Greek for ‘that’s interesting’…

There’s two types of modern expressions that present difficulty for speaking ancient languages:

  • names for things they didn’t have
  • expressions for things they didn’t say

In many cases (1) isn’t so bad. You just have to neologise. How do you say helicopter, television, mobile (=cell) phone, etc etc..? Even coffee, tea, present problems, but not insurmountable ones. For Latin, with its longer continual history, it’s often easier. For speaking ancient Greek modernly, various strategies can be used: adapting an ancient word with a similar meaning; using the Greek equivalent to a Latin word used for the same modern thing; deriving a (sometimes entirely fictive) ‘ancestor’ form for a contemporary Greek word.

The second issue is much more problematic. Consider the expression, “It’s interesting…”. In Latin, we can use phrases involving studiumstudium me tenet, studium me excitat, and the like. Greek is, it seems, more tricky.

I asked my good friend Στέφανος about this, as I often do, and he proffered a few suggestions:

διαφέρει — it’s important

ἄξιον σπουδῆς — something worthy of zeal/esteem/effort

προσέχω τινὶ τὸν νοῦν, τὸν νοῦν ἔχω πρός τινα – expressions for paying attention to something.

 

None of these, as he recognised, quite fits. We want something for “here is a thing that is worth paying attention to/thinking about”.

But perhaps we can build off these. ἄξιον + infinitive makes a good impersonal structure for “worth doing X”. So…

ἄξιον τοῦ τὸν νοῦν προσέχειν – worth paying attention to

ἄξιον διαλέγεσθαι – worth talking about

ἄξιον ἐπὶ ᾧ νομίζειν – worth thinking on,

ἄξιον μελετᾶσθαι – worth contemplating

 

Take these out for a spin, let me know what you think.

On neglecting, or choosing not to learn, new languages

I always marvel when scholar X talks about ‘picking up a new language’ like it’s nothing. Or even like it’s something. Perhaps I’m actually bad at languages. (I don’t believe that people are good or bad at languages, aka language aptitude).

For myself, I made a conscious decision to not continue investing in more languages. I’ve written previously about my experiences, learning (to one degree or another) some Japanese, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Mongolian, and Scottish Gaelic, and superficial dabblings in French and German.

I’ve reached a point in life where I know that I do not have the time, either week by week, or long term, to truly learn French of German to a useful point. I have largely abandoned them. My Hebrew is… rusty. 3 years of grammar and exegesis at seminary were indeed useful, but the apex of my Hebrew ability is gone.

And yet, I do not mourn these, except insofar as I mourn the opportunity lost of many good things in this life. But my choice is not a passive one, it’s a very intentional and active one.

It’s the choice to pursue few languages deeper. I want to know Greek, Latin, and Gàidhlig really, really well. ‘Superior Speaker’ well. ‘Read any text with relative ease’ well. Converse with comfort well. And that takes a lot more focus, dedication, and narrowing, than ‘learning’ 15 languages would, or worse, 15 grammar + dictionary usage abilities.

I’ve been at these three a long time now. And not always efficiently. Well, not always optimally. The longer I’m in this game, the better I understand the game itself, getting better at learning languages, and learning these three better.

Reading in 3s

This was mentioned to me by a student recently in a small group class that I am kind-of mentoring, and I think it’s worth adapting and sharing. The original idea, or at least where the student got it from, is Daniel Wallace, here. It’s the idea that you should translate each chapter of the New Testament three times, and rotate chapters in and out of rotation.

Now, I don’t really think you should be translating, I think you should be reading passages at a level you can comprehend with just a little bit of help. But I do think this idea has a lot of merit. Here’s how I’m implementing it in my own readings: the rule of 3s (see also Where Are Your Keys technique: Three Times)

So, say I’m reading a text, like Ørberg’s Roma Aeterna (which I happen to be. Everyone raves about the first book, Familia Romana, and for good reason, but the second book might be even more well-thought out than the first, for different reasons). I decide that reading 3 pages of text is enough for each reading session (i.e. each day or so), and so I read like this:

Day 1: Pages 1, 2, 3.

Day 2: Pages 2, 3, 4

Day 3: Pages 3, 4, 5 etc..

This is a really helpful reading strategy for comprehension and for repetition. After you “get-going” in a text, 2/3 of your reading will be re-reading. So you get a chance to tackle that material two extra times before leaving it behind. It should be easier those times, right? So you’re getting repetition, and slightly spaced repetition, but you shouldn’t be getting bored or overwhelmed, because you’re moving forward.

Also, your new material for the day is contextualised. You don’t have to pick it up and wonder where you were and what was going on. You create your own lead-in to the new section of material.

You can do this on a page level, or multiple pages, or sections, or however your text is divided and however you want to carve it up. Just remember that you’re probably better underestimating your ability to get through text, than being gung-ho ambitious at the start. You can always scale your reading up, but if you start with overly high expectations you may end up giving up rather than scaling down.

