When I first started learning Greek many years ago, as a very inexperienced polyglot-in-the-making, I remember trying to get to grips with an interesting quirk of pronunciation – and feeling a little dense when it didn’t make sense at first.
It was all about stress placement. Specifically, something a bit funny can happen in Greek when a little word like μου (mou – my) follows a polysyllabic word. The longer word gets an extra stress accent – very strange considering the fact that Greek words usually only have a single stressed syllable.
το διαμέρισμα (to diamérisma – the flat)
το διαμέρισμά μου (to diamérismá mou – my flat)
I remember reading this in some dusty old grammar I got from the library, and not quite getting it. I made a mental note that the stress can sometimes change under certain circumstances, and left it at that, feeling ever so slightly befuddled (but undeterred!).
With time, of course, I came across lots of examples of this happening in Greek texts and speech. And with that exposure, my hit-and-miss attempts at reproducing it, and my eventual improvement, came a kind of instinct for where it takes place.
Wind forward a good twenty years, and I’m leafing through a Modern Greek grammar primer from 1892 (as you do). A Short and Easy Modern Greek Grammar was an introductory text originally penned by German Karl Wied, and released in a translation by Mary Gardner in 1892. As it’s such an old, copyright-expired book, it’s quite easy to get a PDF scan of it, such as this 1910 edition at the Internet Archive.
I love these texts for the insight they give into how the target language itself has changed in recent years. But they also offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of foreign language education. How things have changed in a hundred-and-twenty years! But then again, how they stay the same. The technical descriptions aren’t vastly different from the thorough explanations you’ll find in a Routledge Comprehensive Grammar. Well, maybe a little extra Victorian bombast, but the format has remained surprisingly static over a century.
Right there, on page eight, is that accent phenomenon I struggled with as a youth. The description is given in quite traditionalist, grammatical language. It explains that the stress-jumping occurs with enclitics, snippets of words so short that they lack an accent of their own and almost merge into the preceding word.
It’s a technically accurate and comprehensive explanation. But I probably wouldn’t have had a clue if I’d read it there first!
A Time and a Place
There are two points to make here. First, don’t be fazed if you struggle to get difficult grammatical points in traditional texts. With enough exposure to real language, you’ll develop your own instinct for these intricacies. There’s a time and a place for comprehensive, formal grammars, and it’s probably not at the very start of your journey (as much as I love to geek out with hundred-year-old tomes).
Secondly, it’s not that such resources are not useful at all. It’s just that they’re perhaps better used when you have a bit of a handle on the language already, and you are ready for the why as well as the how. It’s also a nice reminder that a little time and experience can make a huge difference with language learning.
What first seemed dense and inaccessible can make complete sense when you revisit it with some street-learned smarts.