Translation is not meaning

One of the downsides of training students to translate in order to understand, is that they very often develop the erroneous notion that translation is meaning. “The meaning of Greek word X is English word Y”, or slightly more complex versions of the same.

No, no, no.

Greek (or whatever language) means what it means, with reference to Greek, with reference to reality, with reference to its referents. Sure, I can concede that “Greek X means English Y” is sometimes just shorthand for “English Y is a suitable translation of Greek Y in this context”, but very often it’s not, it’s shorthand for “Greek X really means English Y, why didn’t they just write in English in the first place and make my life easier.”

Don’t fall for the trap. Figure out meaning first, then figure out how to render that meaning in your other language. That’s what translation is.

(I’m going to start trying to micro-blog more language/Greek/Latin/etc. mini-posts like this)

Mastronarde’s Introduction to Attic Greek

Well let’s have another brief review, shall we?

Mastronarde’s Introduction to Attic Greek dates back to 1993, at least, and has long been in use at UC Berkeley, and elsewhere. A second edition was released in 2013, though I am only familiar with the first edition. Both editions are well supported with some internet resources at (2nd edition; a site for the 1st edition thankfully remains online. (A list of changes between editions can be found here)

Mastronarde outlines his pedagogical beliefs in his preface, saying, “My presentation is based on the belief that college students who are trying to learn Greek deserve full exposure to the morphology and grammar that they will encounter in real texts and full explanations of what they are asked to learn.” And the textbook does just that. Mastronarde does not hold back on quite full explanations, and expects (or at least presents) the panoply of Greek morphology through.

Personally, I came to Mastronarde twice – first as an independent learner trying to transition myself from a Koine background to Classical Greek, secondly as a student picking up a class to ‘fix’ my Greek (it was a class covering the second half of Mastronarde, and it was probably worth it though perhaps unnecessary).

Each chapter presents a thorough treatment of new grammatical material with in depth explanations of the reasons for morphological changes and examples of usage patterns. This is followed by vocab to be learnt and then exercises. Exercises include reading/translation passages (Greek > English) and translation exercises (English > Greek).

Mastronarde also states in the preface his aversion to a reading/inductive methodology where students are exposed to a reading text and meant to figure it out by themselves. However, he certainly doesn’t disavow reading itself. The textbook constantly brings the student into encounters with real Greek texts, and the expectation of the author is that the textbook may be used alongside, especially in the second half, the reading of a first Greek text (Xenophon being an obvious candidate).

Personally, I still turn to Mastronarde if I want an explanation for something. It’s in-depth, and yet user-friendly enough that it’s often more useful to read Mastronarde’s treatment of a grammatical topic, than to turn to a reference grammar like Smyth. For those who like a rigourist approach of grammar/morphology/reading/translation, I do recommend Mastronarde to them, as it’s a lot more friendly than, say, H&Q, though no less a stern taskmaster. I’m not sure I’d teach from it, but as usual that’s more due to my pedagogical preferences. Mastronarde is probably one of the better offerings on the market for traditional Classical Greek introductory textbooks.

Hansen and Quinn, An Intensive Course: an even briefer review

The copy I have of this, from the library is from 1980 and is described as a “Preliminary Edition.” A quick look at Amazon tells me that there is a 2nd Revised edition from 1992 though I can’t comment on what changes were made.

Originally written for Summer Greek Intensives in New York, the text certainly lives up to the “Intensive” in the title, trying to deliver 2 years of college level material over 11 weeks (six weeks to cover all the grammar, 5 weeks spent reading Plato and Homer: the book only covers the grammar).

The structure of the material is unrelenting grammatical information, in a classic instructional style (no inductive learning here), with each unit followed by grammatical drills of the Grammar-Translation method: translation, parsing, morphological manipulation, grammatical analysis.

Admittedly I have never used H&Q as a teaching text, nor have I put myself through all its rigours. It does make a handy volume to go through and make one’s own grammatical notes, because the grammar is laid out very clearly through units and numbered sections, and the contents page tells you where to find everything. This is very pleasing to see (if you’re going to have a grammar-based approach, a really clear contents is critical, in some ways more important than a good index).

Would I recommend it? No. It’s like Wheelock’s Latin, but less forgiving.

That said, if you want an old-school, master-all-the-forms approach, H&Q is attractive if only because they lay it out so well. The text lacks up-to-date linguistics, but the exercises are also a smorgasbord of traditionalist training, if that’s what you’re after.

Reading Greek: a review

A short foreword: I thought, thanks to a suggestion, that I’d start blogging my way through reviews of introductory materials in Greek and Latin. I don’t pretend to thoroughness or rigour, just my thoughts on textbooks and readers I’ve dealt with in some way or another. I’ll alternate between Greek and Latin as best I can for the duration of the series. I’m also open to requests.

No further ado required:

Another product of the late 70s, Reading Greek appeared as a joint project (a second edition, much improved, appeared in 2007) under the auspices of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers. It aimed to produce a reading-method text via a “continuous, graded Greek text, adapted from original sources”, and then accompany this with grammar explanations, and exercises. In the first edition, this was done in two volumes, with running vocabulary notes put into the second volume, the first being the main text alone.

The text itself is a tour-de-force. It has nineteen sections, with various subsections, and moves quite rapidly from a heavily adapted ‘framing’ story, to more lightly-adapted material drawn from classical texts (primarily 5th century Attic material, but not entirely). The spread of material through the nineteen section suffers from being uneven (some sections are shorter, others longer), and on the whole moving to too complicated Greek too quickly (a problem with most readers). The removal of the vocabulary to a second volume was a mistake, rectified in the second edition which (a) moved the vocabulary to the same volume, and (b) fixed another glaring problem, the linking device. The first edition had ‘connected works’ marked by a ‘linking device’, and then listed those words as a group in the vocabulary. This was fine in principle, except using the article this way made the vocab a mess.

The grammar presentations in the first edition are cramped, and not particularly user-friendly. They are followed by the usual Grammar-Translation exercises. The formatting in the second edition improves some of the first issue – grammar is presented more readably and with better formatting.

My own experience with RG is really using it as a post-introductory refresher for reading. I haven’t taught from it, and I probably wouldn’t choose to do so. A graded reader is a great idea, but it needs to be incredibly well-formulated if it’s to meet fundamental pedagogic needs, and those require very careful sheltering of vocabulary and scaffolding of grammatical structures, and a ton of repetition. RG doesn’t accomplish this, because it chooses (for some good reasons) to use as much original classical Greek text as it can. This is commendable (students do need to grapple with original texts early, and not with merely ‘composition Greek’), but at the same time difficult (most of our literature that classical Greek students aim to read is ‘high literature’, they need ‘easy’ Greek for pedagogical reasons).

For these reasons, I wouldn’t recommend RG as a primary book for introductory learners. I think it makes a great supplementary reader for introductory learners at least into a second semester, or as a great source for post-introductory learners who should be getting some more extensive reading in. For this purpose, the second edition text + vocabulary book by itself should be sufficient.

There are some follow-on volumes that tackle (1) Homer, Herodotus, and Sophocles, and (2) Euripides, Thucydides, and Plato, as well as a (3)rd Anthology volume. I haven’t read my way through any of these but if I do I promise to give them their own review.

Is over-interpretation a product of grammar based instruction?

I don’t know if it is, but I suspect that it might be. (You’d need a fairly wide-ranging study to establish it)

This past week I’ve been marking some exegetical papers by new second-year Greek students, and as they struggle to turn their grammar-heavy first year knowledge and nascent syntactical analysis into meaningful comments, one of the things that struck me is how repeatedly students would draw theological or other significant conclusions from grammatical features. Very often without warrant.

Partly it might just be the pressure to say intelligent things about grammar that contribute to meaning and fill up one’s word count. But my suspicion is that, having been taught to analyse the grammar of a single language for a single, highly important (for theological reasons) corpus, they are awash in a sea of significant ‘signs’, and so everything has meaning! But not just regular meaning, deep theological truths are concealed in the choice of tense-form, aspect, vocabulary, etc..

