How we know what we know--about Koine?

Chuck Tripp ctripp at
Mon May 6 23:28:42 EDT 2002

I guess I'll throw in a observation or two which are drawn from my personal
experience.  I have at times wondered how sure we are of what we think we
know about Koine.  I am kind of a skeptic at heart in a way.

My personal experience with languages kind of run the gamet.  I learned of
course my native language which is english.  When I was about 14, I was put
in a set of circumstances where I was in a French school where all the
instruction was in French and picked it up by immersion at a time when I
could kind of observe the process.  For the first two years of this
experience, I only spoke English at home.  After that at college, I only
spoke English at church on Sunday.  By the time I was about 19 or so, my
French was better than my English and in general people did not know I was
English speaking unless I told them.

In college, I took a year of Spanish with a great eagerness to learn it.  I
have not had anything like the immersion oppurtunity I had with French.  I
can follow the news or conversations spoken in fairly formal Spanish however
if a group of people get to chewing the fat speaking colloquial spanish, at
times my comprehension is no better than 20%.    And as for Greek, I have
been working on it over the past 7 years or so with varying levels of

As for English ability, I can not only say pretty much anything I want to
say, but I can say it pretty much anyway I want to say it: plain statements
of fact, statements structured to anger or perhaps to evoke tears, to play
on the emotions.  Occasionally, I want to use a French idiom over anything
that I can think of in English.  French I don't speak much these days, but I
think I can still finess what I want to say.  Spanish is a club.  Can't say
much of what I would like to say, must resort to 'go-arounds' for lack of
vocabulary or syntax ability.  Greek, I have tried to formulate sentences
from time to time.  The words that pop into my mind are Spanish tough.  I
think that given enough time I can could probably construct a sentence.  It
would take me a while.  As for comprehension, I can probably jump into LXX,
or GNT or Herodotus (which I have been slowly working through) and follow
it.  On a typical page I might have to look up anywhere from one or two
words to a half dozen.  Homer: gibberish.  Unfamiliar classic texts in
attic, sometimes gibberish, sometimes not. I aspire to a Greek ability where
I can sit down and cruise through text, reading and thinking in Greek, not

I think one could almost generate catagories of language ability.  My
English would be catagory V say.  French catagory IV, Spanish catagory II,
and Greek catagory I.

I would be curious to know how people would rate their Greek ability against
such a scale.  I kind of wonder how much of what we know about Greek is
because a text book said so and how much is known intuitively in a way one
knows their own language or a well known second language.  It would seem to
me that one would have to read a shelf or two of classics before I think,
intuitive level of Greek knowledge would develop.

Chuck Tripp
Kodiak, Alaska

----- Original Message -----
From: Carl W. Conrad <cwconrad at>
To: Biblical Greek <b-greek at>
Sent: Monday, May 06, 2002 5:13 PM
Subject: [b-greek] How we know what we know--about Koine?

> 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
> relationships which in one's own language, whether English, Danish,
> or what-have-you, are not represented in any comparable manner of
> expression.
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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,
> 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
> 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
> think in it.
> Are we better off today, as students of Greek, than those who learned
> 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
> and language in anything like the breadth and depth and detail in which
> 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
> intelligible as we could wish, but they can be checked against sample
> 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,
> 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
> WWW:
> ---
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