Book Review: “The Ingenious Language” by Andrea Marcolongo

“I am certain, however, that studying Greek helps you develop a talent for life, love, and hard work, for choosing to take responsibility for your successes and failures. It also helps you take pleasure in things, even when things aren’t all that perfect.”

“The life of a language resides in the human beings who use it to comprehend the world, who live by putting that world into words.”

“The Ingenious Language: Nine Epic Reasons to Love Greek” by Andrea Marcolongo, translated from Italian by Will Schutt, is a love letter to ancient Greek. Marcolongo examines the “why” behind grammatical structures, exploring their cognitive underpinnings and the challenges of translating them. Topics she tackles in detail include aspect, pronunciation, genders and the dual, word order flexibility, and the optative. My favorite sections were those on aspect and the optative. Translation and grammar are fascinations of mine, and if they are yours as well, I would recommend this book. Marcolongo’s obvious passion for language and willingness to look beyond the surface of grammar make this book a pleasure to think with.

That said, there were a few conclusions I disagreed with, cultural rather than grammatical, vigorously enough that they merit mention. One is when she asserts that the 7th century BC ushered in “a culture of individuals, which demanded stories about the feelings, passions, grief, and moods of an ‘I.’” I would argue that Greek subjectivity has always been social and communal, not an isolated individual. Second, I was uncomfortable with some of her assumptions and interpretations of modern Greeks. Greek identity and language are complex and paradoxical phenomena that resist generalizing and standardizing. In my experience, it’s difficult even for Greeks, diaspora and within the nation, to wrap our heads around it. To say, as Marcolongo does, that Greeks are “incapable of getting out from under the past” feels to me like a product of Western European prioritizing of “progress” (even if illusory). Both one and two seem, to me, to result from fundamental misunderstanding of Greek values that have remained, in some ways, startlingly consistent for 2,500 years.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If not, do you enjoy books about language and grammar and their connection to cultural values?

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