I think I am of a different school of thought – grammatical minimalism. I certainly do think that grammar is a very useful way to analyse a text, and it’s a helpful set of meta-jargon for discussing linguistic choices. And some grammatical choices do encode ‘significant’ meaning. But on the whole I’m reluctant to press these points. Restraint and caution are the order of the day. What does the text say? What does it mean? Let’s allow the firmness of our conclusions to rest on the strength of their evidences, and not build castles in the air.

For, in the end, this fanciful grammaticalisation of meaning is the historico-grammatical equivalent of unbounded Allegorism. And equally irresponsible.

Semi-regular rant on Greek language pedagogy

(I’m mostly in the midst of doing a lot of thesis writing, but thought I could take some time out to ride a hobby horse).

  • Knowing a language isn’t a qualification for teaching a language.

We usually think that knowing something is a pre-requisite for teaching it, and generally that’s true. But it’s also not a sufficient pre-requisite. Plenty of people know skills or competencies which they do not have the ability to teach very well. This is why teachers get trained. So they know (a) how to teach as well as (b) the material they will teach.

Why would you think a language was any different? Monoglots Anglophones are particularly susceptible to this delusion: “Oh, you know Spanish, teach so-an-so.” If you’re a monoglot L1 English speaker, have you tried to teach English? It’s not that easy.

Why then do we think that merely being a successful student of Greek or Latin or X-language turns one into a qualified teacher of the same?

  • Having a PhD in Greek linguistics or in New Testament studies indicates almost nothing about how well you can teach Greek.

Most seminaries use their New Testament faculty to teach Greek, on the theory that they’ve studied a lot of Greek and did PhDs with Greek. But following on from point 1, this is only incidentally related to knowing how to teach Greek. This guarantees that the methodologies used in seminary-based education for Greek will continue to passively reproduce ‘they way I was taught’ from generation to generation. Which is not best-practice in the field at all.

  • Knowing a language and knowing about a language are two fundamentally separate things.

Anyone who gets to the end of a grammar-translation based program ought to realise this. Knowing about a language – whether in the terminology of (traditional) grammars or in the jargon of the discipline of linguistics, is not the same as possessing a communicative ability in the language to read/write/listen/speak directly in the language. They are two separate things, and they are acquired separately. Most speakers of an L1 do not develop any significant ability to speak about the grammar of their own language, unless taught it explicitly and formally. Students whose primarily educational content is a grammatical description of their target language should end up with an ability to analyse and interpret it, but any genuine acquisition of the language is incidental, and sometimes accidental.

  • The cost of pursuing acquisition doesn’t mean surrendering analysis.

One of the arguments I most commonly hear against communicative-based approaches to language acquisition for languages such as Greek is that it means students will not learn to do the kind of linguistic analysis that is currently taught. That would only be true if a program were designed exclusively to provide language acquisition and deliberately avoided any meta-language discussion. There is no intrinsic reason why students could not be taught meta-language skills in addition to actual language acquisition. Nor, if we are honest, would it be that problematic or time-consuming to teach them to do so.

  • The cost of pursuing acquisition doesn’t mean “too long, too slow, too little.”

Another of the objections I commonly hear, is that while communicative-based approaches may be possible, they would take too long and too much time to reach their destination, time which programs and students don’t have. To which I have several replies. Firstly, this is largely untested for classical languages – there are so few programs running full-blown communicative-based pedagogies that evaluating whether it actually takes too long is not seriously possible. Assuming that it would is bad research methodology. Secondly, I suspect this is not a concern at the pedagogy of language level, but at the curriculum design of seminaries level. If students and programs don’t have time to actually teach Greek as a language, that’s a decision at the level of what’s important for seminary graduates, and a wrong one in my view.

  • There is a point to pursuing acquisition.

The third common objection that I hear and feel like rambling about today is that there is simply no point or value in developing a communicative ability in Greek. Honestly, I find this baffling. I would never feel like someone whose English corpus was limited to 20,000 Leagues under the sea, and their ability to understand it was limited to sentence diagramming and word by word glossing, was someone who ‘knew English’ and could reliably understand English-language texts. For every modern language we expect Acquisition, not Grammar-Knowledge. Ancient Languages are not categorically different.

  • We do ourselves and our students a disservice by perpetuating Grammar-Translation

The overwhelming consensus in Second Language Acquisition theory and applied linguistics is that G-T is a poor method, and it produces sub-standard results. It’s not best-practice, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that it is. Continuing to teach generations of students Greek, Latin, insert-other-ancient-language-here via Grammar-Translation, when collectively we know better, is a dishonesty, and the cognitive dissonance should cause us mental discomfort. Demand something better from yourself and for your students.

The Acts of (Paul) and Thecla: a romance about chastity

This past week I’ve been leading a small group (quite small!) through the 2nd century text, ‘The Acts of Paul and Thecla’. It’s a very interesting text which relates the story of how a young betrothed woman in Iconium meets Paul, becomes entranced by the teaching of Christ, goes through various trials, and emerges as an independent Christian teacher and leader.

One of the very intriguing features of the text is that it is essentially an ‘Ancient (Christian) Novel’, drawing on the structures of other ancient novels of the same period, but refracted through a Christian lense. That creates a very interesting dynamic, because ancient novels are, by genre, romances involving a pair of paramours who go through various trials to be united at the end. The Acts of Paul and Thecla is similarly constructed, so that it is a romance between Thecla and Paul. But with a twist! Already by the time of this text a strong strand of early Christianity is placed on sexual chastity, and particularly virginity and abstinence. While Thecla and Paul are depicted in romantic terms, they are in a romance that is united primarily by a devotion and affection for Christ. The sexual undertones are employed to depict the triumph of chastity, and the threats to Thecla repeatedly center around threats to her virginity. In this way the text artfully (re)combines what appear to be two disparate motifs (romance and perpetual chastity) into a romance about chastity in which the narrative climax and resolution is not the sexual union of the two protagonists, but the tension and danger of sexual threat to the female protagonist, and the conquest of that threat and the victory of virginity.

There’s much, I’d say, to find theologically problematic, even disturbing, in this novel, but that’s no reason not to read it. As I keep saying, our knowledge of ‘Koine’ as a language, and our understanding of early Christianity, are only ever enhanced by stepping outside the Canonical Garden.

Why you need to read outside the NT corpus

Here’s the shortest case I can make. There are, depending on edition, 138,020 Greek words in the New Testament canon. Here are some comparable English works:


134,462 – The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien
134,710 – Schindler’s List, Thomas Keneally
135,420 – A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
138,098 – Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson
138,138 – 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Jules Verne


Would you really trust the interpretive abilities of someone whose entire knowledge of English was limited to reading one of these novels, and who had never read anything in English apart from their selected novel?

The New understandings in Greek, Part 4: Voice

This week we’re going to talk about voice in Greek and ‘deponency’. In some ways this is the most radical element of the new understandings, for those training in a traditional scheme. And yet, on the other hand, it is one of the elements about which there is the most consensus.

Here’s how traditional grammars tend to teach voice, overly simplified to what students normally take in.

Active voice refers to sentences where the Subject does the action of the verb.

I study the Greek language. (study is a verb in the active voice).

Passive voice refers to sentences where the Subject receives the action of the verb.

The Greek language is studied by me. (is studies is a verbal phrase in the passive voice).

So far so good, for English anyway. But when we take students to Greek we have the disconcerting problem that there appear, in some tense forms, to be not 2, but 3 voices.

The aorist, in particular, has three voice forms, traditionally labelled active, middle, and passive.

That middle voice is the one hardest for English speakers to grasp, and it’s often taught as ‘kind of in the middle between active and passive, with some idea of the Subject doing the action with some kind of respect to themselves and please figure it out from context.’

