A Little Greek's assessment of learning Greek

From: Mike Sangrey (mike@sojurn.lns.pa.us)
Date: Sat Sep 18 1999 - 12:06:31 EDT

cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu said:
> I tried to say last week that all these categories and sub-categories
> for circumstantial participles are dreamed up by translators for the
> sake of expansive conversion of the Greek participle into a paraphrase
> in the target language; we really ought not to imagine that the Greek
> writer had any notion of such categories.

I know I'm quoting Carl without the context; however, as a Little
Greek I'd like to echo the above statement in my only little way.

As I learn Greek, I try to see that the end of learning Greek is NOT
to apply rigid, mechanical formalisms. I think (Big Greeks jump
in here any time) it a mistake to adopt a learning strategy which
assumes one can mechanically, or in some way formally, translate a
source language into a target language. I guess everyone is aware
of this, and yet I think we too easily adopt this method. I'll admit
different strategies work for different people, that is true; however,
the result I want is NOT "apply Smyth number 1931 and therefore I
know the author is using an Aorist to convey a proverb." Rather,
what I want to do is see the proverb.

I happen to think Grammars, native tongue Grammars included,
are far too Rube Goldberg. In the first Greek course I took, the
Professor pointed out an English Grammar rule and then proceeded
to cite several examples where the rule didn't work, didn't apply,
or was just plain broke. Even English speakers using an English
Grammar can see that the "rules" do not perfectly capture the nature
of English. How much more should we expect a (what should I call it)
a translational Grammar to falter in this regard.

The mind is a language or semantic processor. I have wondered whether
it has been a mistake to so expand Grammars the way we have--Smyth, as
good as it is, has 3048 entries. That's more than one entry for every
two GNT vocabulary words! (I know Smyth applies more broadly than just
GNT, but it still strikes me as out of proportion. The categories
and sub-categories that Carl points the finger at are but another,
perhaps better, example.)

I wonder whether it would not have been better to cleanly separate
the definition of the physical structure of the language from the
definition of the semantics (note that Gnomic Aorist combines the two).
Then, having a good clean definition of the physical structure, the
mind could process the information rather naturally. Discussions about
the semantics of a passage could then focus on *HOW* one discovers the
meaning from the surface structure, recognizing the organic nature of
meaning, and not devolve into a mechanical application of formalisms.
Linguists today, and translators, recognize the multiple ways an author
could physically structure the meaning into the source language.
I know relative to translation this is controversial, but I can't
help but see some wisdom in it. Blindly adopting it is probably
not prudent. But neither is blindly ignoring it in how we teach and
learn Greek.

I realize I'm being somewhat idealist. I also realize bootstrapping
the acquirement of a new language requires pedagogic compromises.
Yet those are insufficient to overwhelm my idealistic desire to 'think
like a Greek.'

I'd like to say, for me, the way I'm learning Greek appears to me to
be working rather nicely. My vocabulary stinks, and I frequently
see beyond what I should see (though I'm not always convinced this
is true); however, the language is even now starting to flow for
me--even with those weaknesses. I try to think in fairly simplistic
terms, first observing the surface structure and what that surface
structure means. Then the author's meaning naturally rises to the
surface from within that structure. I check myself against several
translations. Sometimes I'm struck dumb with confusion; but generally
the GNT reflects beautiful color into the black and white picture in
the translations.

And for that, I'm happy. "[W]e really ought not to imagine that
the Greek writer had any notion of such" formalisms. It was rather
natural to him. I'd like the reading to be fairly natural, too.

Mike Sangrey
Lancaster, Pa.
       There is no 'do' in faith, everywhere present within it is 'done'.
             And faith should commend itself from within every 'do'.

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