Friday, June 29, 2012


Donald Fairbairn, Understanding Language: a Guide for Beginning Students of Greek and Latin. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2011. Pp. xxiv, 190. ISBN 9780813218663. $19.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Evert van Emde Boas, University of Groningen (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This book aims to prepare students without Greek or Latin, and with little knowledge of grammatical terminology and principles, for study of the classical languages (it is a pre-textbook, as it were). Fairbairn promises to give his readers 'enough familiarity with language in general that [they] will understand what the various parts of a language have to accomplish in order for speakers and to communicate well in that language', but also to explain 'how Greek and Latin accomplish the tasks of language' (xviii-xix). Given that most beginning students today 'cannot diagram sentences, identify parts of speech ... or explain syntax correctly' (xiii), a primer of this kind would seem to meet a real need. And Fairbairn's desire to break students out of "English mode" as early as possible — relating Greek and Latin grammar not to what they know of English grammar, but to wider notions of how languages work — is laudable. I do, then, have great sympathy for Fairbairn's aims, and the way he wants to achieve them. I would have very much liked, indeed, to endorse the book with as much enthusiasm as the blurb-writers on the cover ('essential companion', 'unique and helpful'); yet I am afraid that, for me at least, the book is seriously flawed.

Fortunately, I can start on a bright note: the first of the book's four parts ('Getting Started') is very good, particularly the first two chapters. Here, Fairbairn details the pitfalls students will face when embarking on the study of Greek and/or Latin, but also the rewards that they will reap (ch. 1: 'Learning a Foreign Language: The Bad News and the Good News'). He also gives the reasons why students should study the languages at all (ch. 2: 'Studying a Dead Language: Why Bother?'). The arguments that Fairbairn rehearses here will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to defend working on the ancient world (presumably all of us), but perhaps not to the target audience. Fairbairn presents them with clarity, gusto, and a personableness which is genuinely motivational. The final chapter of this part (ch. 3: 'The Building Blocks of Language') is where the 'Understanding Language' actually begins. Without reference to Greek or Latin, it offers brief introductions to lexical semantics ('Words and their Usages'), to the parts of speech, to independent and subordinate clauses, and to inflection.

The seven chapters which make up the remaining three parts ('Nouns and the Words that Go With Them' — 'Verbs: The Heart of Communication' — 'Looking at Sentences as a Whole') all deal with Greek and Latin. Fairbairn's working method is to explain grammatical phenomena of the classical languages in the abstract, so there are few examples in the original languages (those that do occur are nearly exclusively taken from the New Testament and the Latin Vulgate). Often, Fairbairn will give an invented English example, and then say what grammatical constructions Latin and Greek would use to express the same thing. And it is here, I fear, that the book flounders. If students are really to comprehend Greek and Latin grammar in the abstract, without being allowed to "bathe" in examples,1 the descriptions and accompanying English examples had better be exceedingly clear, and Fairbairn too often does not oblige. More worryingly (and this, in my view, is what disqualifies the book), when Fairbairn 'translates' his English examples into Greek and Latin grammatical constructions, the number of factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations is very great. I am willing to forgive, as "typos", such instances as 'Participles have person, number, case, tense and voice' (178); but errors of that kind are the least of Fairbairn's worries.2 Let me offer four examples, which are, I fear, representative of what we find throughout the book:

* To distinguish between clauses and phrases, Fairbairn takes as his starting point the English sentence "I want you to do this for me." His explanation runs as follows (113):

In this sentence, "you to do this for me" is often called an infinitive clause in English, because it includes a subject "you" and a verb "to do." If you were to express this idea this way in Greek or Latin (which you would not normally do), then the equivalent of "you to do this for me" would be an infinitive phrase because it contains a non- finite verbal form rather than a finite verb. If you were to say the sentence the way you should say it in Greek or Latin —the equivalent of "I want that you do this for me"—then "that you do for me" is a clause because the verb form would be a finite verb with a particular person (second) and a particular mood (subjunctive).

Much is wrong with this — apart from the fact that students may have to read it a couple of times to make any sense of it. First, I do not see why Fairbairn says (here and elsewhere) that Greek and Latin would 'not normally' use the infinitive here: what is so unusual about volo te uxorem domum ducere (Pl. Aul. 147-8) or βούλομαί σε αὐτῷ διαλέγεσθαι (Pl. Lys. 211b)? Second, the distinction that Fairbairn draws between the status of the complements in English and Greek or Latin is non-existent: "to do this for me" is no more a clause with a finite verb than it would be in Greek or Latin, nor is the status of "you" in Fairbairn's example any different than that of te/σε in my examples from Plautus/Plato.3 Third, though a clause with ut + subjunctive would make perfectly good Latin here, there is no way that Greek could use the subjunctive. * In a discussion of the moods in independent clauses (128-9), Fairbairn gives the following three sentences: "You will see your grandchildren and their children." "May you see your grandchildren and their children." "Might you see your grandchildren and their children." (I wonder whether the third of these sentences is even possible in English.) Fairbairn goes on to explain how the Greek and Latin moods would be used to express the three: a present subjunctive for the second (good Latin, impossible Greek), and a future (!) optative in Greek for the third (very much false). The future optative makes another ugly appearance in ἵνα-type purpose clauses (157 and again at 164), where it is equally uncalled for.