Then you have two more features that appear as problems: (1) Quite a few of the tense-forms, including the present, have no distinction between so called ‘middle’ and ‘passive’ forms. (2) Important verbs appear with a middle but no active voice form. ἔρχομαι is a very good example. Traditional grammars borrow from Latin and have called these deponents, meaning a verb that is active in meaning but uses a middle/passive form for the active.

This may well describe how you were taught Greek. Here are the bombshells if you’ve never heard this before:

  • The primary voice contrast in Greek is between ‘active’ and ‘middle’, not ‘active’ and ‘passive’.
  • There are no such thing as deponents.

I would say that the consensus, more or less, is that Greek developed with two voices, one of which we could call ‘active’, though ‘default’ or ‘common’ would also describe it. The focus, if there is any, is on the Subject rather than the action per se.

The second is the middle, which we could also call ‘subject involved’ or ‘subject affected’. The Subject is involved in the action in some way that affects themselves. The focus tends to shift from the subject to the action itself. The subject may or may not have an active role.

The passive, as a voice (not as a morphological set of forms) exists and develops as a subset of the Subject-Affected voice. It is one possibility for it.

Furthermore, the θη forms of the aorist are not strictly passives, and do not always ‘maintain clear boundaries’ between themselves and the aorist middle forms.

Forms that we have traditionally labelled ‘deponent’ did not lose an active, they generally never had one. They might in some cases develop active forms. But the reason they are ‘middle only’ or Subject Affected-voice only is because inherent in their meaning is something about subject-affectedness. To return to ἔρχομαι, it’s one of a number of movement verbs that ‘involve’ the subject in their own propulsion. That’s why the Greek language consistently treats it as middle.

Often this understanding of Greek voice is difficult to show in translation. Because however well you understand Greek voice, if you’re tasked with translation to English, you still have to translate into an English active or passive. So don’t feel like you somehow need to preserve ‘Subject-affectedness’ at all costs. You don’t.

But realising this about Greek voice opens up the possibility of understanding Greek better as Greek and reading middles more ‘naturally’. Get used to their Subject-Affectedness. Dwell in it. Learn to love it.

Two final things:

  • If you want a bit of a map to the different kinds of middle usage in Greek, here’s a link to my summary of Rutger Allen’s work.
  • If you want some further reading on the deponency issues, here’s a list:

The New understandings in Greek, Part 3: Aktionsart (revisited)

I’m going to have a second go at talking about Aktionsart.

I would begin by saying Aktionsart is simply a way of describing the type of action indicated by a predicate. As such ‘Aktionsart’ is a very wide-open term, no doubt contributing to its ambiguity.

We might talk about Aktionsart as inhering at three levels.

Firstly, the lexical Aktionsart would refer to the type of action indicated by a verbal lexeme. E.g., what ‘type’ of action is ‘walk’.

Secondly, we can talk about the pragmatic Aktionsart of a predicate in a sentence. E.g. [a] ‘John walked to the park on a sunny day’ or [b] ‘John used to walk in the rain for the past few years’.

Thirdly, we can talk about objective Aktionsart as the ‘reality’ of the predicate out there in the world apart from any utterances.

1 and 2 are clearly linked. But how they are linked is not so clear. I would put it this way: the lexeme allows and disallows various Aktionsarten. See more on this below. 2 and 3 are clearly linked as well, but at a philosophical level, not a linguistic one. Sentence [b] describes an iterative activity, but it is not the only way to describe an iterative activity, and recognising that an utterance about a (verbal) predicate is not the same thing as the reality of that predicate is a fundamental feature of modern linguistics (signifier/signified).

The reason it’s worth thinking about Aktionsart as the type of action indicated by a predicate is because verbs themselves can be modified, and so if we want to use ‘Aktionsart’ as our term to describe types of actions in actual sentences, then we need to shift to talking about predicates.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term predicate in this sense, let me explain and illustrate. In a clause (or sentence) there are two things: the Subject, and the Predicate. The Subject is what we are talking about. The Predicate is everything else, i.e. what we are saying about the Subject.

[a] John walked to the park on a sunny day

Subject: John

Predicate: walked to the park on a sunny day

In my previous post on Aktionsarten I went through a 6 category system of talking about predicates. The advantage of this system as opposed to the relatively open and ad hoc way of talking about various Aktionsarten, is that it is built on clearly defined polarities. Let me review it briefly here:


  Static? Dynamic? Telic? Punctual?
State +
Activity +
Accomplishment +
Semelfactive ± +
Achievement + +
Active Achievement + +


Here we have six categories, with four polarities. For every predicate we ask: is it a state? Is it dynamic? Is it telic? Is it punctual? The combination of these four permits identification in one of these six categories:

State: I am hungry.

  • a state indicates a condition, it has duration, but no end point, no dynamic element, and is not punctiliar.

Activity: I was writing.

  • an activity is not a condition, it is dynamic, but has no end point, and is continuing rather than instantanteous.

Accomplishment: I am writing a bog post in ten minutes.

  • an accomplishment, rather than an activity, has an end point, but has a duration.

Achievement: I had an idea

  • an achievement differs from an accomplishment in that it doesn’t have duration, but it does have an end point. The ‘idea’ is the outcome of the action, but it is instantaneous in realisation.

Active Achievement: I walked to the park.

  • the combination of an activity with an achievement is an active achievement. Here we have both an ongoing action that by itself has no end point, coupled with an end point (‘to the park’) that realises a change of state that is itself instantaneous (one moment I’m outside the park, next moment I’m in the park).

Semelfactive: I glistened in the sunlight (due to my glitter body paint).

  • a semelfactive represents an instantaneous or punctiliar occurance, that doesn’t involve an end point, and likewise doesn’t involve a change of state. Glistening, like flickering and other such events, occur as punctiliar, without duration, and without change of state.


Those six categories are workable, they are clear, and they are bounded by the polarities. They could, perhaps, be expanded, but not without showing clearly how and why they should do so (i.e. showing that there was a class of predicates that did not fit the six, or else subdividing existing classes based on an additional polarity).

This is why we can talk about the categories that a lexeme disallows while moving forward to a clausal level resolution of which category a predicate instantiates. For ‘walk’ can be an activity, but ‘walked to the park’ is an active achievement. As a lexeme ‘walk’ disallows State, Achievement, and Semelfactive. But it (at least to me) appears to allow Activity (I was walking), Active Achievement (I walked to the park), and Accomplishment (I walked a marathon in 8 hours). Note carefully how AA and Accomplishment differ: the former involves an instantaneous realisation of the change of state (outside/inside the park) which ends the activity, the latter involves a progressive accomplishing of an object (the marathon).

I think I’ve got all that right, and I trust that a linguist will show up and correct me if wrong.

So ‘walk’ allows three out of six categories, it is then at the level of predicate in a clause that one ought to determine which of these it is. This roughly aligns with Campbell’s suggestion of working from uncancellable semantics through to pragmatics in identifying the Aktionsart of a predicate, but with the modification of using a clear set of polarities to arrive at a bounded set of final categories.

What this doesn’t do is deal with such categories as ‘conative’ or ‘iterative’. I need some more thinking time to consider whether that’s important or not. The critical question is how those notions are indicated or marked in a language, how one determines that, and how one produces a classificatory scheme that adequately addresses it.

Okay, enough about Aktionsart, next time we’ll talk about Voice.




Review of Advances in the Study of New Testament Greek (C. Campbell)

This is a relatively short volume from Campbell, which can easily be read in a few days. It is pitched at what I would call the ‘Seminary and Biblical studies’ market. That is, seminarians, pastors, and others involved in biblical studies at a degree level or higher. It generally doesn’t reach the depth needed to engage those already involved in Greek scholarship at a significant level, though depending on their area of expertise, some elements of Campbell’s book will be of interest. It is, on the whole, very introductory in its level.

