Discussing Ancient Greek Linguistics in Ancient Greek

In the last couple of days, occasioned at first by a tweet and corresponding discussions from Steven Runge, I’ve been teasing out in my head and a little bit of dialogue the difficulties of the “advanced discussion of Greek in Greek” question. It’s a question that any living language approach has to answer, one way or another. My position involves a few different angles, so let me lay them out again here.

Firstly, I don’t think you need to develop a meta-linguistic competence to talk about Greek grammar and linguistics in order to become a competent speaker/user of the language.

Secondly, I think it’s best to think of that meta-linguistic knowledge as a separate (but not entirely unrelated!) body of knowledge. Yes, meta-linguistic knowledge can help you become a more competent language user. However, the fact that one can be a highly competent speaker without a meta-linguistic knowledge, or vice versa a competent linguist of a language with very little communicative competence, suggests that these are separate.

Thirdly, meta-linguistic knowledge can be done in any language. It can be done in English, it can be done in Greek, it can be done in something else. There is a practical advantage to doing some of this, especially at the basic level, in Greek.

However, and this is point four, I think when we get to the point where we want to do complex, linguistic, exegetical, philological, discourse, literary, etc., type analyses, we have to reckon with some realities. Firstly, the language competence to, for example, read the New Testament, and the language competence to discuss these things about the New Testament, are fairly distant. The latter requires a level of competence, and domain specificity, and a body of academic knowledge, that are all additional to the former. Secondly, we should respect that not everyone looking for the former, wants to, can, or will, acquire the latter.

To demonstrate what I mean, below are three quotes from some linguisticky things I’ve read in the recent past. I chose things that I thought I’d have a shot at translating, and I’ve given you my (rough, ready, and likely problematic) Greek versions first – do yourself a favour and read the Greek before going down to the English. Can you read and process these sentences quickly, in Greek, with a reasonably clear understanding of what’s going on?

  1. τὸ ὑποθετικὸν κῶλον τὸ ἐν τῷ ἕκτῳ στίχῳ ἀρχόμενον διδάσκει τὸν ἀναγιγνώσκοντα ὅτι δεῖ τὰ ἑπόμενα κατὰ ταῦτα συνίεσθαι.
  2. πλεῖστον χρόνον, εἰ μὴ πάντοτε, ἀλλήλοις διαλεγόμεθα τῇ μὲν γλώσσῃ χρώμενοι τὴν δὲ ἐνεργεῖαν αὐτὴν, πολύπλοκον οὖσαν, μὴ περιορῶντες, ᾗπερ κῶλά τε καὶ λέξεις ποικίλας παρὰ λεπτόν παραπλασσόμεθα.
  3. μεταξύ τόπος· τὸ διαβαλλόμενον κεῖται μεταξὺ δυοῖν ἢ πλειόνων ὅρων. τὸ οὖν ὅρος κεῖται ὁποτέρωθεν τοῦ διαβαλλομένου. ἢ ἀθρόον ὃ διαμερίζεσθαι δύναται ἢ πληθυντικὰ ὄντα ἃ περιίστασθαι δύναται τὸ διαβαλλόμενον. λέγεται οὖν τὸ ὅρος ἐπὶ τῆς γενικῆς πτώσεως.


The English originals are below.

  1. The conditional clause that begins verse 6 instructs the reader that what follows must be processed in light of this.
  • Steven Runge, ‘Interpreting Constituent Order in Koine Greek’ in Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key Issues in the Current Debate. eds. David Alan Black and Benjamin L. Merkle.

2. Most of the time, if not all of the time, we communicate with each other using language without considering the complex activity we are undertaking, forming complex words and sentences in a split second.

  • Emma L. Pavey. The Structure of Language: An Introduction to Grammatical Analysis (Kindle Locations 114-115). Kindle Edition.

3. μεταξύ : Location : A trajector is physically located in between two or more landmark The landmark is on either side of a trajector. The landmark is either a collective entity that can be split or multiple entities that can surround a trajector. The landmark is expressed in the genitive case.


Can this all be done in Ancient Greek? Yes. However let’s recognise that not everyone is interested in reading, or writing, complex linguistic content in Ancient Greek (I am, though!).

2 responses

  1. «Can you read and process these sentences quickly, in Greek, with a reasonably clear understanding of what’s going on?»

    More more less, yes (native Greek speaker with solid background in ancient Greek and a postgrad degree in Byzantine studies).

    It’s worth noting that Byzantine and post-Byzantine Greek speakers did exactly this – they analyzed Biblical language and discussed Greek grammar in ancient Greek, even though their spoken language is attested to have been close to modern Greek. Every self-respecting Greek scholar between the late Palaiologan period and the Greek Revolution wrote a treatise on Greek grammar, rhetoric or biblical exegeses in Attic Greek, the most prominent ones being Manuel Chrysoloras, and Theodore Gaza. Quite a few of these works, published in Venice, Iasi or Vienna, are even available online.

  2. I can’t really understand it, mostly because I don’t know grammatical terms in Ancient Greek, even after 5 years of university Greek. I reckon it has to do with us not learning Greek grammatical terms in Ancient Greek, but rather in translation.

    But I do think it has a place, especially in universities. I think that university programs could (or should) start teaching from second or third semester , after first prunings, exclusively in Ancient Greek exactly in the way you are proposing. It would be difficult at first, but students focused on Greek could dial-in quite fast if done correctly.

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