Phonology, Pronunciation and Language Learning

I’d like to take up the question of what pronunciation system should be used for teaching Greek from a different perspective.

When we talk about pronunciation, what we’re actually talking about is how a language organizes its sounds into a system. And every language has a different system based on different constraints and rules for how each sound interacts with other sounds. How to vowels respond when they are beside each other? Are vowels even allowed to appear beside each other? What happens when stops (e.g. b, p, d, t) appear before or after fricatives (f, v, th, s, z)? Do they change? What about when two fricatives articulated in different places (e.g. lips or the alveolar ridge) are put together (e.g. fth – English allows this: fifth, but Koine Greek doesn’t: φθ is pronounced “pth”)? Does the language even allow that to happen? These are the sorts of questions phonology asks, among others. Phonological systems are not simply groups of sounds that a given language uses. They’re all in it together.

So what happens when these different sound systems come in contact with each other? What happens when a person who knows one language tries to learn another? Well, we try to make things fit as best we can.

English has a system of eleven vowel sounds, which I’m going to represent with this table below.


Granted, there are 16 boxes here, not 11, but I prefer symmetry for this. We can live with 16.

So what do things look like when we move on to Hellenistic Greek, as represented by Randall Buth’s pronunciation?


The Box as a whole is the same size, but the space is organized quite differently (and yes, I know Buth’s system has 7 sounds not 9). And when the language learner comes to learning the pronunciation and phonology of the new language. The immediate result is to attempt to force these new vowels into original first language system:


Of course, this is rather distorted. And its also why second languages speakers have an accent. But it generally works and the speaker is understandable. And potentially, over time, those boxes will progressively look more and more like those of the native speaker, at least, potentially.

Its actually more difficult to go the other direction. Because what a native speaker with a 5 (Modern Greek) or 7 (Buth/Mussies) vowel system thought and has internalized as a single vowel turns out to be 2 or maybe more vowels in the second language.

So what about the Erasmian pronunciation?

Well, in essence, it does actually exist, at least not any more. Think about it in light of everything I’ve just said, which applies to all languages and all second language learning. And then think about the fact Erasmus did not speak English. Erasmus didn’t have an 11 vowel system so there is no way that he would have divided the space in his mouth used for pronunciation the way we do. There is really very little way of being sure of exactly how Erasmus pronounced his Greek. But we can be sure it wasn’t the way that it taught in North American schools, which is based on American Standard English Phonology rather than on Dutch, German, Latin, or Greek – the languages that Erasmus knew. None of them have English Phonology and yet we call what we use today in North American Erasmian Pronunciation??? That’s nonsense!

This is what we do. We take American English Phonology:


And then apply it to the Greek Alphabet:


When I use multiple boxes for each vowel, I’m not saying that we then  just merge the identical boxes together for a single sound. No, I’m saying that we apply multiple sounds to each of the Greek orthographic symbols. ι then actually has two different pronunciations: ee as in “heat” and i as in “bit.” And don’t even get me started on the diphthongs, which so conveniently match very nicely with our English vowel glides.

What this means is that we’re not actually teaching Greek, at least not in any substantial way or in any manner comparable to the teaching of any other language in the world. We’re teaching English and saying, “These orthographic symbols that you pronounce with these English sounds mean this English word.” And when students read the Greek New Testament with this English phonology, they doesn’t actually read Greek. Rather they’re reading the English in their heads and then going through all these hoops to remember the grammar code that Dr. Smith taught them. And once they’ve figured that out, they can write out the secret message on to a separate piece of paper and have their professor check to see how well they’ve done in getting the message right. Its all a big sham.

And then we wonder why so few students actually get very far in Greek! Or why so few students continue using their Greek in ministry afterward!

Maybe they’d use it more if they actually knew the language to begin with. Because knowing a language is far, far more than a bunch of grammar rules or vocabulary. Phonology is a key element of any language and its one that you cannot avoid.

10 thoughts on “Phonology, Pronunciation and Language Learning

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  1. Are you sure Erasmus didn’t speak English? He spent several years in Cambridge, England. Although he probably used Latin for his work as a professor there, it seems highly unlikely that he, as an accomplished linguist, would not have learned at least the rudiments of our language. But of course its phonology has changed greatly since the early 16th century.

    But then Erasmian pronunciation is not really tied to English. When I taught Greek in Russian, I had to adapt my pronunciation to the Russian convention for pronouncing Greek which is similar to but subtly different from the Erasmian one as we know it.

