Re: Distinctions driven by source language (was Re: Mark 8:24)

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Tue Jun 29 1999 - 13:15:57 EDT

At 11:18 AM -0400 6/29/99, Mike Sangrey wrote:
>[Several statements about HOTI elided] and then...
> said:
>> .... But there is a principle involved here that is, I think important:
>> many of our grammatical distinctions of category are based upon our
>> need to convey the sense of a foreign language into a target language,
>> and our distinctions are based upon the requisites of the target
>> language; it is a mistake to assume that these distinctions are
>> necessarily grammatically or logically present in the original
>> language.
>Thank you Carl! (I am fairly new to Greek; I took a one year course a
>number of years ago and am now trying to refresh.)
>I've been cogitating over the very principle you mention here, although
>I've been relating it to vocabulary and not to grammar. Does not this
>principle apply similarly to vocabulary?

Absolutely. I don't know that the danger is any GREATER than the danger of
assuming that grammatical categories of ancient Greek correspond to those
of the target language, but they are at least as great, for the unwary at
least--and that is particularly true of the utterly careless user who scans
a dictionary/lexicon in search of the first word in the target language
that seems to fit the context of what one is reading. As I've said before,
there are, IMHO, two imperatives for really learning and improving one's
Greek vocabulary: (1) reading continuously of large amounts of Greek text
and exposing oneself to the same words repeatedly in alternate contexts;
and (2) seizing the opportunity, when it arises, to STUDY a
dictionary/lexicon entry in an unabridged dictionary. To this I would add
another that I've mentioned several times previously: (3) learning the
principles of word-formation as laid out in any good Greek grammar such as
Smyth or BDF.

>When I reference a lexicon, it frequently bothers me that the distinctions
>which are being made appear slight and seem to me to reflect a molding
>by the target language. What I want is a lexicon that tells me how the
>Greek person understood the meaning. For some words, say AGKALH, the
>meaning would be identical in both source and target languages; however,
>for other words, say, PEIRASMOS, the meaning is more complex (not to
>start that discussion--been there, done that.)

Here it would help to understand the root *AGK- which means something like
'constriction' and see how it relates to words like AGCW, 'choke/throttle',
ANAGKH ('inescaple crunch'--reduplicated root), AGKURA, 'anchor/cruncher',
Latin ANGUSTUS 'narrow', etc., etc. Get a sense of the root and of the
kinds of meanings that the cognates have. At the same time be aware that
usage is as important a factor in meanings attributed to a word in a
particular context in time and space--perhaps even more so--as etymology in
a given instance. My favorite example is the impossibility of guessing that
English "saunter" as a verb of aimless meandering derives from the French
"voyageurs la Sainte Terre" and the sort of directionless travel taken by
pilgrims and crusaders in the late Middle Ages. As for PEIRASMOS, this is a
good instance of a definition in the major lexical works that may be
terribly skewed (Jeffrey Gibson, if you get him started on this, will
explain at great length how this may have happened): conceptions that may
have been good and intelligent guesses have sometimes hardened into
unquestioned and unquestionable assumptions. Therefore one must be aware
that there are indeed errors in the lexica; yet the lexica remain
indispensable tools constructed by the spadework of countless generations
of contributors to the lore of the language. No lexicon is final: our
greatest obligation to those who have contributed to that lore is to
endeavor to correct them if we find sufficient evidence to disprove or to
question what they have told us.

>How safe is it to read an entire lexical entry and try to form a
>semantical composite of that word? I realize that concepts are much
>larger than a given word and that the "real" meaning of an individual
>word is derived from the context. Also, I'm certainly aware of the
>occurance of polysemy where a word can have different fields of meaning,
>like the English word 'trunk'. I would be very interested in your--and
>other's--comments about lexical and grammatical distinctions being driven
>by the source language.

Most of what I have to say on this subject was said some time ago in a
lengthy message to this list: Tue, 30 Jan 1996 08:13:25 -0600 (in the older
archives, obviously).

>Perhaps this is much too large a question and the feel for it is developed
>over time after ingesting many, many examples. Is it a worthy cause
>to pursue "thinking like a Greek?" Or am I blinded by the idealism
>of a youthful perspective? [Ummmmm...of Greek, that is--I'm not that
>young actually, but relative to Greek, I'm just a teany-bopper.]

Relative to Greek, we are all teeny-boppers, if not even NHPIOI.

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

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