The book grew out of Campbell’s class Advanced Topics in Biblical Greek and Exegesis which he taught at Moore Theological College. Although I was there for some of the time Campbell taught there, he did not start this class until after I had finished, so I did not have the benefit of that. I have had some association with Campbell in the past though.

The book contains 10 main chapters, including a (quite) brief combined history of Greek studies and Linguistics to the present day (1); an overview of the field of Linguistics (2); Lexical semantics; the Middle Voice; Aspect and Aktionsart; Idiolect, Genre and Register; two chapters on Discourse Analysis; a chapter on pronunciation issues; and a chapter on pedagogy.

The first chapter is quite brief, and very introductory, but it does do its best to set up the rest of the book. For those with little knowledge of a history of either Greek scholarship or Linguistics, it will give them a sense of the field that the rest of the book builds upon. But it does not pretend to do more than that, and it doesn’t. However, I don’t want to fault Campbell for not doing things he wasn’t trying to.

I will critique the introduction to chapter 2 though. Campbell distinguishes between ‘the study of language and the study of linguistics’ (emphasis his), and quite rightly. But, and I will return to this point under chapter 10, the way that the traditional method of grammar-translation teaches is in fact to teach about language, not to teach language. In this, I would disagree that ‘Language study is simply the study of the “content” of a particular language’, precisely because there is a large gap between what’s going on in biblical Greek studies programs, and what anybody else in language education thinks language study is. Of course, this is one of my hobby horses, so let’s move on.

Campbell’s overview of Linguistics in general is relatively good, though I think his own preference for Functional Linguistics tends him to treat Generative Linguistics too briefly and set it aside too quickly.

For anyone unfamiliar with Lexical Semantics and Lexicography, chapter 3 is not a bad introduction. but it is a relatively brief chapter and amounts to little more than ‘lexicography is hard and a lot of it has been poorly done’ alongside ‘people don’t really understand how hard it is and have a bunch of unexamined fallacious ideas about meaning and lexemes’. Both of which are true and need to be fixed! I suppose my complaint is that there was simply not more content in this chapter.

Chapter 4 turns to deponency and the middle voice. This chapter looks briefly at the history of the discussion, and notes the contribution of major authors to dismantling the idea of deponency, and more importantly reconfiguring our whole notion of the voice system in Greek. This is truly an area where there is an ‘advance’ – there is a considerable consensus on the core issue that there isn’t such a thing as deponency, and quite a bit of consensus about how to reconfigure our understanding of the active vs. middle voice dichotomy. Helpfully, Campbell includes some discussion of remaining issues in this area towards the end of the chapter, ‘mixed deponents’ and ‘passive deponents’. Indeed, working out these two areas will greatly clarify our understanding both of voice in Ancient Greek, and of diachronic changes in the language.

Campbell’s own main area of scholarly work in Greek linguistics has been in dealing with (Verbal) Aspect and Aktionsart, and so it’s not surprise that chapter 5, on this topic, is the longest, most in-depth, and probably best-written section of the book.

Here, Campbell carefully delineates the distinctions between tense, aspect, and Aktionsart. He then offers, again, a brief history of contributions to the issue. Campbell surveys debate over whether tense per se is cancellable or uncancellable (semantic vs pragmatic), and then moves on to outline the dominant understandings of the Perfect tense-form (Traditional, Fanning, Porter, Campbell).

All this is pretty fine. I want to critique some of the next section, in which Campbell offers a compact version of his simplified method for dealing with Aspect and Aktionsart drawing from his Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek. To summarise, this involves a four step process:

  1. Identify semantics: aspect? spatial value?
  2. Lexeme: punctiliar? stative? transitive? etc.?
  3. Context
  4. Work out Aktionsart.

I have a few problems with this. And my first issue is that we need to talk about verbs and predicates more clearly. A verbal lexeme, I would suggest, allows and disallows a range of predicate possibilities:

John walked, John was walking, John walked to the park.

‘walk’ is not stative. That’s a feature of the lexeme. It’s uncancellable and its semantic. But ‘walked’ and ‘was walking’ are both activities, while ‘walked to the park’ is an active achievement. The addition of ‘to the park’ modifies the verb, so that the whole predicate becomes telic. In sentence (3) ‘walked’ is the verb, but ‘walked to the park’ is the predicate.

My point is that steps 2 and 3 of Campbell’s approach need to be integrated better, because the semantics of verbal lexemes are not enough to establish Aktionsart, they must be integrated directly with other elements of the context to establish the Aktionsart of the predicate, not the verb alone.

My other criticism is that Campbell considers ‘Aktionsart’ to be a description of the type of action ‘out there in the world’, so objectively. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with this, but I suspect more nuancing of how Aktionsart itself is a term susceptible of various meanings would help.

Chapter 6 deals with Idiolect, Genre, and Register. This is another relatively brief chapter, which mainly serves to introduce these terms and concepts to those totally unfamiliar with them. it does that, but not much more, and I am not sure the introductory student of this level will necessarily know what they should do with this information, except read the Further Reading suggestions.

The fact that two whole chapters are dedicated to Discourse Analysis demonstrate its importance as one area of emerging work in Greek studies. The first chapter deals with Halliday in particular, and gives a reasonably good overview of Halliday’s approach to DA. If I had a criticism of this chapter it’s that Campbell repeatedly draws attention to the fact that Halliday and Hasan’s approach has yet to be properly applied to Greek, or Koine Greek in particular. I suspect the reader will end this chapter wondering why Halliday’s approach is so significant and what value it has, particularly since coherence and cohesion are yet to appear as particularly interesting topics to most of those engaged in exegesis.

The second of these chapters focuses on Levinsohn and Runge, work much closer to home for most Greek students/scholars. Campbell’s chapter offers a fairly thorough and condensed overview of both of these authors, and again I am left wondering why, but for a different reason. Essentially, Campbell works through Runge’s Discourse Grammar in a chapter overview manner, much like this review. Wouldn’t it have been better to perhaps overview a little more, and provide some pointed examples, and convince the reader that they needed to read Runge, rather than what Campbell does, which is overview, exemplify, and give a virtual contents list of Runge’s whole Discourse Grammar? My second criticism of this chapter is that the main problem that Campbell raises, from Porter, with Levinsohn and Runge is that they are mainly confined to the sentence level, rather than larger discourse blocks. This is a weak criticism, because it is really just a complaint that their work didn’t do something else which it wasn’t doing anyway. Both scholars readily acknowledge the need to move from what they have done so far, to larger units in the work of Discourse Analysis. This is a mis-aimed criticism.

Some will wonder why a whole chapter of this volume needed to be given over to pronunciation, but Campbell is right that it has been a hot topic for a little while among Greek scholars. He gives a historical treatment of how the Erasmian pronunciation came about, the evidence against it for Koine, and a presentation of Lee’s reconstruction of Koine Greek, ‘essentially that of Modern Greek’ (p198). I would have liked Campbell to more clearly outline the three positions of Erasmian, Reconstructed Koine (Buth, et alii), and modern (Caragounis, Lee, et alii), but he treats Buth as virtually modern.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Erasmian should be abandoned, and there is virtual agreement amongst scholars in the field, as evidenced at the 2011 SBL conference. It is very difficult to defend the continuing practice of Erasmian, despite Wallace’s best efforts to do so on the grounds of ‘convenience’.

The final chapter deals with ‘Teaching and Learning Greek’, obviously a field I have long had an interest in and have a bunch of informed, but quite firm, opinions about. Campbell demonstrates some familiarity with emergent approaches in the field, including ‘fresh ideas for traditional methods’, and the contrast with what he calls ‘Immersion method’. Personally, I don’t think that’s the best descriptor for Communicative based methods, but it’s not terrible. I disagree that this movement traces its roots to French immersion for English-speaking Canadians in the 1960s, this is a rather truncated history of second language acquisition theory and application, and somewhat erroneous (I’m not doubting that it happened, I’m just doubting that this is the origin of communicative approaches overall); I suspect this is because of the choice to think of this methodology as primarily about ‘immersion’.