    1. Thanks for the history, Peter. I didn’t know he was at Cambridge. It doesn’t change my argument though, which fits quite well with your experience with Russian.

      What we call Erasmian is simply the adaption of the native speaker’s language to the Greek orthography – though Russians likely sound closer than Americans, Canadians, or Brits since they have 6 vowels instead of 11.

      Does that fit with your experience?

  2. It seems like the whole process and goal of learning a language that is just in documented form is significantly different from learning a contemporary language. The goal does look like just deciphering a code, but it also seems really hard to break away from that mentality, especially since two-way communication is not really desired. What do you think are some ways of changing that?

    There also seems to be some similarities with taking a foreign language and only being able to read it.

    1. especially since two-way communication is not really desired.

      I think this is precisely the issue. I agree, to an extent, it isn’t desired (at least not by most). But this is the issue.

      The ability to break away from the code mentality is completely possible through the standard reading, one-way communication approach. But it will be hard and long. Taking that route, you probably won’t arrive until the vast majority of your life is complete (assuming you’ve began in your twenties).

      But if we begin with the two-way communication, natural reading will follow significantly more quickly – in perhaps even 3-4 years, depending on how much time and effort is put into it.

      So I would say that two-way communication should be desire, but not as an end in of itself (obviously there’s only so much you can do in speaking a language from 100AD). Rather, two-way communication should be viewed as a means to another end: natural reading skills. And they will come and come a whole lot faster than following the typical method.

  3. Since you relate this to pastors not using their Greek, I’ll assume that you intend this to be relevant in a seminary context, not just for translators. How long do you think it will take for an average seminary student to learn Greek to an “adequate” level of proficiency using your proposed approach? Either in semester hours or number of courses? You mention 3-4 years above; does that translate to 6-8 semesters of study? (Or is that a different goal?) If so, how would you envision fleshing out the content of that from beginning Greek to exegesis?

    1. Well, I’ll admit that what I envision at this point in time would be almost impossible in the current seminary setting. But I’ll see about expanding on what I imagine happening at the very least. For our present purposes, let’s say 3 years instead of 4 (and yes, I do think it could translate into 6-8 semesters potentially).

      This is what I know:

      Over the period of 12 weeks (March through May of 2008), I studied Russian using modern language learning methods. Technically the class wasn’t on Russian. It was specifically a class on how to learn language, effectively and quickly: Second Language and Culture Acquisition.

      During those 12 weeks, in a group of 6, we met with a Russian speaker and practiced language learning three times a week for roughly 1.5 hours each time – so let’s say 4 credit hours (the class as a whole was 6cr). And by the end of the 12th week, I would equate what I learned to be pretty close to what I learned in my entire first year of Greek Grammar from college – both in terms of grammar itself as well as vocabulary (my lexical database totaled about 500 words). In twelve weeks, I learned enough to write a 50 page grammar paper covering morphology, phrase structure, special sentence type, subordination, and tense/aspect.

      My experience with how much I learn in such a short period of time convinced me of the methods.

      The challenges in terms of implementing such methodology at a seminary for learning Greek seem to me to be more practical and logistical than theoretical/methodological. In theory, you could do two years of Greek with such methods with an optional 3rd and 4th and I think it would bring students up to a reasonably acceptable level for knowing the language (this assumes are 4 year MDiv program, which, I think, is less common). But the problem is the ability to implement such methods:

      1) Teachers would be needed who have practiced two way communication in Greek enough to “pretend” to be a native speaker. Such people are difficult to come by. Buth is one of the few. Now perhaps it could be possible for students after two years to have the option to fill the role, but I don’t know how well it would work or how many students would be interested.
      2) The methods I learned are difficult to use with larger groups (there are other methods that could potentially be used with large groups, but I am not familiar with them personally).

      So I know its highly hypothetical and there are a lot of “if’s” and “maybes,” but I can tell you from experience that the methods are incredibly effective and there is a whole lot of potential for students learning, understanding, and internalizing Greek significantly more quickly than they do right now.

      But is it possible to implement such a thing on the kind of scale required for a seminary? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that it works and works well.

  4. You’ve made my point nicely, thanks. It’s a great system, but not one that could be fit into any seminary curriculum that I’m aware of. No fault in dreaming of an ideal system, but the problem always comes down to implementation. If language profs designed curriculum, it would be a different world. (Probably a poorer one!)

