person plural is introduced and in the eighteenth step we meet the 2nd person singular, although these are just translations and not the full conjugation.4 However, with ἔρχομαι which is described as a "very irregular verb" (p.121) there is no mention of anything other than the 1st sing., 3rd sing., and 3rd plural for any of the tenses, a situation which is frustrating for the beginning student. Even the irregular verb chart at the back of the book fails to provide the full conjugation. Coupled with the fact that, where ἔρχομαι is concerned, the student is often advised to consult p.383, which charts the conjugation of εἶμι along with its relation to ἔρχομαι, but fails to provide any conjugation of ἔρχομαι, the situation becomes highly confusing.

The factual content is fairly free from errors, although there is one potentially confusing error on p.164, section 149 where Σεαυτὸν ἀποκτείfεις is wrongly translated as "You (sg) kill me" whereas it should of course be "You (sg) kill yourself". There is also a problem, particularly in the early parts of the text, with page references. Several times items to be found in the appendices are cited with the wrong page numbers,5 making it difficult to find the cited example. Interestingly, after p.76 this problem disappears, and the page numbers for items in the appendices are cited correctly.

Whilst the grammar relating to verbs is presented as part of the lesson in the early to middle steps, from the twentieth step students are told to consult the grammar appendix for the paradigms of new tenses/moods.6 This results in students being forced to flip from page to page and then back to the lesson itself and is frustrating and time consuming. It would have been helpful if all the grammar had been presented within the lessons as is the case with textbooks such as Athenaze.7

The vocabulary is introduced very slowly, and students are expected to memorise only a very few words at a time. The vocabulary for each step is often split into two or more lists, and students are advised to do certain exercises after learning each vocabulary list. Each vocabulary list is accompanied by two sets of notes, the one etymological and semantic, and the other grammatical. Both of these sets of notes are extremely comprehensive, introducing the student to other related words, words of Indo-European origin, and related English words, as well as defining how certain words are used and providing grammatical notes for certain irregularly formed words. These notes are both interesting and useful. However, things are slightly confused due to the fact that Vernhes uses the same symbol (an asterisk/star) to represent words of Indo-European origin, obsolete forms of Greek words, and proper names which have an entry in the historical lexicon at the back of the book.

The exercises which accompany the steps are split into three types: training, Greek-English and English-Greek. The majority of exercises focus on Greek-English, especially in the later steps, although training and English-Greek are emphasised particularly in the early steps. The exercises are followed by basic texts in the original Greek, accompanied by a key which enables students to understand constructions/words to which they have not yet been introduced. Likewise, the exercises themselves have a key which translates unfamiliar vocabulary. These exercises are abundant, and there is no doubt that if students faithfully complete each one, learning the grammar and vocabulary as they go along, they will achieve a good working knowledge of Greek. The training exercises, English-Greek, and the basic texts are provided with a comprehensive key, which is situated in the appendix. However, there is no key for Greek-English exercises, which might not be a problem for students in a classroom situation, but which would be important for the self-taught student.

The main problem with the textbook is the English translation. The English is often strangely phrased8 and sometimes just plain incorrect.9 This often leads to sentences which are very difficult for a native English speaker to understand, such as the note to the reader on p.204 "In [sections] 178-181, some light is shed on a delicate morphological item. Yet they will not be an overload". Certain terminology can also present difficulties for beginners, such as that of sections 72-73 p.65 and the use of "imperfective" to describe the present indicative of verbs. This term, although correct, is not commonly used, since most textbooks prefer the term "present active indicative". Very occasionally, words have accidentally been left in the original French,10 these are usually words which are very similar to their English counterparts and, while they probably do not present any difficulties to the majority of students, they may confuse those who have no knowledge of French. A second edition proofread by a native English speaker should iron out most of these problems.

Despite the often awkward English translation, the book itself has a lot to recommend it, such as its explanation of relative clauses which provides a semantic analysis of the examples to demonstrate the way in which a relative clause is formed. The abundance of the exercises and the grammatical and etymological detail which Vernhes provides mean that any student who faithfully follows the format set out in the textbook explanation and in the "Baby Steps" section (pp.xxi-xxii) will undoubtedly become proficient and confident in Greek. The fact that all the material is presented in one book without the need for a separate vocabulary or exercises book is also a bonus.


1.   ἕρμαιον. Initiation au grec ancien, Jean-Victor Vernhes. Ophrys, 2000.
2.   Athenaze: An Introduction to Ancient Greek, Books 1 and 2, Maurice Balme and Gilbert Lawall. OUP, 1990-1991.
3.   For example, after each new grammatical section the student is told which exercises, vocabularies and basic texts he should look at.
4.   For the full conjugation the student is forced to consult the Grammatical Appendix.
5.   p.15 notes that the historic lexicon is to be found on pp.405-413. In actual fact the historic lexicon is on pp.393-401. Likewise, verb παιδεύω is to be found on pp.346-353 not pp.270-275 (p.30 section 41). The same is to be found with τιμάω (grammar notes p.76).
6.   This is reminiscent of L. A. Wilding's Greek for Beginners, where from Lesson 8 onwards students are told to consult a Greek grammar primer such as Abbott and Mansfield, and Teach Yourself Ancient Greek where students are referred to Appendix 1 in order to find the complete conjugation of a verb. (Greek For Beginners Second Edition, L. A. Wilding. Faber and Faber Limited, 1959; A Primer of Greek Grammar, Abbott and Mansfield. Duckworth, 1977; Teach Yourself Ancient Greek: new edition, Gavin Betts and Alan Henry. Teach Yourself, 2001).
7.   Athenaze: An Introduction to Ancient Greek, Books 1 and 2, Maurice Balme and Gilbert Lawall. OUP, 1990-1991.
8.   As in the case of the "Greek History: An Overview" section pp.xii-xix where the present tense is habitually used to describe events which would more normally be ascribed to the pluperfect in English.
9.   Here are a few examples from the first few pages: "Go p.2, and read the carefully the [section] 2" (p.xxi); "Most of Greek words" (p.2); "The accented syllable is marked either with an acute accent (/), either with a circumflex (~)" p.4.
10.   see p. 69 Grammar Note G where "ou" is used instead of "or", and p.270 where "Vocabulaire" should be "Vocabulary".

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