Doesn’t a written corpus distort a spoken language?

Yes, but that’s okay.

In the comments on my recent post about Authentic Language, Alan Wood asks, “What difference does it make that we largely have ‘writing patterns’ rather than ‘speech patterns’?”

I think this is neither a feature nor a bug, just a given, of both what we have, and what we are undertaking. So, when we talk about speaking and acquiring Latin, or Ancient Greek, or another historical language, the “idealised corpus of speech” which serves as the objective basis for acquiring the abstract ‘language’, is simply the corpus of written texts we have. There is no ongoing native-speaker community-spoken community of the ancient language as it was. And, we do know well that they way language is represented in writing always differs from how it exists in the moment of speech and conversation. If there’s any doubt for you of that, listen to an audio clip of a conversation and try to transcribe it verbatim.

However, what is the language we’re trying to acquire? It’s the language of the written corpus. We’re (or at least I) not trying to reconstruct a vernacular oral language behind the texts that we have. Any such reconstruction of some kind of “this is how it was truly spoken” involves a level of speculation and tentative reconstruction. Not that this is impossible at the micro level, but I have rather large doubts about it at a macro level.

Rather, we are being acculturated and inculcated into a fossilised representation of language, embodied in texts. There will always be an inherent conservatism, then, in ‘living’ Latin, or Greek, etc., because the corpus is a norming norm for all new speakers.

However, the norm should be broad. We do get conversational and colloquial elements in ancient texts. You see strong elements of conversationality, colloquiality, and the like, even when stylised, e.g. in the comedies. You get a different register of writing in the sub- and non-literary papyri. For a biblical studies student, you cannot get a good sense of style and idiom if all you’ve read is the New Testament. To repeat my common trope, it is like learning all your French from 20,000 leagues under the sea and then wondering why you can’t accurately judge register, tone, style, idiom.

Written language is a standardised expression of spoken language, and serves as a good standard to model contemporary communicative language upon.

3 responses

  1. To add even more nuance to this, I saw a criticism of a particular phrase on Facebook the other day for being “Semitic Greek.” Which got me thinking, well “What type of Greek are we learning if it is not the Greek that would have actually been used at the time”.

    It does seem to me that one of the most common criticisms against attempts to create resources and/or use resources that may help speed up the language learning/internalization process seems to be undergirded by an implied goal that we should be to aim for some kind of pure-native-spoken-greek language or we should give up.

    Although reading other Ancient Greek text is great, and is a worthwhile activity, and I will do it for fun, my end goal is not comfort with the Ancient Greek of Athens but first century Koine Greek. Maybe we don’t know exactly how it was spoken—but I suspect the Greek spoken in Jerusalem in the first century did not have the same linguistic patterns as the language spoken in Athens.

    Just to be sure no one misreads me here, I do think there is a legitimate concern that a “living biblical Greek” could drift and evolve as a language if it was somehow revived a mainstream language, but I just don’t think that is something we should worry too much about is it? What are the chances of that?

    A beginner student who internalizes a few incorrect non-natural word order or speech patterns will eventually gain proficiency or give up. They will either 1. internaliz enough Biblical Greek they will be able to read with enough proficiency that these patterns will sort themselves out over time, or 2. they won’t become proficient, and they will drop the habit all together.

    I would rather live in a world where a significant number of christians were more successful at internalizing Biblical Greek—but produced some imperfect by ancient greek standards writing; than in a world where Christians gave up the habit of Biblical Greek composition because they couldn’t get it perfect at the start. I am inclined to think Biblical Greek composition is key to competency so giving up Biblical Greek composition seems to me like giving up learning Biblical Greek.

    • “I do think there is a legitimate concern that a “living biblical Greek” could drift and evolve as a language if it was somehow revived a mainstream language, but I just don’t think that is something we should worry too much about is it? What are the chances of that?”

      I really don’t think this is a live concern though. Yes, it’s theoretically possible, but the possibility is so remote. If we switch to talk about Latin for a moment, because there are more contemporary Latin speakers. In order for contemporary-spoken-Latin to drift and evolve as a language, you would essentially have to have (a) native-speaker transmission, (b) communities where it was in use as a language of daily interaction. And (a) and (b) need to combine. In that case, you’ve essentially revived the language (cf. modern Hebrew, of course the most famous example of language revival). But you don’t have that anywhere in the world, nor is it likely. It is far, far less likely to happen with biblical Greek in particular.

      Far more possible, and achievable, is the kind of state that Latin had in, say, Erasmus’ day. That is, a learned language of discourse, held as a fluent second-language by many people, used for communication and writing, alongside other contemporary languages, but shaped by the ongoing nature of it as a second language with a standard corpus that acted as a norming norm. That is possible for Greek too, indeed arguably reflects the kind of diglossia that emerged with Atticising Greek even as medieval Greek continued to evolve, reflects how ancient Greek could function as a second learned language of discourse, cotemporaneous with modern languages including its own direct descendant.

      • I love the way you describe a realistic future goal as something concrete: “like the way latin was used in Erasmus'” day. Painting a vivid picture concrete goal, that is founded in an actual real world historical reality pushes back against a natural inclination some people seem to have to assert “such goals are not possible” or “not realistic.”

        With regards to the “living language concern”, it was floating around in my head partly because of a Luke Ranieri video where he mentions this concern, combined with echos of past discussions with people that don’t like the idea of back porting modern words (i.e. computer) to into a static “koine era greek”. In my opinion, a solution to this problem is how Iceland preserves their own language. They have committee designated with the responsibility of carefully porting modern/English words into the Icelandic dictionary. I think in practice this would look like a standard/common dictionary that provide an agreed upon way to refer to modern “things”.

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