Campbell treats Buth primarily, as the best known representative in this field, with some awareness of Halcomb, and draws on material from Daniel Streett on his blog. All good sources, but again this appears to be a field where Campbell is not himself well educated, and so there is some deficiency, i would say, in his depth of knowledge of the area of SLA.

His main criticism is the difficulty in making this work on a large scale, and on a long scale. It is the critique of ‘this is too idealistic’, but also a hope that maybe it could possibly work.

The last section of this chapter deals with Greek retention, with a nod to Campbell’s own book Keep your Greek: Strategies for Busy People, a volume that I am still bewildered every became a print book, since it’s more or less a glorified collection of blog posts with a bunch of hints that you could probably brainstorm yourself if you had some time. I’m not sure this section adds much to this book either, since it appears to be a description of the other books contents and a mild plug to buy it and keep reading Greek.

Overall, Campbell has succeeded in this volume to do what he set out to – introduce some issues of current Greek scholarship to those who ought to know about them but perhaps do not and furthermore, need a helping hand to even start to approach these areas. However the book as a whole lacks some depth, and parts of it appear too cursory, perhaps too surface overall. Campbell’s book is to be applauded for indeed finding and filling a hole, and we can only hope that these areas of research reach a broader audience.

The New understandings in Greek, Part 2: Aktionsart

So last time I talked about the shift from thinking about Greek as tense based/focused to aspect focused. Another term that you can hear a lot about these days is Aktionsart.

But what is Aktionsart?

The bad news is that people use this term in different ways. The word Aktionsart means ‘type of action’. So we’re interested in what type of action a verb is describing.

The main disjunct is that Aktionsart is sometimes used for the type of action embedded in the meaning of a word. This is Lexical Aktionsart. Here’s an example: eating a pizza. This action has a natural endpoint (when all the pizza is gone and in my belly). Compare, sitting at my desk. ‘sitting’ does not have a natural endpoint. I could sit at my desk forever. Lexical Aktionsart is invariant, and it’s probably more common to talk about Aktionsart as Lexical Aktionsart outside the Greek grammar world.

Sometimes Aktionsart is used to describe Aspect. This is a problem in some older Grammars, and is mainly just a terminology confusion. If you encounter this, just be clear about what the Author is actually discussing.

Thirdly, Aktionsart can be used to describe the ‘type of action’ “as it happens out there in the real world”. I.e., the action that our words are talking about, as an external, objective, action, what sort of action is/was it?

Lexical Aktionsart and this third type of Aktionsart are considerably different: L.Ak is intrinsic to the word (lexeme). This third type, which at least for today I’m going to call ‘Objective Aktionsart’, depends primarily on the action/event itself, and has to be figured out from context. But then there’s a kind of fourth way of talking about Aktionsart that is (1) Lexical Aktionsart possibilities + (2) Aspect and Tense-Form + (3) Usage in a clause/context = (4) ‘Aktionsart’. This I would call something like pragmatic Aktionsart. It’s an analysis of ‘type of action’ conducted post-factum once you put together everything you know about the verb and its context.

So, how do we get to some actual Aktionsarten?

Vendler classified verbs into four categories:

  1. Activity: has duration but no end point (progressive, atelic): I am sitting
  2. Accomplishment: has duration and end point (progressive, telic): I am writing a blog post
  3. Achievement: no duration but has an end point (instantaneous, telic): I had an idea
  4. State: has duration but not a process

You can often test whether a verb/clause works for a category by the type of adverbial phrase you can add:

Activity: I sat for 10 years (duration of time without a telos)

Accomplishment: I wrote a blog post in 10 minutes (fixed duration of time with end point)

Achievement: I had an idea at 2:37am (specific instant of time)

But wait… what about something that has no duration, and is also atelic? Bernard Comrie came up with a category for this: semelfactive. This includes actions like ‘sneeze’ and ‘knock’. They are instantaneous but they do not have an ‘end’ per se. Another way to put this is that the difference between an achievement and a semelfactive is that the former has involves a change of state (idea-lessness, idea+fullness), whereas the latter does not (before and after I sneeze, I am still in the same condition of being).

Another category is added in RRG (Role and reference grammar), ‘active achievements’; one does this by creating a complex or compound, i.e. by taking an activity and adding an end point:

Mike Aubrey wrote for months    – Activity

Mike Aubrey wrote a thesis – Active Achievement

(I use Aubrey because that’s where I stole the last category from in writing this post) So now we’re up to six categories.


  Static? Dynamic? Telic? Punctual?
State +
Activity +
Accomplishment +
Semelfactive ± +
Achievement + +
Active Achievement + +


Okay, so that’s a linguistics-derived model of Aktionsart. How does this feed into Koine Greek grammar?

What I tend to see in writing about Greek grammar is a kind of blend of lexical, pragmatic, and objective Aktionsart. This is confusing! For example, two Aktionsarten often mentioned are iterative and conative. These are repeated actions, and attempted actions, respectively. These certainly aren’t (usually) lexical Aktionsarten; they can be objective Aktionsarten. Usually they are talked about as pragmatic Aktionsarten. What’s a poor student to do?

Here’s the type of list you might encounter among Greek grammarians:

  1. Conative: The action was attempted but not accomplished. (from the Latin conari, to try, attempt, endeavour). ex. I tried to study (Greek grammar, but it was too hard)
  2. Gnomic: The action is universal/timeless/generic. ex. Those that study, learn.
  3. Ingressive: The action began and is in progress. (Latin ingredi, to undertake, begin) . Ex. I began to study.
  4. Iterative: The action occurs repeatedly (though not constantly). (Latin, iterare, to repeat, redo) I keep studying Greek (to no avail).
  5. Progressive: The action is in progress. Ex. I am studying Greek (fruitlessly)
  6. Punctiliar: The action is presented as instantaneously done. I handed in that exam paper.
  7. Summary: The action is presented as a unitary or summary action. I studied Greek.

Some of these categories are pragmatic, but not all.

Take home value for the Greek reader:

  1. It’s really important that you understand the difference between Lexical Aktionsart and ‘pragmatic’ Aktionsart. Lex.Ak. is all about the lexeme, about the level of the word. It doesn’t change. Because it’s lexical. It’s actually better to think about Lexical Aktionsart as a range of possibilities, because a single verb (such as to study) can have different Aktionsarten depending on how it’s used:

A: I have been studying Greek all year. – Activity.

B: I studied this Greek text book. – Accomplishment.

But at the same time there are some Aktionsarten that to study cannot have. For example ‘study’ is not stative.

  1. So you need to think through what’s inherent to the word, and what is variable.
  2. Then you need to think through the use of the word in a clause and context. In Greek, this is going to mean considering the aspect and the tense-form, and the modifiers if any, and the context of the clause. All of these are going to shape how you understand the ‘objective occurrence in the world’ that the utterance is referring to.
  3. Only then can you really slap some kind of Aktionsart label onto something like ‘conative’ or ‘iterative’.

This is why I said at the start you can almost ignore Aktionsart. Aktionsart doesn’t actually tell you anything, it helps you articulate what you ought to already know. It gives you a set of categories and a grid of perception to think through what is actually being described, i.e. the ‘type of action’. And then, when you’ve thought that process through, you have a label to stick on it. But Aktionsart is not a category that actually gets you there – it’s not like tense-form or aspect or even person, number, mood, etc..

To put this another way, if I tell you something is perfective or imperfective, it changes how you look at that verb and think about it. If I tell you its Aktionsart, I haven’t told you anything that you couldn’t put together from the pieces of the puzzle in the first place, and so you haven’t necessarily gained any new information. Pragmatic Aktionsart is a post-factum description of what’s going on once you know what’s going on, not a prior piece of working out what’s going on.

I’m not sure I’ve really quite succeeded in this post to explain Aktionsart in a way that’s clear and accessible. I might need to give it another go. Let me know how this helped you or didn’t.

