Turner on the Optative Mood

This is one of those quotes that really, really gets under my skin, while at the same time, making me laugh.

“Moreover, the refinements inherent in the use of the optative were beyond the powers of uneducated Greeks and most barbarians.”[1]

It makes me laugh because it’s a rather funny statement. It gets under my skin because it’s quite prejudice, though I highly, highly doubt that Turner intended such a thing – and all those uneducated Greeks and barbarians are dead now anyway.

It also seems to be to be false. Its not that “the refinements inherent in the use of the optative were beyond the powers of uneducated Greeks and most barbarians,” but that the “refinements inherent in the use of the optative were beyond the powers” of non-native speakers, who didn’t learn the language as an child. It’s the same reason that many speakers of Slavic languages really, really struggle with how to use the indefinite and definite article in English. Many Slavic languages don’t have an article of any kind. They are too formally different, even if they express similar meanings.

To say that the uneducated and barbarians couldn’t understand the optative is rather silly considering various languages used by numerous illiterate people groups around the world that have significantly more refined grammatical systems.

There are minority languages that differentiate between two or three different past tense. One might use for referring to events that happened earlier that day, another might be used for events that happened on the previous day or past week, and still another might be used for events that happened more than a week ago. And these are people groups who are definitely not educated by the standards that we measure or likely not even by the standards of the educated Greeks. But they do just fine using their highly refined languages on a daily basis.


[1]James Hope Moulton and Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, Volume 3: Syntax. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963), 119.

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