    For reference, I work with a 5-semester required Greek curriculum (4 + 4 + 2 + 2 + 2 credit hours)–and 4 sem of Hebrew, out of about 90 credit hours total for an MDiv. And that’s probably toward the higher end of seminary requirements these days. Many have *no* Greek requirements at all or only one or two semesters. Fewer require any Hebrew.

    The other factor that isn’t considered is the “average seminary student”–i.e., not one highly motivated in terms of linguistics (i.e., you in your Russian studies). Some are; many are not.

    1. See? My feet are at least partially touching the ground.

      I just need to stop slipping up by saying things about all Greek teaching rather than just translators, for whom this could very well work.

      But if I may pose a question to you in return:

      Do you have problems with the seminary system in its present state? I ask this in terms of specifically how Greek is taught rather than not the quite obvious problem with the schools where it is not taught. What changes would you make if you could? Or have you already made changes simply because of your teaching situation?

  5. The “seminary system” in general? Who doesn’t have problems of one sort or another with it?! Few people are willing to say they have a perfect system, even if they are founders or long-term deans.

    Of teaching Greek specifically in seminaries? You have to realize that we’re dealing with a long-standing model, but one that has changed enormously (if gradually) over the years. At one time seminaries could assume that all incoming students were *already* fluent in Greek and Latin, so simply taught Bible from Greek and Hebrew texts. The educational world in which we live, at least in the West, no longer makes that assumption possible. Hardly anyone knows the classical languages when they graduate from high school. Few learn Greek in college. (Far fewer Latin or Hebrew.)

    So the seminary must take students where they are and take perhaps 8 credit hours from previous language-based exposition courses (16 for both languages) to teach elements. That means that proportionately we already have far fewer hours for serious study of the biblical text. Then you add the pragmatism of our society which insists on “practical”/methods courses in place of more substantive, academic courses and there are even fewer hours left for languages, theology, church history, etc. In years gone by the pastor was viewed as one who was well educated in various content fields (languages, theology, history, etc.)–important for one whose primary duty was the public proclamation of Scripture; nowadays he is more often viewed as a “practitioneer” who knows how to “do things” (organize, administer programs, counsel, etc.). That’s not true of everyone, of course–I’m generalizing. But it has had a significant impact on seminary curriculum.

    Various schools have accommodated this shift to various degrees, but none have escaped it. As I suggested, I think my seminary has maintained more language requirements than many, but it’s still not what it used to be. I entered seminary (the one where I now teach) 35 years ago with 3 years of undergrad Greek and was required to take 3 more years of Greek with 3 years of Hebrew. Today, as I noted earlier, our seminary requires only 5 semesters–and that for those beginning with NO Greek. Times have changed. But even 35 years ago my training was not as rigorous in the languages as it might have been a century ago.

    So what do you do? You make the best of what you have to work with, try to convince the students of the value of the languages (and *why* that is so), and teach your heart out. Hopefully some will catch the vision. Every year some do. And every year some endure the requirement. It’s a tough battle to reverse the values that our culture has built into students from their earliest years. Today students come pre-programmed to want to know how to click the mouse to get the answer. Teach me to use Logos so I can know what it means. But students will never *learn* Greek if that’s all they learn–but a lot of seminaries teach Greek exactly that way, creating technically proficient (no, “capable”–at some minimal level) users of software who will mangle and misuse the language because they don’t understand it as a language. That’s why I flatly refuse to teach software in the first 3 semesters. They must achieve some measure of understanding of Greek as a language before they will have something even resembling the knowledge of how to use the data that any of the 3 major software tools provide with a few clicks.

    Perhaps I’m a pessimist, but I don’t see a realistic way to teach Greek in those confines with the methods that you and Buth describe. Is it a better system? Perhaps. But Randall’s really requires an immersion environment that’s not even remotely possible in a seminary setting. Can I achieve some adequate level of proficiency in the hours I have allotted? I think so, but only by focusing on some things and not others. Despite the shudders which it provokes in a linguist, pronunciation is one of the dispensable elements as I do it. Were I training professional linguists, that would be a different story. A 40 or 60 credit hour MA in linguistics or Greek (or even NT) would be a very different scenario. But 14 credit hours out of 90 in an MDiv…?

    But I’m in a different time zone than you are, and it getting late…

    1. Thank you, Dr. Decker. This is helpful. And I’ll try to have it in mind next time I write about language learning.

      My own BA in Greek required a minimum 16 hours of Greek with an additional 8 as optional – and my setting was quite a bit different than a seminary setting, I’m sure. My wife’s requirements here at TWU for Greek are even less: 9 total (we do stuff on our own together though – and she’s working through your book this summer).

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