thinking Greek

From: Joel D Kalvesmaki (
Date: Wed May 17 2000 - 12:08:32 EDT

Hi all,

I'm a very infrequent poster, but this subject caught my eye.

First of all, thanks to Mark and Kimmo for their points about modern Greek.
Although many moderns do not understand much of the ancient, many do
understand "simpler" texts such as the Gospels of John or Mark. I'm sure
that they have some level of understanding with the rest of the NT and LXX,
but how much I'm not prepared to say. The liturgical hymns, which are
generally much more complicated and styled than the NT, are known and rather
familiar to the Greek Orthodox. Hence I would not be surprised to learn that
modern Greeks understand quite a bit of the NT. I find that as I hear the
Bible in Greek my aural skills get better and I understand more and more.

> Spend five minutes in prayer in Greek. If it is mostly silence you will

I myself, although not Greek by birth, both read a wide variety of ancient
Greek texts *and* pray it as well. In fact, I think much of my fluency in
Attic Greek comes from my worship in the Greek Orthodox tradition. To speak
and hear the language changes the way you percieve it on paper.

(As an aside, many of the changes in pronunciation of Greek had already set
in by the 1st c., so the modern pronunciation is a legitimate way to read
the NT. Others would go further and say that it *is* the proper way to read
the NT since you are forced to work within a tradition which is both
organically connected with the authors of the NT and also living -- not an
abstract construction by a scholar.)

> Craig egrapsen:
> >As you acquire a greater vocabulary and avoid mental translation as you
> >read, you will eventually find yourself thinking in Greek.

I must wonder about this.

About seven years ago I prepared to visit Egypt. I learned modern Arabic
from textbooks, from people I knew, from tapes I found. I did everything I
could to understand and think in Arabic prior to my arrival. I even had a
certain understanding of what it meant to be Arab.

My arrival in Egypt taught me otherwise. Arabic was not the language I had
read about in the textbook. It was greater, larger, much, much more
mysterious. The words that had a certain definitive "meaning" in the
dictionary were used in very different ways. The grammar was used
differently. The context of bumping shoulders with Muslim and Christian
Egyptians in a sea of innuendo, humor, and other elements of social politics
altered the way I understood the words and their overtones in society.

The food, the daily habits of life, even the traffic patterns were affected
by and, in turn, affected the kinds of language used. What I had thought of
as "Arab," was not much of a category there, where "Arabs" were the Saudis.
They themselves were Egyptians, or Cairenes, or brethren Christians, or from
'Ain Shams. The language was genuinely a living thing. I had been dropped in
the middle of this living linguistic tradition, and I began to understand
how inadequate my studies in absentu had been.

I found foreigners in Egypt who said that it frequently takes a Westerner 14
years in the culture before they really achieve fluency in Arabic -- often
marked by dreaming in the language.

My own observations from this personal experience for this list:

1. A language is an inextricable part of a larger tradition. When taken out
of that tradition, the language is altered. When I learned Arabic in London,
I was simply making a new language (as it stood, Arabic was merely a new
code for me) part of and an extension of my own tradition. Was I really
learning Arabic in London? I cannot say.

2. As a corollary, thinking in a language is not enough. Thinking in a new
worldview, in a way provided by a new culture, ought to be the goal.
Learning the Arabic language of Cairo can be realized only by learning to
become a Cairene Egyptian. Without this, the new language that I "think in"
is simply a code superimposed upon my American experience. It is merely a
funny form of English.

3. The material environment affects our understanding of the language, as do
our social contacts. If we have no contact from people who speak our target
language, we will superimpose onto the language those people we do know.
Humans are the loci of meaning behind a language, and we must have these
loci to understand the language.

4. The use of the language shapes the meaning of the language. The meaning
of words is informed by and, in turn, informs the context in which they are
spoken. The context in which this happens is the social tradition.

In terms of my own experience in Greek, I find that the more I read, the
less secure I am in claiming that I "know" the language. Working this last
semester with Pachomius' Life, the Life of Antony, Porphyry's Life of
Plotinus, Evagrius of Pontus' corpus, the Theolegoumena Arithmeticae, and
the Life of Daniel, among others, showed me how much wider and extensive
Greek is than I ever expected. I found new overtones of thought I hadn't
noticed before, and realized that there was probably quite a lot I missed on
these readings. I came back to Paul's Ep. ad Romans after this experience
and, reading it, wondered how I could have ever thought Romans was

Anyway, these are a few scattered thoughts which I think have some bearing,
particularly on the hermeneutic and epistemological implications of some of
the suggestions on this thread.

Best wishes from this lurker,

untitledJoel D Kalvesmaki Graduate Student, Early Christian
Studies Catholic University of America Washington, DC

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