[B-Greek] Can any good thing come out of Linguistics? (was "Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data ...")

drdwilkins at verizon.net drdwilkins at verizon.net
Thu Apr 1 00:43:33 EDT 2010

I'll respond as before, deleting some of our older discussion.

Mar 31, 2010 01:48:56 PM, cwconrad2 at mac.com wrote:


On Mar 31, 2010, at 12:36 AM, drdwilkins at verizon.net wrote:

>> DW: Since I respect your opinion, I was hoping that you would point out to me a good example (or more) of what has led you to your judgment. You mention Sim's dissertation, which I promptly downloaded and began reading. So far I am very disappointed. In most cases, Sim acknowledges the obvious telic force of hINA, followed by "But here's what I think" and then she proceeds to argue that inferences from the context give the word a different meaning, overriding its telic force. We all know that the real problem with hINA is its use where it seems to be interchangeable with hOTI. My reading of this situation is that the telic force continues and the purpose clause does double duty as statement. E.G. Matt. 4:3 (EIPE hINA). We can explore this in detail if you like. You might feel that there is no ground for maintaining the telic force in such constructions, but that would probably boil down to an agree-to-disagree stalemate between us. As far as I am concerned, stripping hINA of its telic force is throwing the baby out with the baby water. I can't imagine that the ordinary Greek scholar who had read a huge corpus of ancient Greek and seen hINA repeatedly used to introduce purpose clauses would decide that it has nothing to do with purpose, or that the sense of purpose is superficial.
> CWC:I’m sorry you’ve felt that way. I honestly found it unusual as the work of an academic linguist, both readily intelligible -- making little use of terminology that wasn’t clearly explained at the outset -- and illuminating. Of course the telic hINA is present int he GNT beyond dispute -- but the non-telic usages of hINA extend so far beyond their usage in earlier stages of the language that one feels (i.e. I feel) a need for an effort to understand the expansion of the substantive hINA-clause into semantic ranges that are more extensive and see how these varied usages might be understood in a more comprehensive framework. I think that Sim has contributed to that understanding, and I’m sorry you haven’t thought so.  I would still recommend her work to others.
> DW: I haven't finished the dissertation and might have more positive things to say when I do in the next couple of days. But in trying to understand you, I would ask again what it is that you found especially enlightening. The main substance of her work seems to be the background of relevance and context, which she attempts to create for her selected passages much the same as an ordinary commentator would. Is this what appealed to you, or something else? Quite possibly I just have not read far enough yet.

Well, why don't you read deeper in and stop asking me to give away the surprise ending? 

Fair enough. I'll get back to you when I finish it.

>> I also went over Kemmer's list and was similarly disappointed. I always told my students that the middle voice in some way focuses attention on the subject. If you'll forgive me for saying so, Kemmer seems to document the substance of this statement. Indeed, I imagine that a fourth-year Greek student might come to the same conclusion after looking up middle-voice verb meanings a few hundred times. I don't doubt that there are languages, including non-Indo-European, that have a similar concept and construction, but knowing that adds very little to our understanding of the concept. What if we could say that all languages had it? If we had the same construction in English, perhaps we would have a feeling of normalcy when we used it (along the lines of relevance and context), but that still would not give us a definitive answer to "why?". At this point I would still have to say that the middle focuses on the subject in a large variety of ways. We could also talk about the active voice in stative or intransitive verbs. Sure, all these things occur in other languages, but why? You've mentioned the niphal and hithpael in Hebrew as possibly being analogous to the middle for some verbs. My own experience shows some relatively overlapping instances, but not much really analogous to Greek. Notably, the Greek middle is infrequently reflexive, while the Hebrew hithpael is rarely otherwise. We can all probably think of possible contextual and relevance-based reasons for why a mysterious construction exists and is used, but we need factual (indisputable) reasons, or at least I do.
> What Kemmer shows is a great deal more than that "he middle voice in some way focuses attention on the subject." She shows -- and Rutger Allan has expansively demonstrataed further in Homeric and Classical authors -- that a number of distinct categories of subject-focused verbs appear regularly in middle or reflexive inflected forms in languages all over the world.
> [breaking in]
> DW: I acknowledged that possibility already. That alone is not enough. We can say that the same phenomenon occurs in languages x, y, z etc. but unless those languages provide a rationale for the phenomenon that we have not yet discovered in Greek, little or nothing is gained. It's like having a sore shoulder for no apparent reason and running into 20 other people with the same condition. If one of them has been to a doctor and had it successfully diagnosed, then it might or might not be the same explanation for all the others. We would be foolish to assume that it was actually true for all the others. So I'm not nearly as interested in how widespread the "middle" voice is, as in the basis for it in Greek. Kemmer's list is a fairly convenient collection of examples, as far as it goes, but anyone could derive a similar or more comprehensive list by working through a lexicon.

In point of fact, a good deal more is required than working through a lexicon for meaningful data. There's much more to Kemmer's analysis than the list. What she demonstrates, and what Rutger Allan demonstrates much more thoroughly in more precise detail regarding Homeric and Classical Attic Greek, is that middle-voice morphology or an equivalent type of specialized reflexive morphology is used in a great many languages, not merely Indo-European languges, to distinguish verbs designating the same varieties of action or process as the middle verbs in Greek.

On this point, Carl, we seem to be going around in circles. Even if I had not known of these studies, I would have assumed the existence of similar phenomena in other languages. IMO this is not the point. All this basically tells me is that if I thought the Greeks were crazy to create their middle voice, either they were not, or else they had a lot of company in cultures with other languages. In a perfect world, what I really want (and I think we would all like) is a nice, elegant formula that would give us the meaning of a given middle verb in a given context. Something like what one of my calculus professor's described: "You put in the data and turn the crank." As it is, if you want to know the general effect of the middle voice on a verb, say, of simple motion, you can look up motion verbs in a reliable lexicon and form your own conclusions. And let's not forget those verbs for which the lexicons say: "middle: same as active." I.e. the difference is too subtle for a gloss. If you want to know more, you have to look up all the occurrences and compare them with the active meanings, which requires you in turn to look up the actives. Thus the reader best able to predict the meaning of a given verb in a given context is the one who has read a very large corpus that includes the verb in question. I don't believe that anyone--linguist or widely-read philologist--will ever be able to provide the formula for a shortcut to the middle meaning. 

> And she shows that in languages that do not have a distinct middle but use reflexive verb-forms, there is still a distinction between direct reflexives and subject-affected verbs.
> DW: And this would probably have much to do with Aktionsart, i.e. the effect of the meaning upon the grammar (IMO).

It has something to do with Aktionsart, but that, of course, goes far beyond what is distinctive to the middle voice.

Of course. I mentioned it because it does play a significant role for voice, however. For anyone unfamiliar with the terminology who may be following this thread, I'm not referring to aspect, but to the effect of the verb meaning upon voices.

> Traditional Greek pedagogy still teaches that these verbs are "deponents" and claims that they are inexplicable middle-passive forms with "active" meaning (confounding at the same time -- by calling their meaning "active" -- transitivity and intransitive activity. The doctrine of "deponency" has muddled and befuddled the understanding of voice in ancient Greek and impresssed upon new students of the language that there's something irregular and inexplicable about verbs like ERCOMAI and DUNAMAI and POREUOMAI: any self-respecting Greek verb should have an active form; perhaps we should call them "deponents" and attribute them to some intellectual misbehavior in otherwise intelligent and grammatical law-abiding Greek-speakers/writers. The facts about the way these verbs behave have not changed from what the older grammars told us, but they've been cast in a new and more intelligible light: they are "middle verbs" and we can understand them instead of shaking our fingers at them and calling them "naughty children."
> DW: If that were what old dinosaurs like myself had been teaching our students, then we would deserve a dinosaur's death. And if terminology is the only problem, then we should be proud of ourselves for correcting it. I'm sure you never told your students that so-called deponents had "laid aside" their active forms. While we're on terminology, I don't think "middle" does the job either. Does that imply they're between active and passive? I don't know what that would mean at face value, especially if a given "middle" verb did not even have an active voice as many do not. "Active" has its problems too. I think it means acting upon an object, which requires transitivity, and in that case stative verbs can't be active. But I assume that we all work through these issues with our students, reducing the problems mainly to terminology as opposed to concepts. Perhaps our friends in linguistics can suggest better names for these categories, but the suggestions need to be simple and self-evident. Like a great scientific theory, a good name should be elegant, not just correct. Need an example of the inelegant? How about "grammaticalize"? I understand it, but it's about as pleasant to the palate as lukewarm coffee. I know you've used it and I mean no disrespect, but I hope one could do better.

As I've noted elsewhere in this forum today, I do indeed believe that "grammaticalize" is a barbarism.
I would be curious to know how you did teach voice to beginning Greek students. 
The terminology of voice is indeed quite unsatisfactory. What you just said about "active' is what I've been saying myself for several years: we use it inconsistently, as when BDAG referss to a verb as "passive with active meaning." The Greek ENERGHTIKH is more accurate, but if it's understood to mean English "active," it won't do. There's quite a difference beween a transitive and an intransitive verb in the "active" voice with W/EIS/EI morphology. "Agentive" is a useful adjective and Rijksbaron has made good use of it in his shorter work on Greek Syntax. "Middle" is by no means a good word, and "Reflexive" is misleading even if more accurate. What is particularly difficult is formulating terms that accurately indicate functional category but do not burn the bridges to older grammars. I think much of our difficulty with the linguists is that they've invented new terminology and then invented new dialectal forms of the terminology and many of us feel like we are totally outside the loop.

