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I am in the beginning stages of thinking about learning both Ancient Greek and Latin. During my initial research, I have encountered some people saying that learning Latin first is what is commonly done, and that it is helpful when learning Ancient Greek. I have also read some people say that it makes no difference.

What are the benefits of learning Latin first as opposed to Ancient Greek, and vice versa? Are there any at all?

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    You already know the Roman alphabet. Do you already know the Greek alphabet? – Aaron F Jan 13 at 9:31
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    @AaronF I mostly do yeah, but certainly not as well as the Roman one! – Nacht - Reinstate Monica Jan 13 at 9:39
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    I personally found Latin easier to start with because I already knew the alphabet and many words have similarities with English. The Greek alphabet didn't take long to pick up, but there was a definite learning curve with the letters which I didn't have with Latin. – Aaron F Jan 13 at 9:44
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    If you intend to learn hundreds and thousands of vocabulary items, I thunk learning twenty odd letters should not be a barrier to entry, even if letters are mostly visual whereas words should be foremost audible. So, if reading the words out loud is supposed to help with the words, then actually writing down the letters will surely help (re)learn the letter forms. This should not be underestimated. – vectory Jan 13 at 13:14
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    Greek is more complex than Latin, having an additional voice (medium), number (dual) and tense (aorist). Whether that means it's better to learn first or second I don't know. – OrangeDog Jan 14 at 10:47
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Learning Latin is (generally speaking*) easier than Greek; you don't need to learn a new alphabet, and if you know a little bit of Italian, French or Spanish, you might recognize some of the words. Even English has, because of the large influence of French, many words whose roots can be traced back to Latin.

Since it's easier, you're more likely to make significant progress and actually enjoy learning a new language, which is important. (Personally speaking, learning new languages quickly becomes addictive.) And in the meantime you'll be prepared for most of the peculiarities that classical languages have, so you'll have a head start when learning Greek.

Conversely, learning Greek first is harder, and you have a higher chance of developing a dislike for it.

*: of course, if your native language is Modern Greek, things are different

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The best choice depends on various things, like your goals, the time available, your language background, the courses you could attend, and probably other factors that did not occur to me. I will give my answer with my reasoning, but it is up to you to decide whether that reasoning applies to you as well. I never was a full time student of classics; it was a minor subject. Therefore I did not have the capacity (in time or other resources) to pursue Latin and Greek the way some others do.

I found it best to learn Latin first. This had a number of benefits:

  • It helps keep the languages separate. I find myself confusing less vocabulary and grammar between languages if I first get a solid grip on one before moving to the other.

  • Comparison to other languages helps learning. I found it much easier to compare Greek to Latin when I actually knew Latin well. I don't think learning the two side by side would have lead to the same results with me.

  • Latin morphology is simpler. Latin declension and conjugation is straightforward and there is no need to learn rules of any sound changes (like vowel contractions) at first. Once you know the nominative and genitive forms and the gender of a noun, you can almost surely decline it right. Figuring out how amans and cecini correspond to amantis and cano helps understand Latin better and makes Greek morphology easier to approach.

  • Latin courses were better available. In high school no Greek was offered (and now my old school no longer offers Latin either). I could have easily continued to a master's degree and even further in Latin if I chose so, but only very elementary courses of Greek were offered.

  • Eventually I found myself liking Latin much more than Greek, so I did not pursue Greek much further. If I had committed to learning them side by side, perhaps my declining interest in Greek would have hurt my interest in Latin.

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My suggestion is to study Greek and Latin together, calmly, step-by-step, in order to see the differences and similarities between the two grammars and their usual constructs. This is also the pedagogical system used in Classic high-schools in Italy.

Unfortunately I must disagree with Joonas' last point. It depends from person to person, of course, but I find it reasonable to like more Latin than Greek at a certain point, because the latter has more complex and variable structures than the first. When translating Latin becomes more habitual, and learning Greek is more difficult, it is natural to suffer a little approaching Greek studies.

Instead studying them both from the beginning is challenging and really interesting. There are parallels between the two languages which are not to be ignored. And when you are tired of studying a language, well, you can switch to the other!

Finally, both Latin and Greek's authors offer wonderful perspectives upon the world, and comparing ideas and histories between them can result in a beautiful enrichment.

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While most of the answer to this question is subjective, I'd answer analoguous to @shootforthemoon, except that it's conceptually nigh impossibly to start learning both literally at the same time,

When you say:

"During my initial research, I have encountered some people saying ..."

It does not appear as if you had done any research on the language itself. Learning the history and linguistic facts can work well in tanndem, and the history can be hardly separated at all. I'm sure you have however common knowledge, not the least because, as the prior answers hinted at, similarities to Grecko-Roman culture can be found in many layers of our own, including language.