The New understandings in Greek, Part 1: Verbs, Aspect and Tense

A couple of people asked me how to go about getting up to speed on the ‘newer ways’ of talking about Ancient Greek that have become current in the last few years. In this and subsequent posts I will try my best to provide a relatively accessibly explanation of the major shifts in some of these areas, particularly for those who were trained in Koine Greek in traditional classes and are mostly used to older terminology.

This week we’re talking about the Greek verbal system.

If you pick up a traditional grammar textbook, the presentation of Greek verbs tends to break things down primarily by tenses: Present, Imperfect, Aorist, Future, Perfect, Pluperfect. Often introduced in that order too (The future gets moved around a little bit). Basically you’re taught to treat these like English tenses, with some minor modifications:

Present = English General Present & Present Continuous

Imperfect = English Past Continuous (and Past General)

Aorist = English Simple Past (and gets talked about as ‘punctiliar’, even ‘once for all’)

Future = English Future

Perfect = English Past Perfect (have verbed) (and gets talked about as ‘past with present consequences)

Pluperfect = English Further Past Perfect (had verbed)

There are advantages to this system: it actually works reasonably well as a short-hand guide for translation. It also makes things readily accessible to someone who only knows English.

But, there are several problems with this approach. Firstly, it does a very poor job of explaining tense-choice outside the indicative. Secondly, it is the outcome of an attempt to impose a Latinate grammar structure onto Greek. And that’s not good for Greek. As a Latinist, let me say this isn’t Latin’s fault. In English textbooks, it is often the relic of having tried to impose Latin grammatical categories onto English (also a bad way to do English grammar) and then onto Greek.

Introducing Aspect

Somewhere along the line grammarians woke up and realised linguistics existed. And that Latin was not the ur-language of the heavens (Gaelic is). And that other languages functioned with a category that we call Aspect. Aspect, as you can tell if you think about the word itself, is about how you view the action. In languages that have aspect, one reasonably common dichotomy is between a perfective and imperfective aspect.

perfective aspect means looking at the action as a whole, from an exterior viewpoint, as a complete entity

imperfective aspect means looking at the action in process, from an internal viewpoint, as an ongoing entity.

Both of these are choices of the speaker in describing the action, not features of the action itself. I can describe the same reality in two ways. For example,

  1. I studied Greek
  2. I was studying Greek

Sentence 1 is perfective, it describes this action as a whole, complete entity. Sentence 2 is imperfective, it describes this action as an ongoing process. This has nothing to do with tense.

Now, the closer we looked at Greek, the more we realised that Aspect was far more important to Greek than grammatical time (tense), and that the way Greek organised itself made Aspect (a) more fundamental, (b) not optional. By ‘not optional’ I mean that every time you use a Greek verb, you make a choice about aspect, you must make a choice about aspect. You don’t have to make choices about time.

As a consequence, the categories we call ‘tenses’ are not always tenses. That’s why you see a shift to calling them ‘tense-forms’, to highlight that they are forms more than simply tenses.

So we can reorganise those Greek verbs based on their aspect:

Perfective: Aorist

Imperfective: Present, Imperfect

Great, except this is only 3 out of 6 tenses. What about the other 3?

The perfect and pluperfect, when viewed in terms of aspect, turn out not to be perfective or imperfective but something else. And there isn’t consensus about how to describe that. It’s not helped that now we have some real terminological confusion: we’re talking about the ‘perfect’ tense-form, but it’s not perfective in aspect! One, fairly common, approach is to call it ‘stative’ in aspect, i.e. referring to a state of being. Con Campbell’s hypothesis is that both are actually imperfective, but that the perfect tense-form has ‘heightened proximity’ and the pluperfect tense-form has ‘heightened remoteness’. Personally, I’m persuaded by Mike Aubrey’s recent thesis, in which he says, ‘the perfect aspect refers to internal temporal structure that is either completed (completive) or exists as achieved state (resultative). It is inherently telic and will either assign an endpoint to a situation or event or denote the resultant state of that situation or event. As such, the perfect is both telic and bounded.’ (Appendix B, p199). That’s a bit complex and you can let it go over your head for now.

So there’s relative consensus that the perfect and pluperfect are doing their own thing, but there’s some discussion about what that thing is.

What about the future? Again, there’s some discussion, though generally the drift seems to be towards seeing the future tense-form as properly time significant before it’s aspectual. That is, because what demarcates the future is its time reference, there aren’t two or three different aspects for the future, there’s just the future that incorporates whatever aspect for the future tense.

What does this mean for the average Joe?

  1. It’s more important for Greek verbs to think about their aspect, before you think about their tense.
  2. Tense is almost always marked either by (a) the presence of the augment (i.e. usually the ἐ augment or its counterpart), or (b) determined contextually by things like adverbs or other indicators.
  3. The significance of choosing a tense-form lies first in considering its aspect, not in notions like ‘once for all’, ‘past with present consequences’, etc., which are almost always misleading suggestions.


Did this help you? Could something be explained better? Do you want to correct something I’ve said? Let me know in the comments below.

Next time I’ll talk about Aktionsart and why you can mostly ignore it most of the time.




Why Classical (Greek) students are better at Greek than Seminary students

I have taken courses in both disciplines, and taught students who have come out of both processes, and Classical students almost always have better Greek than NT students. There’s a very simple set of reasons for this though, and it doesn’t really have to do with NT students only doing Koine.

Classical students generally train in classical grammar, which on the whole is slightly more complex than Koine grammar. That’s just the reality of the process of koinification going on in the history of the Greek language.

They then move on to reading fairly demanding literature: Plato, Homer, Greek plays, Attic oratory. These are all high-level literary texts that demand a lot from their students. It’s functionally equivalent to taking a grammar class in English and then in your second year reading Shakespeare and the like.

Thirdly, depending on how they acquire their Greek, they are very likely in a multi-year program that involves reading a considerable amount of such Greek. If they’re a classics major, this is over 50, and up to 100% of their course-load for several years.

Seminary students, though, move from a a grammar class to reading the newspaper. The NT is not a high-register set of documents. It’s sophisticated, challenging, but its level of language isn’t and isn’t meant to be ‘Shakespearean’.

Secondly, they read a fairly closed corpus. Seminary students very rarely read outside the NT at all. In fact, it’s quite possible for them to get through Masters degrees without reading outside the NT. Only the few who are outliers, for whatever reason, will read outside that closed corpus, and even then it can be quite a limited foray.

Thirdly, working in Greek texts amounts to a small amount of most seminary programs. It would rarely rise about 25% of the course load, and overall may be somewhere closer to 10% of a whole degree program. That would only really change if there was some NT specialisation going on.

No one should be surprised then that seminary students come off poorly against students trained in Classical greek. It has very little to do with ‘rigour’ or approach, and mostly to do with sheer time and volume of material, and secondarily type of literature read, which is bleedingly obvious. Should seminary students ‘do more Greek’ and ‘read more widely’? Well, it wouldn’t be a bad thing, but most seminary students are training to be NT scholars, and just piling on more Greek has to mean less of other things.

There’s no punch-line to this post. No agenda or solution or suggestion. I’m just observing that this is the way things are and it’s entirely reasonable that things are this way.

Bridging the gap: some reflections on teaching Josephus

As I mentioned earlier, I spent the last week taking a small group through some selections of Josephus’ Antiquities.

In the course of doing so, it again struck me the great gap there is between training in Greek grammar and fundamentals, and reading actual texts. This was highlighted in the case of Josephus because there are so few actual resources to help the reader of the Greek. Indeed, I suspect that apart from Early Christianity scholars who dip into select passages for contextual purposes, most of Josephus doesn’t get read much in the Greek. It is far easier to rely on the translations by Thackery and Whiston, both of which are quite dated and so readily available. Josephus is quite long, and he is not in the ‘canon’ of classical texts.