This is one approach I’m trying for extensive reading with a few texts I’ve got “on the slow burner” at the moment. Try it out and let me know how it goes for you.

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:

Why I do Sub-Optimal Language Exercises

Why bother doing anything but the best types of language acquisition activities?

I’m a firm believer in Comprehensible Input, and fairly sold on Krashen et al., that CI is the key to language acquisition. I don’t quite buy Krashen’s “strong” version that nothing but CI is necessary, because I think he’s framing the question a little incorrectly. Krashen these days makes a strong claim that CI, only CI, is sufficient by itself for language acquisition. I think this might be true, but there are other aspects of language competency that are perhaps not quite ‘acquisition’. The ability to speak, write, produce output is probably a secondary outcome of acquisition, but in my view and experience one still needs some practice in these output skills in order to actually output.

Anyway, I do all sorts of activities that are not optimal CI activities. I read texts too difficult for me. I do ‘composition’ exercises that are really translation exercises of banal sentences from English to Greek/Latin. Lately I have been working on an idiosyncratic but modern translation of the New Testament (I’ll write more about that individually later on). Why? Why waste time?

  1. Don’t wait for the best.

There is no way to get optimal CI in Greek or Latin. There’s no language community, there’s no children’s cartoons, there’s no 5 levels of graded readers about contemporary society, there’s no young adult extensive reading materials available. One will never derive enough genuine CI from currently available resources.

  1. Output exercises are nonetheless moderately useful.

Because (a) they develop output automaticity, even if no new language is being acquired. And because (b) the process of doing the exercises does involve some CI even if suboptimal.

  1. The art of translation is itself an art to be acquired.

While it’s generally and genuinely preferable, in my view, to work mentally in the target language, there are times when one will want to translate – in either direction. There are structures of phrasing and thought that come to one naturally, and in the absence of knowing a target language structure, you tend to code switch or break thought. Working systematically to acquire some of these structures will improve translation ability.

  1. For others

I think a previous generation thought you acquired language competency largely by suffering and toil. They were wrong about that, but using sub-optimal methods requires suffering and toil because the amount of time required to get the same amount of genuine CI is so much more. The only way we will produce teachers who are competent enough to utilise more-optimal methods is if we have teachers who are prepared to suffer a little to acquire by the hard way, and generous enough to pass that on by an easier way.

Like a broken record

Q: Patrologist, why do you talk so endlessly about language acquisition?

A: Because our field is so broken. In no other field do so many people who know their target language so poorly talk with such authority. I honestly wish it wasn’t necessary, that we rather lived in a time, an age, a place, where we took for granted that people who studied ancient Greek literature knew ancient Greek, where people learned in Hebrew had learned Hebrew, where scholars of Latin had been schooled in Latin. But we do not live in such a mythical land, we live in its counterfeit where people peddle outdated methodologies to reach inadequate heights.

I believe this is changing, but slowly, and only because some are agitating – pointing out that the Emperor does indeed have no clothes. You can try it at home – approach a Greek professor or a NT one or whatever, and initiate a Greek language conversation. If you don’t get a quick χαῖρε, ὦ μαθητά, πῶς ἔχεις σήμερον; then there really is something wrong.

On the flipside, all I am saying is that we apply Best Practices from contemporary Second Language Acquisition to classical and biblical studies. This should be the least controversial thing in the world. And all I am discussing is how we can do that. There is a long road ahead of us. That’s why I keep talking about the same things over and over. Until the revolution comes.

Why there’s no communicative language approaches in classics in Australia

1. Like most places, Classics and Biblical studies are dominated by teachers who didn’t train in language teaching, know little about language acquisition, and never acquired an active ability in their chosen languages.

2. The population is comparatively small.

3. Modern language teaching in Australia does not have even the small dedicated movement of those interested in fully communicative approaches (TPR, TPRS, etc..), and so there is no possibility of spill-over into classical languages.

4. There’s thus no opportunity for teachers to attend workshops, seminars, etc., to be exposed or trained in these techniques.

5. Most online classes are run in what, for Australians, is the middle of the night, or the mid-morning of the workday, limiting the possibility of participation.

6. Summer intensives, say like those run in the States, Europe, or Israel, all occur in the Summer. Which is not summer in Australia, and so is not the summer break. Due to the extreme distance involved in travel, to participate in one of those intensives (any of them) would cost, I have calculated, anywhere between $3300 and $6800 dollars, and generally one would not get away with less than $4500.

7. The (small) population that are interested in classical languages generally don’t know about communicative approaches to these languages, don’t realise the benefits, don’t understand much about language acquisition, and are often monolingual to begin with, so there is little drive for such an approach.

 

 

Of course, there could be people doing things I haven’t heard about. If you’re in Australia doing communicative-type methods for classical languages, get in touch and tell me I’m wrong!