How we know what we know--about Koine?

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at
Mon May 6 21:13:52 EDT 2002

So far nobody has offered any response to Glenn Blank's challenge which I
forwarded to the list Saturday afternoon with the subject-header perhaps
implying a bigger question than those more explicitly asked in Glenn's
message: How do we know what we know about Koine Greek? or, How do we know
whether we're rightly understanding the forms of verbs and nouns and other
speech-parts employed in Greek discourse, the syntactic relationships
between those elements, the connotations and denotations of words used in
particular contexts, etc., etc., etc.? Glenn has formulated the question
partly in response to Mark Wilson's current endeavor to make the case that
iterative verbs are spread more or less uniformly amongst perfective and
imperfective verb-forms (and, I suppose Mark would probably intend, for
uniformity's sake, to include stative verb-forms in this package) and he
has pinpointed the problem which the NON-NATIVE learner of Greek has when
attempting to understand differences of aspect and Aktionsart in Greek
verb-forms. But a similar "meta-linguistic" question could be raised about
how the NON-NATIVE learner of Greek can come to understand the ways in
which dative and genitive case-forms are used in (Koine) Greek to represent
relationships which in one's own language, whether English, Danish, Korean,
or what-have-you, are not represented in any comparable manner of

I have had students in Greek classes say to me, on occasion, something
like: "It is absolutely impossible to learn this language, and the notion
of getting to 'think like a Greek' is utterly inconceivable."

My response is perhaps a naive one; certainly it is not philosophically or
psycholinguistically sophisticated. It is a fact, I think, that non-natives
DO learn foreign languages, some far more successfully than others, to be
sure, but many become quite competent or proficient and become
"interpreters" conveying the sense of what is spoken in one language to
those who cannot understand that language. These are termed in Greek
hERMHNEUTAI, a curious word that seems to indicate that some divine
assistance from the sphere of Hermes must play a role in this journey of
discourse across the no-man's-land that divides the earthly tribes of
humanity reft from one another at Babel. At any rate, some really DO learn
foreign languages, learn to speak them, learn to read them--fluently--and
yes, learn to THINK in them. And there seem to be some who even approach
this ability to read more-or-less fluently, even THINK in a language that
is DEAD or that is pretty-far removed from any modern dialectal variant of
an ancient language such as Koine Greek.

How is that possible? I believe it is possible primarily because there has
been an unbroken succession of heirs of the teachers and learners who were
taught by those who came in exile to Florence and elsewhere in Europe from
fallen Constantinople, those who were among the key players in fomenting
the Renaissance as well as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the
early centuries of the modern era in Europe. There is a LORE that has been
transmitted over the centuries from teachers and older students to new
generations of students. We who have endeavored to learn ancient Greek
"today" owe a debt that we can never fully appreciate to the generations
who have sustained and promulgated that lore.

"But they taught lots of grammatical notions that are simply wrong!" They
may indeed have taught SOME grammatical notions that are WRONG (I happen to
think they've made the phenomena of Greek voice more complicated and
unintelligible than they need to be), but they have taught FAR more things
that are RIGHT.

Are the Greek primers and Greek textbooks all wrong? Hardly. Are some far
better than others? Certainly. Is there any single reference
work--grammatical, lexical, other--that should be accepted in every
instance at face-value as "gospel" truth? Certainly not, but as with the
primers and textbooks, so some of the lexica and reference grammars are
superior to others, while not a single one deserves to be accepted in any
or every instance: the best are those that offer evidence for what is
asserted, evidence that the mature user should evaluate for him or herself.

Do we need new models for understanding basic structures of ancient Greek?
Perhaps so, and certainly attempts to make the basic structures of ancient
Greek more intelligible and more easily taught and learned are welcome, but
any new model presented is going to have to demonstrate its usefulness in
scholarly intercourse and even more in the classroom.

I venture to say that, although there are some primers and reference works
that I would not recommend in any circumstances I could imagine, most of
what's set forth in the grammar books and reference works is probably about
right. Some things in particular books may be wrong; others are so poorly
explained that they might as well be wrong. Nevertheless, there are 'quite
a few' primers and reference works in Koine Greek from which one can begin
to learn the language and make progress toward learning to read it and even
think in it.

Are we better off today, as students of Greek, than those who learned their
Greek from Renaissance schoolmasters in the 15th and 16th centuries? I
think that's rather questionable. Certainly there have been steps forward
toward improving upon traditional understandings of the way Greek
works--real steps forward, but, I think, RELATIVELY TINY steps forward. I
doubt that ANY reader of Greek literature today understands that literature
and language in anything like the breadth and depth and detail in which the
fifteenth- and sixteenth-century gentleman-scholars (and lady scholars
too!) who learned their Greek in the Renaissance schools, understood it.
One major reason for that is that they read Greek voluminously and learned
to write it too: they certainly DID learn to THINK in Greek.

At any rate, I don't think that the body of lore upon which the teaching
and learning of Koine Greek rests is essentially deficient or arbitrary.
And I think that, by and large, its principles and accounting for
grammatical structures and word-forms and word-order and denotations and
connotations of words, etc., etc., really are verifiable/falsifiable: the
accounts offered in the grammars for verbal aspect may not be perfect or as
intelligible as we could wish, but they can be checked against sample texts
in widely-varied contexts and shown to be valid or not--or ultimately,
what's most important, one who has learned them can attain a degree of
comfort in reading Greek, perhaps to some degree thinking in the language
(Randall Buth would affirm that, I'm sure) and feel no small degree of
confidence that one really does understand what one is reading.

Perhaps Glenn had something different, something far more sophisticated, in
mind when he spoke of "long-standing questions about how we come to know
what we know about Koine Greek." My own simplistic answer is that, more
than any other way, we come to know what we know about Koine Greek in the
same way that we come to know our native language at any advanced level:
through absorption of the lore handed down to us by countless generations
of teachers and students, but most of all through long, recurrent, and
profound association with what has been left us by native-speakers as a
wondrous heritage of magnificent, inspiring, and inspired literature.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Emeritus)
Most months:: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
cwconrad at OR cwconrad at

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