An intensive introduction is of course more efficient if focused on one coherent language. Which one that should be depends on the value that you expect, which, yes, depends on the difficulty, but an introduction is easy, pretty much by definition. I mean, you don't expect to become proficient immediately. It should get you far enough to recognize enough differences; it should establish coherence.

After that, you never stop learning so you eventually will learn both in tandem, unless you learn just one of them.

You might as well ask on which one you should focus. But that depends on your use case, what you want to read, or whom you want to write.

Since other have already answerd in favour of Latin, I will try to argue for Greek, or generally the less favoured language: It might make sense to start with the less interesting one, to save the best for last, as they say. That might as well be Latin.

There's a bit of a circular argument, when those proficient in Latin but not so much in Greek described Latin as easier, if that's due to the longer Latin tradition in education. I mean, yeah, inflection patterns might be coherent in Latin, but that's only relevant because Latin has so much of it. I'm not sure that's exactly easier. Also, many loanwords changed drastically, so that's not an argument, and it might even be a detrimental source of confusion.

Nevertheless, I can't say they were quite wrong, it may be useful to broaden ones horizont incrementally, if you try to approach any second language as a rather weird dialect of your native tongue.

Starting learn both at once, say with a trilingual dictionary, a few common grammatical patterns and cognate sets and what else, that would be a project of its own. I don't think that's commonly done. It usually works the other way around, learning both languages to reconstruct the common ancestor, because too little is know of the history to use as a basis for language education.

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  • Thanks for the counterargument - I'm definitely more interested in Greek - the thing that kicked this off for me was being given a copy of Lucian's A True Story for my Christmas only to realise it wasn't translated! I am a Christian so Greek would be beneficial to reading the New Testament as well. There seems to be a lot more source material in Greek but that's probably just my own ignorance. – Nacht - Reinstate Monica Jan 13 at 21:41
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    There's actually a longer tradition of Greek pedagogy than Latin. But the relative complexity has nothing to do with this -- Greek really is more complex on pretty much every level. – TKR Jan 14 at 6:28
  • You don't think the Latin writing tradition is summa sumarum longer, and didn't leave a mark on text understanding and thus grammar? – vectory Jan 14 at 14:51
  • Both languages have been studied and taught since antiquity, but in any case a language's grammar does not simplify by being studied. (If it were the case that Latin had been thus simplified, though, it seems like that would be an argument for studying Latin first.) – TKR Jan 14 at 19:01
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There is a passage in the novel "The Last Samurai" about this -- the protagonist, an eight-year-old, is studying a Greek textbook on the bus. People come by and comment. "That'll help him learn English better." "That'll develop his ability with semantic structures." "That's always great for college admissions."

NO ONE says: "Greek is such a beautiful language, so rewarding to the mind that engages with it."

NO ONE says: "There is so much wonderful literature in Greek."

So that might be one thing to think about first--is learning just instrumental? Why learn Latin OR Ancient Greek--because they're there? Like climbing Everest? Why not learn Hebrew? Why not botany? Why not theoretical physics?

I'm not saying learning these languages is not a good idea. I started Latin when I was nine and I loved every minute of it--the vocabulary, so close to that of English, along with the grammar, so different, so crisp. But I never really read all that much in Latin that I found very good. Pliny's letters were cool. The Aeneid is schlock--Virgil copied Homer. So if you want to read amazing Western epic poetry, Greek. Julius Caesar is dull and Cicero is more dull. Catullus is wonderfully perverted but one isn't allowed to read him until college.

And much as I loved studying Latin and now love having learned it, and having all those beautiful interlocking verbal structures deep in my head, I am aware that I did spend my boyhood--when it was easiest to learn foreign languages--learning a DEAD language. I started with Spanish at 14, five years later than Latin, and I'll never know Spanish as deeply and readily as I know Latin. So maybe you might take that into consideration--wouldn't it be wonderful to know Japanese or Mandarin or Russian or Spanish or Navajo or Swahili as well as you know English?

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    I personally share your preference for Greek literature, but Latin shouldn't be written off so quickly. If Virgil isn't to the OP's taste, Ovid or Horace might be. In prose there are more interesting writers than Caesar and Cicero (e.g. Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius), and as the OP is Christian there's a lot of relevant literature there from Augustine on. Not to mention medieval Latin literature which is a world in itself. – TKR Jan 14 at 6:25
  • @TKR I was wondering myself what I should read in Latin, Augustine would be exactly what I am looking for, thanks! – Nacht - Reinstate Monica Jan 14 at 21:45
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    And, by the way, Virgil did not copy Homer. He was deeply influenced, sure, but old themes are treated differently/in a different context, and there are new themes too: just think of Dido, or Aeneas himself compared to Ulisses and Achilles. And of course, he produced other notable works besides the Aeneid. – Vincenzo Oliva Jan 15 at 10:49

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