Modern Greek, ... a new direction-Peterson

Randall Buth ButhFam at
Mon Dec 18 18:25:16 EST 2000

>> That is, the Greek language itself couldn't
>> maintain the 'classical'/'Koine' language with the reduced vowel system.
>Good point.  And that certainly is an obvious drawback.  On the other
>it doesn't seem to hamper the ability of modern Greeks to read the text
>their own pronunciation system or to understand the different grammar of
>biblical material.  (Or does it?)

"Or does it?"--They themselves may not be aware that they are not composing
in the old language but are reading from fixed texts. They can't say UMEIS
as a single word answer to 'us or you?'. Koine could.

>> So if I
>> want to interact with the academic and influence I need a more credible
>> case than simply Greeks use 'modern'.
>And obviously, it would be a good thing to maintain facility with the
>Erasmian system.  Of what I was able to dig up in the archives, there was
>good apologetic for this notion by Edward Hobbs from 8/2/96.  He does add,
>though, that it would be worthwhile to learn Modern Greek in addition to
>Koine with Erasmian pronunciation.

What does 'facility' mean? Are there fluent Erasmian speakers? 
So why use Erasmian? It's backwards. They [Erasmians] took
"modern/lateKoine" fi/theta/chi but mixed them with Attic/earlyKoine
beta/delta/gamma. Then they bring EI and HTA close together or the same,
when EI was joined with I in Koine. They join OU with U.  And if Luke or
Paul would not have HEARD the difference between ECWMEN and ECOMEN we can
feel their ambiguity and their less than felicitous wording.  
[The most common reason given is that academics use Erasmian so it is
necessary for conferences and such. BUT Erasmian users at a conference
can't understand a text when it is read, anyway, at least not when the text
is over a handful of words . Everyone relies on a written text.]

>> 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
>> 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.
>So essentially, you're advocating a reconstructed early CE Koine

(With practical compromises, like using theta and fi instead of the first
century Teta and Pi. Western European languages don't phonemicize aspirated
stops versus unaspirated stops.)

>Of course, there is a similar approach to Biblical Hebrew
>which strives for a reconstructed Masoretic pronunciation.  I suppose
>there's less need for such a compromise in light of the distinct
>to using Modern Hebrew, 
yes, modern Hebrew offers distinct advantages. 
But even more importantly, the Massoretic system is only a PHONETIC system
from the end of the first millenium CE. The Qimchi-sefardic system actually
preserves the older five vowel system from second temple times (minus
length). In this case the modern system ends up closer to the biblical
language than the massoretic. NB (=note well!): the massoretic system
faithfully recorded the phonemic vowels the older system--when interpreted
according to Qimchi.

>I wonder if you would mind elaborating a bit more on the vowel system of
>that period.  In your brief summary above, you don't say what the
>pronunciation would be for the OI=U pair.  Would it follow the German
>u-umlaut analogy typically offered for U or the English oy analogy for OI?

german umlaut.

>Also, what would you do with AU, UI, and EU/HU?

I keep UI distinct, on the basis of a 1st century papyrus that 
spells 'to the son' as OIEIW
OI and EI appear to have separate status.

Currently, I use 'v' and 'f' for AU, EU and HU, though I am drifting toward
using the 'Spanish' bilabial fricatives as more authentic. 

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

Not a bad idea.  I've already started to move toward this with Hebrew and
Syriac.  (Somehow it doesn't feel quite right in Akkadian!)  I have a
in the same program who talks to himself in the languages he's learning.
>but I've
>actually contemplated the possibility of establishing ancient-language
>communities where language learning could be dealt with from a more
>immersion-type approach. 

We already have a Living Biblical Hebrew ulpan here in the summer. However,
we don't mix any modern into it nor do we invent new words since the
language has already developed its own choices. Students interested in
going on in Hebrew find that they can move into modern Hebrew "seemlessly"
and without the "invisible wall" I mentioned in the last email.

> Languages like Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac, where
>modern equivalents do exist, would be a good starting point.  

Personally, I think not for Syriac, which is like Greek. My landlord speaks
an aramaic dialect (Zacho). 
He can't understand the old targum. 
But Hebrew already works.

> and set up some sort of "language camp," where
>perhaps for a whole summer or semester (or longer if feasible) students
>could come and live in a setting where only that language, 

So when do you arrive in Jerusalem?

>according to the best available information and adapted as necessary from
>the modern speech community, is allowed.  After some techniques were
>developed and perfected, 

Fluency is actually more important that a slow 'biblical only'. 
I've come to a conclusion that with best techniques students could reach an
intermediate level Biblical Hebrew overseas (in current programs students
and most teachers never pass a "beginner's" level of fluency) but it they
want true fluency they will have to 'bite the bullet' and learn modern
Hebrew. There simply isn't enough money and material to drill and immerse
the student into the 'half a language' that remains of Biblical Hebrew.
Mishnaic Hebrew is a different question, but most just jump in from modern.
I am more optimistic for Koine Greek because it has a much larger ancient
vocabulary than Hebrew. 

On techniques, 'dead languages' do have special considerations, though if
it is possible to learn a modern language in a classroom outside of the
community, then it is possible to learn a biblical language 'outside the
community'. Now if only the Monterrey Department of Defense Institute would
fund it!

Randall Buth
Chair, Hebrew Language
Jerusalem University College
Buth at

More information about the B-Greek mailing list