[B-Greek] Is there a polite way to give correction?

Randall Buth randallbuth at gmail.com
Thu May 1 03:25:48 EDT 2008

Is there a polite way to correct unintended "blasphemy"?

When people use languages, mistakes are sometimes made that need
correction. Parents do this with children all the time. It is a natural part of
language learning. Sometimes this becomes shocking and humorous.
Some of the things that have happened to me thru many a living
language cannot be politely shared on this list.

Last week I landed on a website with a Greek song that shocked my ears.
We've sometimes alluded to this possibility on this list, but there it was,
unashamed, and on the web. [URL omitted in interests of propriety.]

In a rather clear, unambiguous, Dorian lyrical Greek, which is one dialect
of choice for songs, the person was singing:

     "Be praising the female goddess here … "
to a popular tune of a Christian doxology.

ταν θεαν ω' δοξαζετε.
the female goddess, be praising her here!

Visions of Astarte! Since the song continued with a recognizable
Christian ending I assume that this is a case where giving correction to
a language learner would be appreciated. We wouldn't want well-meaning
seminary students inadvertantly blaspheming in their theology or Greek
classes !

Most language learning mistakes are benign, but some are humorous and
need correction. Personally, I classify "be praising the female goddess"
as humorous and needing correction. While it might be ascribed to over-
zealous political correctness, the continuation of 'Father' and 'Son' instead
of a more Alexandrian 'the Creator and the Logos' show that political
correctness was not intended. The 'unintended blasphemy' above was
caused by mixing phonemes in ways that the original language did not
mix phonemes. The sound for alpha [a] was used for an omicron, with
disasterous results.

So what should be done?

Speakers of that particular dialect of "seminary Greek" are faced with a
need to change and it is a good opportunity to investigate the advantages
of various options. It might have a positive effect of providing a new
perspective for evaluating fluency and language internalization.

What are the phonological choices and their ramifications?

Option 1. A person could change this one mistaken phoneme.
In favor: this is relatively easy. Since an 'aw' sound was apparently
rejected and 'aw' already belonged to omega in Attic dialect, one could
use 'oh'. It's MUCH better than 'ah' and a correct phoneme match.
Against: The resulting dialect would still contradict several Koine
phonemes. It wrongly joins EI with HTA instead of EI with IWTA, and
wrongly joins many upsilon's with OU.  [For more data on this see the
website www.biblicalulpan.org under 'courses', 'Greek materials'.]
In short, the specific internal grammar and phonemic nature of the
Koine are transgressed. And it will not help with reading documents
of the period or with New Testament manuscripts.

Option 2. One could more consistently apply the Erasmian principle
of mimicking the orthography and adopt a 5th century Attic. Omicron
as 'o', omega as either 'aw' or a longer-timed 'o', eta as lower 'longer-
epsilon,ae', upsilon as German 'ue', Fi Theta Chi as a gringo-P
gringo-T gringo-K, three tonal accents, etc.
Pro: this is in line with a real language and good for reading old Epic
and Attic poetry. (there is Epic written in Koine times, too, but see
#3 for reading that.)
Con: it is relatively difficult for both English and modern Greek
speakers to do this correctly. It is unnatural for Koine, like using
Chaucer for Shakespeare or for modern English, and does not
reflect the internal grammatical system of its age. It is antihistorical,
if the Koine is the dialect of primary interest. It is not the way that
Josephus or Plutarch would have read Sophocles.

Option 3. One could adopt a Koine pronunciation. This will sound
fairly modern, but with distinctive sounds for Hta and Y-psilon. The
vowel symbol pairings, by sound equivalencies: EI=I, AI=E, W=O,
Pro: That's what was in the heads of first century speakers and NT
writers. It is relatively easy for English speakers, and fits the period
of primary interest, providing proper phonemic and alliterative
overlap with the original audiences. It IS the Koine grammar, the
phonological pieces of what the audiences had in their heads when
hearing Paul's letters read. Or Epiktetos. Reading the inscriptions,
papyri and NT manuscripts becomes delightful. It's even close
enough to modern to be recognized as Greek.
Con: a person may sometimes spell in the way that P45, P75, or
B, or Paul or Luke, were spelling. Standard spelling requires a little
learning, though nothing more than the ancients would have needed
and nothing on the magnitude of English. (And HTA, OI, and Upsilon
provide stability over #4.)

Option 4. One could adopt the modern Greek pronunciation of the
miniscule NT manuscripts.
Pro: it's a real language and Greeks approve. It is seamless for
those who speak or are learning modern Greek.
Con: they will probably spell worse than Paul or Luke or will need to
invest more time to this than the ancients would have. More
importantly, they will have rare moments of miscommunication
where the the modern pronunciation does not fit the ancient Koine
morphology, e.g., YMWN and HMWN 'your' and 'our' become the

I appreciate and respect number 2, just like I respect someone
reading Chaucer with a middle English dialect. It's fun. But I
wouldn't practice communicating that way if concentrating on post-
Alexandrian Greek. Personally, I've chosen number 3 as the most
historically and linguistically defensible for 250 BCE to 500 CE.
As a plus, it is tolerable in the ears of number 4. Of course, 2, 3,
and 4 all want to be understable to each other, and will be so, if
they learn the language to the level of speaking with each other.
An ability to communicate in the language is a natural skill goal for
students of a literature. I have conversations with a friend who
speaks to me in #2, as a classicist interested in the Koine, and I
to him in #3. Unfortunately, I don't have any #4 friends who speak
in the ancient dialect, but it remains a viable option. It would seem
that #3 is the logical choice for seminary students.

Back to corrections for the above song.
How does one politely say to a language learner to clean up the
So that they will listen?

A big advantage to re-considering pronunciation issues is that it
can lead to re-considering issues of internalization. Is the learner
making progress to true internalization at a rate that would be
promoted by second language acquisition specialists? Adopting
a revised pronunciation is a good time to revise one's measuring
sticks and pedagogy, too.

Randall Buth, PhD
randallbuth at gmail.com
Biblical Language Center
Learn Easier - Progress Further - Remember for Life

More information about the B-Greek mailing list