Re: koine vs. classic

From: Lindsay J. Whaley (Lindsay.J.Whaley@Dartmouth.EDU)
Date: Wed Mar 25 1998 - 09:46:07 EST

--- "Carl W. Conrad" wrote:
>Am I wrong to think "koine" Greek must have been something like
>the simplefied international English of our own day.

Yes, I think that's right. Perhaps "Basic English?" In fact, the sort of
English that is written on this and other internet lists by both those who
are and those who are not native English-speakers; the interesting fact
about this, which is also true, I think, of KOINH, is that some who are not
native speakers of English write a higher literary level of it than do some
native speakers. But it is easy to recognize English that in major or minor
respects clearly reflects an alien word-order, occasionally an alien
grammatical construction, more commonly a misuse of an English colloquial
idiom. And to the extent that one has attained some facility in standard
ancient Greek, one can recognize the features in some Hellenistic Greek
writing that are intelligible but that stick out like a sore thumb as
unmistakable evidence that the writer is not thoroughly at home in standard
Greek usage (of course that word "standard" is a bit slippery, too).
--- end of quote ---

Carl has framed the relationship between ancient Greek and Hellenistic Greek
nicely by analogy with what one might find in English use on the web. However,
I think the analogy is potentially misleading.

One must be very careful not to collapse too many issues into one when
discussing the relationship of Hellenistic Greek and the Greek of the classical
period. The process of koine formation is obviously a big part of it, but one
must also consider the fact that Hellenistic Greek underwent regular sorts of
linguistic changes and it was influenced contact with other languages. These
are three *different* influences on the form that Hellenistic grammar takes.

In simple terms, koines develop out of deregionalization of a speech form. For
the Greek koine, this was a de-Atticized version of Attic Greek. In order to
carry out the process, certain features of the dialect were simplified,
changed, or dropped. Unless Koine Greek is atypical in some regard, this
simplification was not due to imperfect command of Attic Greek grammar by
foreigners. Most people believe the koine originated in Athens, after all, and
that its formation was prompted by contact between Attic speakers and speakers
of other Greek dialects (especially Ionic). Therefore, when one finds a word
order that varies from Attic Greek in a Hellenistic Greek text, it is not at
all obvious (dare I say not likely?) that this was a direct result of it being
a koine.
        Like any language Koine Greek was not a static system. We would expect
it to undergo the sorts of linguistic change that every language does. And
like any other language it would be influenced by contact with other languages.
The deviations in word order, preposition use, etc. may in fact be a function
of normal linguistic change. They did not arise because writers/speakers did
not feel comfortable with Attic Greek (in the same way that my use of SVO word
order in English is not driven by discomfort with the more commmon SOV order of
Old English. The language has simply changed. It had nothing to do with
improper command of the "standard" (=earlier?) language).
        We also should not be suprised to find semiticisms in the Hellenistic
Greek spoken in regions where bilingualism in a semitic language is the norm.
In multilingual settings, there is always heavy structural influence among
languages. Again, this doesn't have anything to do with improper command of
one of the languages. It is the way language works. Indian English differs
markedly from British English. This is because Indian English is spoken in
India and not because Indians had learned British English imperfectly. The two
dialects have diverged just as any two dialects due over time, and both have
been uniquely influenced by contact with other languages.
        My "two cents" is getting a bit wordy, so I will stop here. My main
concern is that we not chalk up all differences between Classical Greek
dialects and Hellensitic Greek to the latter being a simplified international
language. The simplification had occurred (or at least was well under way)
prior to the language being international, and many of its unique
characteristics are not due to simplification at all, but rather to typical
sorts of internally and externally induced changes.

Lindsay Whaley
Dartmouth College

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