Re-post: using lexicons and learning Greek

Carl W. Conrad (
Mon, 2 Sep 1996 17:15:19 -0500

For what it's worth, I thought I'd post anew this note which I sent to the
list last January; I've been wanting to add my 2c worth to the discussion
of memorizing vocabulary, but felt that I had said most of what I think
about the subject in this post last winter. The one point that I may add to
what I said then is that lexicon study also permits us students to envision
the relationship between a particular word, its root and its important
cognates. I think there's value in learning a word with its most important
cognates at the same time.

>Mime-Version: 1.0
>Date: Tue, 30 Jan 1996 08:13:25 -0600
>From: "Carl W. Conrad" <>
>Subject: using lexicons and learning Greek
>Please forgive the patronizing tone of this. I have been tutoring a few
>students in NT Greek recently and meditating much over the attitudes that
>foster success in learning it and that inhibit success in learning it. For
>what it's worth, I'd just like to offer the following thoughts, most of
>which are probably obvious to many list readers.
>Many on this list are accomplished scholars in the GNT, but many are also
>in the process of learning the Greek of the NT, and in a deeper sense, I'd
>say we are all in the process of learning the Greek of the NT. So I want to
>offer some thoughts on means and ends in learning the Greek of the NT with
>regard to texts and lexicons that I hope may be helpful, particularly when
>one considers the number of hours that are spent puzzling through texts
>that begrudge you their meanings and poring over lexicon entries that seem
>to be pages long and (superficially) as meaningless as the sequence of
>names in a telephone directory.
>A student of the New Testament can readily come to hate an unabridged Greek
>lexicon. She or he is endeavoring to learn Greek with the primary if not in
>fact sole purpose of reading the GNT. In itself that is a reasonable and
>laudable objective, but it has to be understood and actualized in a much
>broader context for the obvious reason that the Greek language really
>wasn't created for the purpose of writing the GNT (however much one wants
>to praise (or blame) God for choosing to have the NT written in Greek). One
>has to see that the NT is one complex of documents written in a language
>used by people over a very broad geographical area for every purpose for
>which one uses any language. Consequently, although one may aim ultimately
>at reading of the NT with one's acquired facility in Koine Greek, one must
>learn the language and make learning the language--for the time
>being--one's primary objective. What this means is that any text--be it
>from the NT, from the LXX, from an Apostolic Father, or from a papyrus
>letter--any text that you undertake to read must be seen not as an end in
>itself but as a means to learn some more Greek. So one isn't aiming at
>working out an acceptable English equivalent of that text; rather you're
>aiming at understanding the Greek of that text and increasing one's
>knowledge of Greek through that text. The lexicon is one's friend, and the
>fuller the lexicon entry on a noun, verb, or whatnot, the greater the
>opportunity one has to expand his or her knowledge of Greek. If one views
>it as a hindrance, as a mass of verbiage to scan in order to find the one
>workable gloss that matches the phrasing of your text passage, then one
>won't learn anything from it and is likely to miss most of what he or she
>could have learned from consulting the lexicon on that word. One needs to
>labor "lovingly" (I use the word deliberately) over the array of structured
>meanings and relationships between meanings suggested in a lexicon entry
>and one should seek to ascertain the logic and psychological probabilities
>accounting for the ramifications of meanings from the primary to secondary
>and tertiary levels. A word, after all, is not, however much similarity it
>may have to a mathematical sign, is not a mathematical sign, but a page or
>a chapter in the history of human experience, loaded with metaphorical
>leaps and powerful emotional overtones and undertones. Words have
>personalities that need to be learned, as best one can learn them, and just
>as it is hard, perhaps impossible to know fully (EPIGNWNAI?) the spouse one
>has lived with for decades, so it is impossible to acquire any sense of a
>word whose lexicon entry one scans superficially in order to find a meaning
>that "fits" the context of what one's reading.
>May I suggest, therefore, that language learning be treated as an end in
>itself while one is in the process of learning it. The passage that one is
>reading and the lexicon that one consults are means to that end and should
>be exploited toward that end. The translation of the passage is at best a
>by-product of learning; much to be preferred is an understanding of how the
>passage conveys its thoughts and feelings through the linguistic medium it
>employs; it is to be viewed and grasped as an expression of a
>Greek-thinking person and one should endeavor to make it a means to assist
>one to become a Greek-thinking person onself. Ultimately this may be
>helpful when one endeavors to read and interpret the inspired texts
>transmitted to us by the Greek-thinking persons who put into writing our
>New Testament.
>Carl W. Conrad
>Department of Classics, Washington University
>One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
>(314) 935-4018
> OR

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR