Modern Greek, a summary and a new direction

Randall Buth ButhFam at
Sun Dec 17 11:46:58 EST 2000

Trevor & Julie Peterson egrapsen:
>One argument presented for learning Modern Hebrew is that it is a current,
>living language and as such affords an opportunity for interaction with a
>language community.  This is of course a critical factor in modern
>learning but usually doesn't play as much of a role in the way classical
>languages are taught.  

Unfortunately. That must change if scholars really want to understand and
control the languages. See below on correlation with Modern Hebrew.

> What do you think are
>the pros and cons of learning Modern Greek either prior or subsequent to
>learning Biblical Greek, specifically as a means to the end of better
>familiarity in working with Biblical Greek?  

If I had the time I would. A couple of acquaintances have. 
But my actions (or lack thereof) speak louder than my words, and I haven't
gone beyond half of the FSI Modern Greek Book One tapes 25 years ago.
however . . .

> And
>on a related note, what do you think would be the advantages or
>disadvantages to learning Biblical Greek with Modern pronunciation?  I
>personally appreciate correlation to the parallel questions pertaining to
>to a minimum or off-list.

For reading from a printed text, ALL (>99.9%) modern Greek speakers prefer
the modern pronunciation. That is a weighty argument for people with
multicultural sensitivities. Academics are not always aware of how
"unnatural", "offensive", "bad", "ridiculous", "non-Greek" they sound.
(quotations are from Greek speakers and/or those listening to 'academic
Greek', not from myself, though they are not the only viewpoint.)  I
changed from my 'first-learned academese' and I used the modern system for
twenty years so that occasional visits to Orthodox churches were
comprehensible and my option to learn modern Greek was being kept open.
Those are still valid reasons. 
But two things have led me to a change from 'modern'. 
1. As a linguist I am aware that when the Greek language went "all the way"
and adopted EI=I=H=OI=Y, the morphological load of the old language was too
heavy to be maintained. That is, the Greek language itself couldn't
maintain the 'classical'/'Koine' language with the reduced vowel system.
The most prominent example is HMEIS 'we' UMEIS 'you' that became
intolerable as [imis] so new forms [emis] and [esis] developed in the
spoken language and penetrated to the written language. To this
phonological example one could add the loss of future and subjunctive
morphological categories, the dative, and reversals like EINAI becoming 'he
is' instead of 'to be'.
2. The academic community, while sounding un-Greek and certainly out of
touch with Koine Greek facts on the ground, has strongly decided against
adopting modern Greek pronuciation. Point one above is usually given as a
reason, and then two different pronuciation systems result: (a) Erasmian,
which was an incorrect approximation to the old Attic (b) Allen-Daitz,
which is a purist approach to old Attic. Inertia has favored (a). So if I
want to interact with the academic and influence I need a more credible
case than simply Greeks use 'modern'.
As to what changes I've made see below.

** comparison Greek to Modern Hebrew / Biblical Hebrew model
Modern Hebrew is not a tight paradigm for the modern/ancient Greek question
for three reasons: 
(mh1) modern Hebrew morphology is virtually identical with old Hebrew. The
forms that one internalizes while using modern Hebrew are found in BH. That
can be observed by outsiders. [BH has extra forms that are not part of the
modern dialect, but what is used today is basically already found in the
bible.] this is not true for modern Greek.
(mh2) the phonology has only lost length, two low-frequency consonants
(tet, sin) and one high frequency (quf) in the mizraHi Israeli system. The
resulting ambiguities are internally tolerable and have not required
extensive morphological changes like modern Greek, though one cannot
predict what result in 100 to 500 years. For the present, things are OK.  
(mh3) second and third grade children read straight biblical narrative,
which testifies of internal  dialectical closeness beyond what my Greek
friends experience.
One might add, though, that some religious communities in Israel maintain
their various traditional/historical pronunciations for reading the bible
in the synagogue. That might be an appropriate example for using a Koine
pronunciation [NB: that does not mean 'Erasmian'] that is different from

There is a way out:

1. Use a pronunciation that 
a. sounds 'Greek'
b. maintains sufficient distinctions for the language
c. is historically justifiable/defensible

For Koine, such a compromise exists. The roman period Koine used the
following seven vowels 
EI=I, H, AI=E, A, W=O, OU, OI=U (this is easily demonstrated from most any
collection of 20 or more popular papyri. Like from Bar Kochba or Babata
where HNUGMENON = 'opened'[HNOIGMENON], IS = 'into'[EIS],  PEMSE = 'to
send' [PEMYAI]. In Egyptian papyri examples are a dime a dozen.)
If one adds the basically modern consonant system you have something pretty
close to what Origen or Eusebius would have understood without any
difficulty. It is a historically 'real' system that was tolerated
well-enough to be stable from 150 BCE to 350 CE. Such a system means that a
person would relate to a written text with roughly the same kind of
phonemic, homonymic, alliterative and assonantial grid as NT writers. As an
additional blessing, it is tolerably 'Greek' to modern ears. But the
clincher is the next point. 

2. Use the language for communication

The only known, guaranteed method of learning a lanugage is to use it. Any
adult user of a second language knows this and can easily compare the gap
between a 'fluent language' and a 'reading-only language'.

- - - for Hebrew, I recommend that any graduate student immediately PLAN
one to two years in a Hebrew speaking environment. They will never regret
it. Never met one who did. [most students that put off such plans 'til
after a phd' either regret it or deaden the memory. a further warning of
special dangers: seminary graduates who come to Israel regularly complain
of a kind of 'invisible wall' that takes them 6 months to a year to break
through, if they ever do.  the rarest of all on a positive side, I also
know a handful of 'post-doc's who came to Israel and after uphill struggles
finally learned Hebrew. They don't regret a minute and use those very
words: 'I finally learned the language'.] - - -

For GREEK: (those of you still reading are serious, so I expect some
follow-up proposals)
Language use without a natural community is a challenge. How can one be

a. pray at least one sentence every morning from something that you
yourself want to say.

b. communicate in Greek with those of like interest. [Purists needn't fear
mis-learning. From whevever they start, they will only improve, and without
this they will certainly be worse off and remain 'impure' in the name of
purity. Using a language has a way of continually self-correcting, at least
if one is looking for correction. ] 

c. point 'b' could lead to a KOINE GREEK list, where the main rule would be
that communication would all be in Greek. 
(maybe someone could give some direction from esperanto experience? or
modern latin use?) 
Such a list would need a host site (I have nothing to offer personally), 
technical backup (nothing to offer), and 
moderators who would be willing to invest considerable time with answers or
with finding a balance on self-corrective discussions about koine
vocabulary/syntax in exchanges (nothing to offer. I would join, follow and
interact with such a list but cannot see beyond time constraints for
another year.)  

And if any of you follow up with points 'a' 'b' and 'c', you will probably
not want to sound absolutely un-Greek after all of the re-investment and
struggle. (If those in the Erasmian community were fluent with the
'academic' system I would listen. Since I haven't met such people, I'm off
on a historical path more likely to be correct and to please Greek
speakers.) So (re)consider proposal 1 on pronunciation.


Randall Buth

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