Re: Learning Ancient Greek (was: Question Concerning Terminology)

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Mon Jan 24 2000 - 09:05:06 EST

At 6:59 AM -0600 1/24/00, Steven Craig Miller wrote:
>To: Carl W. Conrad,
>SCM: << It seems to me (I don't know if others with concur or not) that the
>major task of a beginning student learning Greek is threefold: (a)
>memorizing basic vocabulary, (b) memorizing paradigms, and (c) learning
>basic syntax. >>
>CWC: << But as one who has been teaching beginning Greek students for a
>little over forty years, I'm rather bothered by the notion that beginning
>to learn Greek is mastering "these three items." I've known people who
>actually have mastered "these three items" pretty well and still have a
>great deal of difficulty reading idiomatic Greek prose or poetry. I think
>that no less important than these three, perhaps (but I hesitate to say so)
>even more important, is acquisition of an ever more intimate familiarity
>with the IDIOM of Greek. >> (SCM: Other relevant material was deleted, not
>because I'm ignoring what Dr. Conrad wrote, but merely to save space. The
>above should be enough to remind everyone the topic under consideration.)
>As you undoubtedly already know, the term "idiom" often has a couple of
>diverse uses. "Idiom" sometimes is used to refer to set phrases in a
>language, then it is also used in a more general sense to refer to the
>various patterns of usage. I assume (and correct me if I'm here mistaken)
>that you were using the term "idiom" to refer to the latter and not the
>former. But it seems to me that often the latter become almost a synonym
>for syntax (for example Moule's "An Idiom Book of NT Greek" and Porter's
>"Idioms of the Greek New Testament"). But I wonder (and perhaps I'm simply
>mistaken) if what you meant might be better described as referring to a
>practical comprehension of the grammaticalness of a Greek sentence. Hmm ...
>I don't know if this really captures the right idea in words. What I mean
>to suggest here is that everyone who uses English at a basic competent
>level has some inner knowledge of what types of sentences are grammatical
>and which are not, even if this person has no real academic knowledge of
>English grammar. Is this the idea which you meant to express by the term
>"idiom," or something else altogether?

This is really a very good question (by which I don't mean at all to
suggest that you don't regularly ask good questions)--or actually a series
of questions.

I wrote "idiomatic Greek prose and poetry," and I guess I meant that to be
inclusive of all the senses of "idiom" that you go on and list above. But
your penultimate sentence raises a pretty serious issue:

> What I mean
>to suggest here is that everyone who uses English at a basic competent
>level has some inner knowledge of what types of sentences are grammatical
>and which are not, even if this person has no real academic knowledge of
>English grammar.

I don't know whether this is quite the same thing as what Chomsky once
referred to as a sense of the "deep structure" of the language or not, but
in any case, I'm not altogether sure it's true. Why, for instance, do I
either read in print or at least hear on voice media the jarring use of
nominative case forms in English after a preposition by respectable
"educated" persons whom I really would expect to "know better"--I mean
solecisms (or what would once have been called solecisms) like "for he and
I"? Of course this is intelligible, but can we call it "grammatical"? I am
fascinated by the process of linguistic change, as I have probably said
enough times on B-Greek to be annoying about it; I rather think that what's
at stake in such phrases as "for he and I" is a gradual restructuring of
the cases of the English pronoun, the last place where the older
case-system of English has remained for so long relatively intact.
Something like that is involved in Koine in the gradual acceptance of AUTOS
as a nominative subject pronoun or of hEAUTOUS as a second-person
equivalent of ALLHLOUS. This is the same jarring experience that one who
has a sense of "idiom" of either Classical Attic or of Koine has in reading
Revelation: what he/she finds may not be "solecisms" but there are
certainly recurrent deviations from standard idiomatic usage, deviations
that don't, in most cases, undermine the intelligibility of what's being
said at all, but that are jarring nonetheless. Linguistic usage is so much
a matter of what Hume called "the custom and habit of confident
expectation"--and that's precisely what I mean by
"idiom." I've spent most of the weekend (apart from watching Rams football
and all the hoopla before and after the game, fool that I am!) annotating
the first exercises of my "Spring" semester class in Latin prose
composition; in these exercises I have found many a sentence that is
correctly formulated in terms of the rules of Latin morphology and syntax
and that would presumably have been intelligible to a Roman in those
terms--but that would never, I think, have been formulated as they have
been by a native Latin-speaker. I think this illustrates adequately enough
what I mean by "idiom" in the broader sense: the mind-set of the native
speaker/writer with respect to patterns of speech (which may include
morphology and syntax)--including the kinds of metaphors and similes that
are "natural" to that mind-set--the patterns of speech, that is, that meet
a native speaker/writer's "custom and habit of confident expectation."

And that may be either too much or too little of an accounting of what I meant.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649

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