The average Latin verb has more than 200 endings; English verbs rarely have more than five. Greek ones can have well over a thousand.
Greek has lots of forms not used in English, among them the optative: a type of verb used to express wish or desire. It also has the dual: a word used only of two people or objects. Useless in modern English – although the writer Stanley Johnson, father of Boris, told me he longed for a dual to argue against his wife and one of his daughters when they ganged up on him.
Greek has the same Indo-European origin as Latin – and, indeed, Sanskrit, Teutonic and Celtic. But, even though it came before Latin, it is more flexible in expression and meaning. It has more participles – 10 to Latin’s three – allowing for more subordinate clauses. And it has a whole pack of conjunctions that flip sentences on their head and alter their meaning.
Ancient Greek also had different pitches – marked from the third century BC with circumflex, grave and acute accents – making the language extremely musical. Sappho’s poetry had the devilish Mixolydian mode, with note pitches at quarter-tone intervals – as early as the seventh century BC.
All this was a little impenetrable to me at Westminster; even more so at my north London prep school, North Bridge House, where I started learning Greek at 11. But oh, how much joy Greek has generated in me in later life. It was hard-won joy, admittedly. There were years – decades – in the dogged accumulation of the seeds of knowledge, before the appreciation of the fully grown plants could develop.
Now I’m so grateful I wasn’t fed a dumbed-down, supposedly accessible version of classics. Watered-down Greek is the opposite of accessible – it provides access to nothing. Without those long, slow hours, forcing down the vocab and the verb endings, I would never have punctured that hard skin wrapped around the core of Greek, and discovered the beauty within.