Re: Word Order: Mark 3.1 and beyond

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri May 14 1999 - 11:00:09 EDT

At 3:17 PM -0700 5/13/99, George Blaisdell wrote:
>>From: "Moon-Ryul Jung"
>>Dear George,
>>I would agree that your "question-answer" approach to interpret
>>sentences is reasonable because of the linear left-to-right order
>>of words.
>Cool!! Does that mean that the non-possesive article now makes sense as
>well? I did not quite have a handle on that until this little exercise came
>to me to do. THEN, of course, its presence is perfectly and obviously
>>But it does not necessarily support your claim that
>>the center words of a sentence are emphasized.
>It does, but that is another topic. I am just glad that I have gotten as
>far as this for now!! The key to centers seems to be the tension produced
>by the unidentified descriptive words, and you much they integrate, and how
>the thought process moves from center to center. There is much yet to look
>at in this regard.

In an off-list message to George I said much the same thing as Moon, with
whom I so heartily agree. But as I did not add to George and should have,
there is indeed something very right about reading the words as they come
and linking them to each other BOTH syntactically AND morphologically AND
(here come Clay Bartholomew's point in his message on Acts 1:10, I think)
with idiomatic "Kennenschaft" (I don't know if that word exists in German,
but what I mean to emphasize is that this is a matter of experiential
recognition rather than systematized principles or "Wissenschaft")--some of
this idiomatic "Kennenschaft" is a matter of facts, as that a form of
ESTI/HN, when it comes first in a sentence, tends to be existential, or
that a predicate adjective construed with a noun in a copulative clause
tends to precede the verb ESTI, or that (pace George) the strongest points
of emphasis in a clause are the beginning and end rather than the center).

Clay is quite right that morphology and syntax by themselves are not
sufficient to add up to ability to make sense of a Greek sentence (that
requires the work of the Holy Spirit!--in one way or another--but I reveal
my own bias thereby). I have observed to my consternation the failure of
some older kinds of textbooks in Greek and Latin that emphasize morphology,
rules of syntax, and vocabulary, and then offer for practice made-up
sentences in the target language composed by a writer who is clearly not a
native-thinker in the target language. I've seen bright students who've
learned the morphology, syntax, and vocabulary still stumble over making
sense of the sentences and fall flat on their figurative faces when
attempting to tackle a connected passage in the target language. There is
something intuitive, something that I think is implicit in the Greek
perfect tense OIDA, which must, I think, originally derive from the way
what one has SEEN repeatedly and not overlooked (e.g., Odysseus POLLWN
ANQRWPWN IDEN ASTEA KAI NOON EGNW) contributes to an aggregate of what the
greatest of the British empiricists (?), Hume, called "the custom and habit
of confident expectation"--the principle being: "If you've seen it twice
and three times, expect to see it a fourth." I think this is the way we
learn our native languages and I think that only when it comes into play in
the learning of a foreign language can we know we are making progress in
that language. But there are lots and lots of these idiomatic elements, and
they involve a variety of things, including word-order, idiomatic
expressions linking two or more words in a pattern which users recognize.

But to get back to George's point: I've often thought that it would be a
worthwhile exercise--something very easy to create with a computer
program--to display sentences of Greek (or Latin or whatever language) on a
screen one word at a time beginning with the first word and then in
successive screens cumulatively adding words or phrases--this as a device
to facilitate learning to think in the alien word-order. Eventually the
more appropriate thing, once one is able to do it, is to listen to the
sentence (or paragraph) sounded/spoken word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase, so
that one hears and puts together the sentence as does the native speaker
and hearer of that language.

There's one fact of particular importance in this that is missed by modern
learners of an ancient language who are responding primarily to a printed
text of Greek or Latin (or Hebrew) as a visual stimulus rather than an
aural one: language is primarily a spoken instrument and only after
centuries or millennia has it become a written instrument, however
fundamentally important we may deem the written language. But IF Greek--and
any other language ever spoken--is/was primarily a spoken language, then
the order in which words are HEARD is far more important than the order in
which words are SEEN/ENVISIONED on a printed page. This is why centrality
of position can't really be a very important element in prose (although it
certainly may be in stichic verse, as Latin hexameters reveal marvelously).
When one is listening to another speak, the place of greatest emphasis is
really going to be the beginning and the end of the sequence of words.

And a word about chiasmus here; when we use it we're sometimes talking
about a poetic or rhetorical device of arranging word groups in an ABB'A'
pattern, but I think (but can't be dogmatic about this) that it originates
as a mnemonic device for ticking off details in an account (LOGOS in its
original sense of making a tally of items): first this, next that, third
the other thing: I do X with the other thing, I do Y with that, and I do Z
with this. This is really something very primitive--as primitive as
BOUSTROFHDON, writing one line from left to right and the next line from
right to left and so forth, as an ox plows rows (i.e. BOUSTROFHDON). It's a
matter of starting at one end and going to the other end, starting a new
from the far end and coming back to the original starting point. Centrality
has nothing to do with this verbal/aural device as such; centrality is an
aesthetic visual matter--and that's why I think it is wrong to make so much
of centrality of position in the word-order of a Greek sentence--which is
not to say, of course, that the sandwiching of an attributive word between
article and noun is not an important point--but the point ther is enclosure
rather than centrality.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
Summer: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243

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