[B-Greek] English translation - or what?

Carl Conrad cwconrad2 at mac.com
Mon Jun 8 11:22:30 EDT 2009

On Jun 8, 2009, at 9:51 AM, Eric Inman wrote:

> One question I have about this, and I'm not sure if it's been  
> discussed, but
> it seems to me that if we speak in koine or ancient Greek we'll  
> really be
> creating a new version of that language and we'll have that version  
> in our
> minds more than the original one. I'm not so much referring to the  
> need to
> create additional vocabulary, but rather that living languages  
> evolve and
> people key off of each others usage patterns as they interact with  
> each
> other. It seems like every few months you can observe new patterns  
> emerging.
> I'm not saying that this would necessarily make it undesirable to  
> use this
> approach, but I'm not sure if I've seen this issue discussed.
> Another question is whether or not we have any information about
> conversational koine or ancient Greek. Conversational language is very
> different from book language. If we develop a conversational  
> language from
> what we see in books, I wonder how close this derived conversational
> language will be to what people spoke back then.
> Any thoughts?

Randall is the resident (and, for practical purposes, sole) guru on  
the matter of conversational koine Greek. But I would note that  
Randall's teaching materials rely heavily on material from Epictetus  
which is about as contemporary with the GNT as you can get and which  
is very largely conversational -- and, it would appear, colloquial  
Greek. The gospels are in conversational -- and, it would appear,  
colloquial -- Greek. Randall has developed his materials on a basis of  
eastern Mediterranean agrarian village life, NOT our 21st-century  
urban high-tech global village. Moreover, it seems to me, the language  
is being learned conversationally not in order for us to live together  
in a community that continues to speak Koine to each other, but to  
have an internalized grasp on the language. I learned French and  
German decades ago and haven't spoken either one for decades (although  
I occasionally correspond in them), but I read both with some  

My own message was intended to stress the notion that the objective of  
any pedagogical method for ancient Greek should be acquisition of an  
internalized grasp of ancient Greek as an instrument of communication,  
a grasp that is not built upon and dependent upon "decoding" Greek  


