Over on twitter, our friend Travis asks the somewhat provocative question
Almost every single Communicative Greek resource I’ve ever seen commits a very basic error with naming. According to John Lee, Greeks said: τὸ ὄνομά μου or ὄνομά μοι but NEVER τὸ ὄνομά μοι. How has literally everyone missed this?!
I myself have certainly been guilty of violating that ‘rule’ (I note that Lee places ‘rule’ in quotation marks within his paper, and I’ll talk about too), and I think this provides a good occasion to reflect upon errors, idiom, communicative methods, and related things.
John Lee’s article is worth reading. In short, he observes that the LXX and NT consistently use τὸ ὄνομα + genitive, but ὄνομα + dative, and that this pattern is consistent with an almost universal pattern in Greek from Homer to the Koine period, starting to break down in the 2nd century CE. He then formulates this as a ‘rule’, and suggests that it is proof of the LXX and NT authors having good Greek idiom, whether native or native-like. Lee also, importantly, notes that he hasn’t seen this ‘rule’ formulated anywhere before – not within Greek literature, and not in grammatical works on Greek.
Types of ‘error’
First of all, I think it’s worth realising that there are various degrees of error, and I think violating the ὄνομα rule is very low down the scale. In fact, I wouldn’t call this an error, I would call it non-native idiom. In particular, this represents a completely understandable and comprehensible pattern of language. If you said, ὄνομα μου or τὸ ὄνομά μοι to a native speaker of 1st century Greek, I have zero doubt that you would be understood. Maybe they’d correct you, maybe they wouldn’t, but there’s zero failure of communication there because in this instance the difference between a possessive dative and a genitive is a rather minute nuance.
There are other types of errors, though, and some are failures of idiom, others are ungrammaticalities. It is very common among contemporary Latin speakers, especially those influenced by American speaking circles, to use the phrase tecum sto (lit. “I stand with you) to mean “I agree with you”. This phrase isn’t attested classically with this kind of idiomatic meaning, there are quite a few other phrases that would do better service. But it’s widespread. Personally I think this non-native usage is a slightly higher level of problem, because it’s shifting to the realm of meaning, and reinforcing a non-idiomatic construction. But even here, you shouldn’t be a jerk about it, interrupting Latin conversations to rant at them for their barbarisms.
The type of errors that speakers today of historical languages should most be concerned about in their own speech, are ungrammaticalities. παύομαι τρέχειν for “I stop running” is right on the verge of being categorically ungrammatical. Yes, you might be understood by a native speaker, but they are going to pause and mentally check for a second. If they were given a nice little linguistic field test, they’d mark it with an asterisk for ‘ungrammatical sentence’.
Why we all ‘got it wrong’
Why did almost all communicative teachers of ancient Greek get the ὄνομα rule wrong? And why is tecum sto so prevalent? Let me deal with the latter first, and highlight a genuine danger for contemporary speakers of historical languages. As best I know, tecum sto was picked up by some American speakers (sorry American friends), and circulated reasonably widely among them, and because of the nature of spoken-Latin events and circles, it has been widely reinforced and now forms part of some speakers standard phraseology. Even very proficient speakers use it commonly, to the chagrin of purists.
This illustrates a feature of contemporary speaking circles – the number of contemporary Latin and Greek speakers is relatively small, and in the age of the internet things can spread rapidly and decisively. Terrence Tunberg suggested the word acroama / ἀκρόαμα for ‘podcast’ and it was taken up by Latin podcasters within the week.
So, what about τὸ ὄνομά μοι? I would suggest that we all ‘missed’ this for a simple set of reasons. Firstly, Ancient Greek is now an undead language – it’s spoken, but it does not have intergenerational transmission nor is it used actively as the daily language of a residential community. Secondly, although (as Lee does) you can search the corpus of AG literature to find lots of examples of ὄνομα usage, the simple exchange τί ἐστι ὄνομά σοι; would happen countless times in a speaker’s life if they engaged in life with a Greek speaking community, but it is not so frequent in literary texts. Thirdly, it’s not that Lee noticed a rule that we were all ignoring, it’s that Lee formulated a consistent idiom pattern that no-one had formulated in explicit writing for 2800 years. Fourthly, it suggests something subtle about article usage that had escaped us. Fifthly, this kind of non-native idiom sometimes occurs among contemporary AG speakers due to Latin interference. That is, while not all AG speakers have Latin or are stronger in Latin, many are, and their Latin sometimes shapes their Greek.
Proof that you communicative folks are terrible
Now, at least regularly I hear some people pipe up and say, “Look, this is why you can’t teach communicatively! How could you confidently teach ancient Greek as a spoken language if you can’t even get the ὄνομα rule right??”
To which I would reply τὰδε· Every communicative teacher I know is well aware of the issues that face us about linguistic accuracy, the corpus we have access to, what linguistic data is ‘missing’ because there is no intergenerational + daily life speaking community with continuity (setting aside the important questions about the role of Modern Greek). It’s not that we are ignorant or are ignoring those challenges, we’re just not convinced they are defeaters.
Given that Lee is the first to point out explicitly this ‘rule’, I don’t think you could reasonably complain or blame anyone for not knowing it. You certainly couldn’t say grammar teachers were doing a better job – I’ve never read or heard a grammar teacher formulate the rule!
Please take this section-header tongue-in-cheek. Communicative teachers of AG (and Latin) are interested in norming their learners’ and their own speech to a literary corpus. That’s almost always been true of Latin, and it remains true of AG. We’re not aiming to revive the language and then see it become a modern spoken language that goes on to evolve independently. So there is an inherent conservativism, or a gravitational ‘centre’ to our language use, and that center is the literature we are interested in.
And so, as I have said before, the thing that more than anything will norm our speech patterns, is regular and consistent exposure and immersion in authentic ancient Greek (and Latin) literature. That is incumbent upon teachers in particular – they need to be spending considerable time reading and reflecting on ancient texts. It is less incumbent upon learners, because they should be getting as much comprehensible input as possible, at the easiest possible levels, and that learner-oriented material should be being produced by teachers who are norming themselves to the literary corpus I just mentioned. That’s how you ensure that Latin and AG produced by contemporary speakers continues to conform to usage patterns of thousands of years ago.
Secondly, we need good linguistics. Although I am definitely on record as saying that explicit grammar is of little to no use for acquiring languages, I am very in favour of ongoing, rigorous linguistic work on ancient languages, and that this understanding of Latin and Greek should then be brought to bear, especially on teachers and teaching. Lee’s paper is a great example, it has refined all our understandings of a pattern that we didn’t explicitly know existed, and teachers and speakers can now consciously adjust their usage to reflect that norm, which should then be reinforced among learners.
Thirdly, this is one reason LGPSI exists freely available for you to read and critique, instead of waiting umpteen years for me to finish it, publish it, and then get lambasted for errors. There are definitely errors in LGPSI right now. But it is there for people to read and send me corrections and suggestions at any time. Even now, I have been going through and subtly conforming it to the ὄνομα rule.
Fourthly, remember to be gracious to speakers of ancient languages. Classics and Biblical Studies have enough snooty jackasses already.