* The Greek middle voice (105-6) is described by Fairbairn as a 'set of verb forms to use for reflexive action', describing 'a subject acting on itself rather than acting on another or being acted on by another': this initial statement, misleading at best (because it is true with only a select number of verbs such as κείρομαι, γυμνάζομαι, etc., and altogether not a very frequent use) leads to impossible examples at 141-2 and 146 ('hit oneself' does not translate into a Greek middle).4

* To explain the Latin gerundive (Fairbairn prefers 'future passive participle') and the future active participle, he offers (from the hymn Te Deum) tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem non horruisti virginis uterum. Fairbairn explains (147):

Between the subject (tu) and the main verb (horruisti) are two verbal phrases that both modify tu adjectivally. The first is ad liberandum hominem, and the second is suscepturus hominem. (Notice that the word hominem—"man"—is the object of both verbal forms, even though it is written only once.) In the first phrase, liberandum is a future passive participle, so the idea of this phrase is "for the purpose of man needing to be freed." ...

There is nothing 'adjectival' about ad liberandum. And hominem as the 'object' of a gerundive? Given that the example serves to explain a distinction in voice, the confusion is most unhelpful. (I also have to wonder if the example is ideal for beginners).

In total, I noted about 30 places in the book where Fairbairn commits errors of some severity, and I stopped marking minor ones halfway through.5 No matter how good the intentions, no matter how much students might benefit from the parts that are good, a book of this kind ought not to get away with that. It will do little good for students beginning their study of Greek and/or Latin to work their way through a primer, and then immediately having to unlearn much of what they've learned.

Fairbairn spends a few pages in his preface to explain that he is not a professional linguist ('I am a more advanced fellow student, not an "expert"', xx), and why this is a good thing. He cites C.S. Lewis: 'It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can. ... The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less.'6 To the extent that we 'experts' (if I might immodestly rank myself among that number) sometimes fail to grasp what is really troubling a student because we 'have forgotten what it was like not to know the terminology' (xxi), etc., Fairbairn's stance may be helpful (though one could argue that this is a problem to be solved by better teachers, not less expert ones). But having students explain Greek and Latin grammar to each other also comes with a risk, namely that they say things which are simply not true. I fear that when it comes to his own book, Fairbairn's analogy cuts both ways. Excepting the first two chapters, I cannot see myself prescribing this book to students in the future, or recommend in good faith that anyone else do so.


1.   Cf. J.D. Denniston (1950), The Greek Particles, Oxford, p. vi.
2.   The book has actually been well proofread: apart from some missing accents at 168, I found no real misprints.
3.   Cf. e.g. R. Quirk et. al. (1985), A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, §14.6. Constituents such as "you" in such infinitive constructions should be seen as an object with the main verb (cf. Quirk, §16.66, and for Greek A. Rijksbaron (2002), Syntax and Semantics of the Verb in Classical Greek: An Introduction, 3rd ed., §32.2(i)).
4.   Cf. R.J. Allan (2002), The Middle Voice in Ancient Greek: A Study in Polysemy, Amsterdam, 88-95. Allan gives a frequency for the direct reflexive use of the middle of 1% (p. 123, and 124 n. 217). To be very precise, 'hit oneself' as a middle is possible for τύπτομαι and κόπτομαι in the 'highly restricted, idiomatic use 'beat oneself as a token of mourning'' (Allan, 90 n. 150), but that is clearly not what Fairbairn means.
5.   Among these I would number Fairbairn's sometimes all-too-impressionistic explanations for certain grammatical phenomena: for instance, at 84-5, the use of the definite article in Greek with abstract nouns (ἡ σοφία, etc.) is linked to Plato's theory of ideas (because wisdom is 'a definite reality here on earth which reflects a higher reality'); at 162, we read that the Latin ablative absolute construction uses perfect passive participles because the language as a whole 'prefers the passive voice to the active'.
6.   C.S. Lewis (1958), Reflections on the Psalms, San Diego, 1-2.

1 comment:

  1. This will probably sound like I'm trying to be a smart aleck or snotty, but I'm really not; I ask this question in all honesty: if Fairbairn's book is so problematic, why doesn't the author of this review write his own? The reviewer recognized that Fairbairn's purpose was to make the nature of Greek and Latin easier for students to understand (though by no means does it appear that Fairbairn thought his book was going to replace a Greek or Latin primer, teacher, or required explanations for the languages). It appears, however, that Fairbairn failed (according to the reviewer). Okay, but Fairbairn was trying to explain language to an audience that really has no facility in language anymore--including the one it speaks. So Fairbairn gave the task his best shot and ended up failing. His failure doesn't negate the fact that we still need a book like the one he tried to write. I appreciate the reviewer's perspective, candor, and knowledge on classical languages. However, I would like to see the reviewer take his disappointment in Fairbairn's work and write a book that makes learning Greek and Latin accessible to those of us who want to learn, but who lack the money to go to school for several years.


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