> -----Original Message-----
> From: b-greek-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org
> [mailto:b-greek-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org] On Behalf Of Carl Conrad
> Sent: Monday, June 08, 2009 7:44 AM
> To: B-Greek
> Subject: [B-Greek] English translation - or what?
> The ongoing controversy over pedagogical methodology with regard to
> ancient Greek seems to be moving back into the murky realm of mutually
> exclusive opposites or of blurred distinctions, whatever. Perhaps I
> have misunderstood, or perhaps others have misunderstood, or perhaps
> we have all been understood perfectly well and just disagree very
> strongly. That may well be the case.
> For my part, I have repeatedly and strongly urged that the student of
> ancient Greek needs to move as soon as possible toward thinking in the
> patterns and structures of ancient Greek and away from reliance upon
> tools and techniques that keep drawing the mind of a student focusing
> upon a Greek text back to a converted English word, phrase, clause,
> sentence, or connected passage. I have harangued against a pedagogy in
> ancient Greek that is ultimately directed toward producing a version,
> preferably as literally accurate as possible, of the Greek text in
> question. I don't object nearly so much to a conversion process aimed
> at producing a nuanced, idiomatic equivalent of the Greek text in
> question, for the reason that producing that sort of version requires
> an understanding of the Greek text as something more than a random-
> order sequence of words that have been parsed and converted into their
> English equivalent and then placed in an English sequential order
> yielding some minimal level of intelligible meaning. This latter
> process is what I've called "decoding" the Greek text which somehow
> continues to be - for the student performing such a conversion process
> - an alien congeries of words that are only slightly more meaningful
> in sequence than a column of a telephone directory.
> I really do believe that students who persist at reading ancient Greek
> in meaningful volume do, sooner or later, increasingly cross over that
> dependence upon a "decoding" procedure that requires deciphering each
> word of a Greek phrase or sentence and rearranging the deciphered
> parts into a less alien, more familiar sequence. I think that growth
> in understanding ancient Greek texts can occur and does occur even
> among students learning ancient Greek in the old-fashioned way of
> memorizing paradigms and vocabulary lists and rules of syntax. I
> believe that because it has been my own experience and because I have
> seen my own students - many of them, at any rate - succeed in their
> efforts to read ancient Greek with some facility. I taught the old
> traditional way myself for several decades, only in later years using
> a method pushing students to reading lengthy narrative and expository
> sequences rather than phrases and single sentences. I believe that the
> old-fashioned pedagogical system is considerably enhanced by
> practicing composition in ancient Greek, particularly as students get
> beyond converting English phrases and sentences into Greek and
> endeavor to turn paragraphs of English text into Greek paragraphs in a
> style with which one grows familiar while reading that style in  
> volume.
> I do believe that Randall Buth's conversational method is better
> suited to acquiring facility in ancient Greek and it is what I would
> endeavor to use in the classroom today if I were still actively
> teaching ancient Greek. But it seems to me that whether one uses the
> classroom conversational method or a variation of the "old-fashioned"
> method, the student gains facility in understanding spoken Greek or
> reading Greek texts for the reason that the language was and still is,
> most fundamentally, a vehicle of human communication that works
> because its words and structures make it possible for human beings to
> share experiences with each other.
> Do advanced students and scholars who read ancient Greek ever, or
> regularly, depend upon converting the text which they are reading into
> English or whatever native language they speak. I don't think the
> answer to that question is EITHER "yes" OR "no" but that it must be
> answered with qualifications. Can one read a Biblical text that one
> has read once, twice, or repeatedly in the past without thinking about
> converting it? Certainly one can. Can one read an unfamiliar Greek
> text of an author that one has never read before without relying on a
> lexicon or referring to a grammar? That will depend on the author and
> it will depend, to a considerable extent, on whether the vocabulary
> and the genre and substantive material dealt with by the author are
> familiar from past reading. One will very likely need to consult a
> lexicon when one encounters words that aren't clear in their context
> or that one needs to learn more about in order to understand the
> context better. But that's what we do when we're reading material in
> our native language that deal with matters that go beyond our
> comfortable range of experience.  For Greek we happen to depend upon
> LSJ and BDAG, both of which offer definitions of Greek words in
> English. But I would call attention to something that surprised me
> when I studied Greek at the University of Munich many years ago: the
> ancient Greek lexicon being used by German students and scholars was
> LSJ! But, of course, educated German students and scholars read
> English as a matter of course. Moreover, we can readily conceive of a
> lexicon for Classical Greek or Koine Greek with definitions in Greek;
> such a lexicon will probably not be produced within my lifetime, but I
> suspect that it will be developed eventually. There's a vast amount of
> material in the Suda (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suda and
> http://www.stoa.org/sol/)
> , the great Byzantine 10th-century lexicon and encyclopedia: guess
> what language it' in! And it's certainly true that when an advanced
> student or scholar comes to discuss a Greek text with others, either
> conversationally or in an internet forum such as B-Greek, then we
> almost always offer an English version of the text or of the key part
> of the text in order to demonstrate how we understand that text, what
> we believe that it is communicating. If we were conducting the
> discussion among French- or German-speakers, we'd offer a French or a
> German version. That doesn't mean that the Greek text wasn't first
> understood on its own terms, as a Greek text.
> Perhaps this message is superfluous, but when I read messages that
> seem to imply that, since Koine Greek is a dead language, it really
> isn't possible to speak it  conversationally, or write it, or think in
> it, or that when we read an ancient Greek text of any considerable
> length, we must necessarily convert it, while we read, into an English
> equivalent, I can't help but think that either I haven't understood
> what others are saying, or they haven't understood what I've been
> saying, or maybe neither of us has understood the other. I would hope
> that's not really the case.
> Carl W. Conrad
> Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)
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