If a student goes on to read a canonical text (Biblical or otherwise, I speak of the well-trod road of favoured classical texts to read), there are usually boundless helps available. For example, the student desiring to read Iliad book VI may well turn to the Bristol Classics Edition which will have invaluable aids, or the beloved Green and Yellow series of Cambridge, which will include more technical and literary commentary, or Steadman’s more recent volume with Vocabulary and Grammar notes.

The student who wants some commentary on Josephus could perhaps purchase one of the Brill commentary volumes, which retail for $100+ and cover at most 4 books from a work. While Feldman’s work is undoubtedly top-notch, it will not make it into the hands of many students, and few people are likely to read Josephus in any case. They certainly will not be encouraged to do so by the publication of these volumes.

I suspect the ‘old school’ mentality was that scholars would just ‘keep on reading Greek’, and consult their reference works, and figure out everything for themselves. But for anyone who hasn’t obtained this mastery with 15 years of reading and work, the gap remains too large, too difficult to leap by one’s own ability. All that is needed is a little bridging, a note here and there on usages that are unfamiliar, vocabulary that is odd, constructions that are difficult to understand, and students (and journeymen too!) could be reading a lot more texts, a lot more fluently.

Patristic Readers – Gregory of Nyssa’s Ad Ablabium

Just now I’ve posted up and released a pdf version of my Patristic Readers edition of Gregory of Nyssa’s Ad Ablabium.


Altogether, the number of hours for this volume is not staggering, but it has taken quite some time. I’ve refined my process for Greek quite well, and when I’m on task and working I get through things at a decent pace. However, there are many gremlins that slow things down, and working on something like this is distracting for the doctoral research, so I suspect it will be a little while before the next volume. The next one will involve a Latin Father, and so there is also some more ‘set-up’ time on the Latin front as well.

I’m moving towards some print volumes, my hold-up remains cover design but I think we’re making progress there. I’ll let you know.


Why accents matter

In this post I want to talk about why I think learning accents for Ancient Greek is important, and shouldn’t be put off.

The Case Against

First, let’s consider a case against accents. In Duff, “The Elements of New Testament Greek”, we are given three reasons:

1. Accents were not present in written Greek in the New Testament period.

2. The rules of accentuation are complicated, and you have enough to learn.

3. Accents don’t help you translate or understand Greek.


Duff immediately recognises that 3 is not strictly true, there are a few cases where accentuation does matter. However I am not convinced that 1 and 2 are really good reasons either. To discuss 1, I think this is a false appeal to NT writing. We don’t read 1st century manuscript writing anyway. Unless you do papyrus work, most students aren’t doing that. Most scholars aren’t doing that. So to be truly consistent on point 1, shouldn’t you teach Majuscule texts with no word divisions, and instruct students how to make word divisions on their own? I don’t think an appeal to 1st century “authenticity” will work on one basis (writing) when used to argue against another basis (pronunciation).

I also think 2 is a very poor pedagogical principle. It does match very well with what Duff writes on p1, that the aim of the book is “[t] help you learn enough Greek to read the New Testament”. That is a very truncated goal in itself. The NT is, give or take, 138,020 Greek words. That’s like one of the later books in the Song of Ice and Fire, or an overly long PhD dissertation. Imagine you learnt enough of a language to read one dissertation and that was it. How odd, we would say.

Principle 2 would, in my view, be equivalent to ‘admitting’, “hey, Greek is hard, it’s a language, and languages are hard, let’s teach you just enough to act like you almost knew Greek”.

A Case For

Here’s why I think accents should be taught from day 1:

Greek was not a ‘written-only’ language; there exist a very few languages that are designed not to be spoken, and Greek is not one of them. So that should remind us that there is an interplay between a once-spoken language and its written representation. Accent marks were added later, yes, but they were added to preserve information that is present in spoken Greek, and this is particularly useful to learners.

Latin actually provides a really good parallel here. We know that Latin has a distinction between short and long vowels: a, e, i, o, u, ā, ē, ī, ō, ū. But Latin writing doesn’t use macrons, only we do, in learner’s texts. Why didn’t Latin writing use macrons (in general, that is)? Because this information didn’t need to be marked – if you learnt to speak Latin you knew, by the sound, what was a long and what was a short vowel. But here is what’s key: vowel length carries semantic significance. Not always, and I’m sure L2 speakers made Latin blunders all the time and were yet understood, but est and ēst are two different words.

English readers generally have difficulty taking note of diacritical marks on letters, because we are used to operating in a Latin script that doesn’t utilise them, and in English they aren’t tremendously meaningful, because we, who speak English, already know how to pronounce English words. Though actually English proununciation is hell on earth.

Learning accentuation in Greek is forcing you to learn how to pronounce words accented correctly. It is an authenticity criterion just like Duff’s principle 1 is, but it goes the opposite direction: learn to accent correctly and you could read unaccented text fine, learn to read unaccented text and you will always struggle to accent correctly (like most of us!).

Hebrew vowel pointing provides a partial analogy. Everyone learns vowel pointing for Biblical Hebrew. Then, when you read an unpointed text, you can usually work out what’s going on. No one learns to read unpointed Hebrew, unless they learn to speak Hebrew in which case the Hebrew ‘is’ pointed, i.e. the vowel information is already encoded into the speaker’s mind.

It’s much harder to learn accentuation later. That’s because we treat it as ‘extra’ and so ‘extraneous’ data. By teaching it from day 1, we teach is as significant and as semantic, it carries differences in meaning that actually matter in the Greek, which is why if we’re actually teaching the Greek language, and not just hoping to pass a grammar exam and forget about Greek until the next sermon insight comes along, I argue for accents from the start.

How do you ‘fix’ textbooks? (with some thoughts on Aspect in Greek)

I mean, the answer is kind of simple. You edit and reprint them. If you’re the author.

I’ve had occasion this week to consult what Mounce, that most widely used Greek textbook, says about aspect.

Similarly, I also dipped into Duff. Now Duff is unfortunately a revision of Wenham which is a revision of Nunn. I’m sure some places out there are still using Wenham. I hope no one is still using Nunn! Duff’s 3rd edition from 2005 discusses Greek verbs on p66. It begins with tenses, and at least discusses aspect, saying that verbs encode both time and aspect. It lists the aspects like this:

  • Present tense: process or undefined
  • Future: undefined
  • Imperfect: process
  • Aorist: undefined

It also says that undefined is either ‘undefined’ or punctiliar in contrast to process.

I won’t hammer Duff on other issues (deponency, for one), at least today.

The perfect doesn’t appear in Duff until 16.1 (p179), he says the aspect is “completion”, which isn’t too far off, really. And he says the time is past and present, which is a little confusing I would think.

My problem with Duff is that the terminology is inconsistent, and that the presentation of aspect is muddled. Although I think Campbell is wrong about the perfect, one very helpful thing he achieved was to disentangle aspect from Aktionsart and to help people think of these separately. Punctiliar is a type of action, aktionsart, it doesn’t help us to use it for an aspect. “Undefined” is not a helpful label for an aspect, because it actually doesn’t tell you anything. The aorist tense-form is aoristic, i.e. undefined, but only in the language of Greek grammarians. In our language ‘undefined’ could be perfective or imperfective!

There are things we might disagree about, and there are things we just need to get clear. For instance, I think Duff is just wrong about the Present being ‘either’ “process or undefined”. But I think there are a number of things that have become reasonably clear in the last few years, and NT textbooks could serve us all well by revising themselves for their next reprint.

Adopt a clear terminology of, say, perfective vs. imperfective, divorce time from aspect, get rid of deponency language, and then use a clear terminology to state points of ‘position’.

Decker does this pretty well in his work, I don’t see why a revised Mounce or Duff couldn’t do likewise. If you want to say that time is encoded in verbs tense-forms, fine, just state it clearly. If you want to say that the perfect is imperfective in aspect, fine, just make it clear that that’s what your textbook is doing. Conflating categories and muddling terminology is not helping students in this field and isn’t going to set them up well for later on.