I completely agree. We run into incompatibilities between concept and morphology. E.g. I'd like to split the actives at least into transitive and stative (or intransitive), but the common endings stand in the way. Perhaps an argument can be made for "active" not despite its ambiguity but because of it (i.e. "active" as acting on an object, and also being intransitively active as in breathing or walking). "Passive with active meaning" is contradictory, but again we have the clash between concept and morphology. Someone might argue for stripping the passive form of it's "passive" characterization, but then the form is prevailingly passive in concept. "Agentive" could be a synonym for "transitive," but it strikes me as being horribly awkward, like "grammaticalize," and not nearly as good as "transitive." For the middle, "reflexive" is more pertinent, but unfortunately useless as a replacement name since in practice middles are infrequently reflexive. I would play with the term "subjective" for the middle, but it might be unacceptable for reasons that I can't think of at the moment. As for the linguists and their loop, I wouldn't mind paying the price of admission if their terminology were golden. But they seem to be ignoring the virtues of simplicity and elegance. At the very least I want terminology that won't leave an intelligent person wondering, "Is that a real word?" As for my own teaching practice (years ago as well as recently at church), I found drawing arrows helpful. I pointed out that "deponent" was a misnomer and "middle" not a very realistic description overall. The simplest expressions, I noted, are the reflexive and reciprocal verbs where you can draw an arrow from the verb back to the subject. They come close to the idea of "middle" as a concept drawing from both active and passive. But of course most middles do not express either reflexive or reciprocal relationships. I then explained that the majority essentially are active and transitive (represented as a solid arrow pointing to the object), with attention focused back on the subject in some way (adding a dotted arrow pointing back to the subject). A good number are of course stative, with no object but a dotted arrow pointing back to the subject because the meaning necessarily focuses on it (the effect of Aktionsart).

> ...(CWC)
> I think it is probably true that we are impressed by different things. I think I'm with you for the most part on the aspect wars. But your attitude reminds me of a high school geometry teacher who was one of the best I've ever had. He taught plane geometry with a textbook that was not much more than an English translation of Euclid. You know the old saw, "If Euclid was good enough for St. Paul, he's good enough for me." Horace Chenet's version of that was, "The good books are not new and the new books are not good."
> I'm one who thinks that most of the new beginning Greek textbooks are not good and that they could clear up some of the most confusing features of Greek grammar by taking some cues from what the academic linguists are saying. For my money this is what makes Funk's BIGHG better than any Biblical Greek primer in use in American colleges and seminaries today. And I think that's because Funk studied linguistics at some point in-between translating Blass-Debrunner into the English BDF and composing his Biblical Greek primer. My fundamental concern in this discussion is for improving the way ancient Greek is taught. I think that linguistic studies have already had a positive impact on the teaching of Classical Attic; I only hope that it can have a positive bearing on the teaching of Biblical Greek (the odds don't seem very favorable).
> DW: Did your geometry teacher teach from a hopelessly outdated text without correcting it? I hope I've made it plain that I never did.

Why would anyone ever teach from a hopelessly outdated text at all? Who do you know who does that? I did use Machen one year, complaining and making adjustments again and again and warning students, but I could never use it again. To me Machen is the epitome of the hopelessly outdated text. You evidently don't think so, because you've said you like it.

This is a difference in our perspective. I basically view a textbook as a clear, simple framework with the categories verbs, nouns, clauses etc., and assume that I will be making corrections and ampifications. Except for the traditional misnomers, I found no major problems in Machen. The biggest gripe most people had about it was the artificial sentences in the homework. On the other hand, I think Summers is terrible, a hopeless piece of work founded on a very flawed intermediate grammar (Dana and Mantey). I assume you would agree. In contrast, I think the old Chase and Philips is a good beginning grammar for Classical Greek, and I also have a high opinion of Athenaze. I would opt for Athenaze over C&P because it has a newer, fresher appearance, and better exercises. For my students at church, I did not recommend any book, but only good internet sources.

> Otherwise, if that was a compliment, thanks. We'd all like to have the perfect Greek primer, and some certainly come closer than others. I suppose the best one is the one you have the least need to correct. For you, that would be your own. If I haven't already, I would strongly encourage you to write one!

I long aspired to it, but ultiamately I was very pleased with Reading Greek and used it for my last ten years of teaching beginning Greek, supplmenting it with additional materials of my own. If I were to teach Biblical Greek, I would work from our online Funk, BIGHG, adding a few notes of my own.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)

 We differ somewhat here in that I would place a higher value on simplicity and clarity, without sacrificing accuracy. But a final decision would depend on the target audience.

Don Wilkins

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