The Middle Voice (Greek): Thoughts and Pedagogy

Recently I’ve been thinking and reading more about the middle voice. It was first occasioned by some by-the-way comments in Aubrey’s thesis, p204-6. There he gives a typological table derived from Kemmer. Also, in some email exchange, he suggested I check out R.J. Allen’s doctoral thesis, “The Middle Voice in Ancient Greek. A study in Polysemy”, as well as Rachel Aubrey’s forthcoming thesis dealing with it.

I also had the chance to think about the middle in my “Methods” class, since the 1st year students are just hitting the issue of voice, and so I had the opportunity to interact with 2nd and 3rd years students and talk about the difficulty of teaching Greek voice.

I’m going to briefly summarise the typology of the middle voice that you find in Kemmer and Allen. Allen basically gives us 11 or 12 categories:

  1. Passive Middle: The Patient has subject status
  2. Spontaneous Process Middle: the subject undergoes an internal change of (physical) state.
  3. Mental Process Middle: The subject experiences a mental affectedness.
  4. Body Motion Middle: The subject causes a change of physical position to themself.
  5. Collective Motion Middle: The (plural) subjects move, i.e. gathering or dispersing.
  6. Reciprocal Middle: The (plural) subjects act so that A does to B what B does to A.
  7. Direct reflexive middle: The subject acts upon themself, usually in a habitual/customary action.
  8. Perception Middle: The subject perceives by means of the senses and so is both agent and experiencer.
  9. Mental Activity Middle: The subject acts within and upon their own mind, and so is both agent and experiencer (and possibly patient). This differs from 3 in that 9 is more reflexive, whereas in 3 the process may have an external stimulus.
  10. Speech act middle: The subject acts as speaker, but is involved also as beneficiary or experiencer.
  11. Indirect Reflexive Middle: The subject performs a transitive action but also functions as beneficiary of the action.
  12. At some point, Allen seems to treat δύναμαι as a distinct group.

I think having this kind of typology helps a student in their intermediate stages see how middles “involve the subject”, rather than the often place-holder explanations given in a beginner’s course. In each of these, except 1, you can begin to understand how the subject of the verb also takes a role as patient, experiencer, or beneficiary. This helps relate how these ideas are “middle” in the ‘logic’ of the Greek language.

It also helps to explain why deponency is a bad explanation for middle-only verbs. Middle-only verbs are ‘middle’ in the internal-logic of the Greek. We would call them middle verb-forms with middle ‘meaning’. It’s only in, say, English, that they are “middle in form but active in translation”. Translation and native-language meaning are two different things here.

One of the problems, pedagogically, is that when the middle voice is introduced in most textbooks, they have a fairly unclear way of explaining what to do with it. Basically, students are usually told: look at the active meaning of the verb, and come up with a way to ‘make it middle’. This doesn’t really help that much, I would say. It’s often better to (a) look up the word in a lexicon and check if there’s an entry for the middle, (b) consider the context of the word and how middleness might function, (c) if you’re a “think of the category” type person, having the kind of typology above would help you actually think through the various options.

The other thing about Allen’s thesis that’s nice is that it is about the diachronic changes in Greek, and he maps out some of the shift of the θη passive stem. I think it’s deadly confusing for Koine students in particular to talk about the passive as the passive. I can see now why it is that textbooks call this a passive stem; I would conjecture that it’s because when θη appears, it appears as a subset of the middle voice, but particularly expressing category 1, the true passive. But English learners function with an active/passive dichotomy, and so are more likely to overstate the passivity of the middle category. Learning/teaching that the passive is a subset of the middle helps to dislodge this idea.

On page 110, and 123, Allen has a couple of diagrams that show how, chronologically, the θη stem is ‘eating up’ other middle usages, a trajectory that continues beyond classical Greek, into the Koine period and beyond, until the middle gets devoured. θη is like the ‘cancer of the middle voice’ that cannibalises and colonises the other usages. Realising this for NT students is important because the passive marker isn’t distinctly passive and so does not necessarily carry exegetical significance. I think R. Buth made this point somewhere about ἐγείρω and the form ἠγέρθη(ν). (Sorry, I can’t recall where, and apologies if it wasn’t Buth). What’s the difference between Christ “being raised” and Christ “arose” (in the middle sense)? The θη doesn’t tell you which is meant. Exegetical restraint demands that you don’t try and make a theological point from a grammatical feature that won’t ‘bear that weight’.

What to do in the classroom? I’m still figuring that out. I think, personally, that I would go with these things though:

  • Teach two voices: Active and Subject-Reflexive.
  • Teach the passive as a subset of S-R.
  • Teach θη as an alternate middle stem, and give some reading material for advanced/interested students explaining its history.
  • Teach middle-only forms as just middle only, without making a big deal out of them.

Reading Aubrey’s Thesis (6)

Chapter 5 of Aubrey’s thesis returns to the stratosphere, as he takes the analysis done on the perfect in Koine Greek and then considers what this has to say/contribute to how RRG works as an approach for linguistics. Particularly, he wants to consider how the Bybee-Dahl approach of look at grams without prejudging meta-categories of aspect/tense/mood, can mesh with Bhat’s typology of looking at languages in terms of A/T/M prominence. An initial diagrammatic relaisation of that is given on p138. This realisation itself has problems, in that it is an idealisation. A more concrete, though still rather abstract, diagram of Koine Greek comes on p140.

p141 offers a diagram that goes back to typology of verbal operators in RRG. Can the approach to categories presented in Aubrey’s synthesis of Bybee-Dahl-Bhat be realised within this typology? Aubrey says perhaps not, and perhaps it’s not necessary anyway.

If you’re after some key pay-off for understanding Greek, p143 has some good material. Aubrey says that the perfect, like the future, is a peripheral category, and that as such they “are not inherently tense or aspect”. As far as this analysis goes, the perfect functions within the aspect system, because Greek is aspect prominent. The future appears ambiguous, because it almost doesn’t know whether it’s aspectual or temporal.

Chapter 6 is the Conclusion chapter, and if you’ve been lost, here is a chance to catch up. I’d like to emphasise the first sentence here, “The goal of this thesis was not so much to solve a problem, but to fill in a gap.” (p145) Aubrey’s thesis doesn’t ‘solve’ the Greek perfect, it seeks to expand the usefulness of RRG for certain areas of language description. But obviously this thesis has important implications for understanding Koine Greek. Indeed, note the sentence on p150 under “Possibilities for future research”, where he says, “If we evaluate the grammars of the past century in terms of Chomsky’s types of linguistic adequacy, they fail to even meet the standard of descriptive adequacy, much less explanatory adequacy.” ouch.

I won’t offer a read-through of the two appendices. Appendix A lists of all the verbs examined and their predicate classes. It is worth reading, because of the way it helps you understand that typology of predicate classes and how it relates to actual verbs and the actual research Aubrey has done.

Appendix B is probably of more interest to my general (minute) readership. It is an overview of the Greek verbal system. Why do you need to read this? Because probably all you have read is those inadequate grammars we mentioned above! The overview here is “independent of the traditional grammatical tradition in terms of categories and terminology” (p187) and so well worth your reading.


And that’s a wrap. Take home message: Greek perfects are resultative/completive grams operating in the aspect system. Or, to uncover Aubrey’s view of aspect from Appendix B (p199):

The Koine Greek verbal system has three aspects: perfective, imperfective, and perfect. The perfective aspect makes no reference to internal temporal structure and is contextually bounded in its interpretation. The imperfective refers to temporal internal structure that is incomplete. It is contextually unbounded. If it appears in a clause with a goal periphery, there is nothing to suggest the goal was achieved. Lastly the perfect aspect refers to internal temporal structure that is either completed (completive) or exists as achieved state (resultative). It is inherently telic and will either assign an endpoint to a situation or event or denote the resultant state of that situation or event. As such, the perfect is both telic and bounded.