Studying Greek Word Order: Comparing Classical & Koine

No, this post isn’t going to provide a comparison of how word order in Classical Greek differs from that of Koine Greek. Rather, I want to compare how such studies have been done in Classical Greek and Koine, specifically with regard to their use of statistics:

Ivan Shing Chung Kwong, in his study of word order in Luke writes the following:

The statistical result of the study contributes to the figure of relative positions between the three main constituents in two aspects: unmarked word order patterns and tendencies of certain word order patterns–a very high percentage of occurrences of a certain word order pattern indicates an unmarked order (a very regular/typical order patter, e.g., subject precedes the complement in a clause [as stated below]); as relatively high percentage of occurrences of a certain word order pattern indicates a certain degree of tendency of having such a word order (the percentage of a certain pattern is not as high as the unmarked ones, but it is still relatively high to demonstrate a certain degree of tendency of having such a word order pattern, e.g., subject tends to precede its  predicate in independent clauses [as stated below]).

The Word Order of the Gospel of Luke: It’s Forgrounded Messages, Page 45.

Now compare that with what Helma Dik says in her first book on Greek word order in Herodotus:

We have seen 48 instances in this section, many of which discussed in the previous sections of this chapter. Throughout, I have refrained from giving any statistics of the ordering patterns found, mainly because I do not think that statistics on the order of, for instance, the three core constituents would be very illuminating. In any case, the number of instances examined here is so small, that we cannot even expect ‘significant’ results in the technical sense. Be that as it may, Table 4.1 presents the distribution over the various ordering patterns as introduced in section 4.1.

Table 4.1 Ordering patterns with two arguments expressed

Pattern Instances Total
A1-A2-P 1.66.3; 1.188.1; 4.160.2; 6.7 4
A2-A1-P 3.1.1 1
A1-P-A2 1.161; 3.25.2; 4.173; 5.14.2; 6.28.1; 6.108.4 [3.19.3; 3.52.7; 3.151.1; 4.80.2] 6
A2-P-A1 3.44.1 1
P-A1-A2 1.73.1; 3.47.1 2
P-A2-A1 1.166.1 1

What conclusions can we draw from this distribution? At first sight A1-P-A2 [e.g. Subject-V-Object] appears to be the preferred pattern. If we include 3.19.3, 3.52.7, 3.151.1, and 4.80.2, this pattern covers more than half of the total number of instances. Does this make A1-P-A2 the unmarked order and should we proceed to consider only the marked instances? Clearly this would be a complicated procedure; with five different ‘marked’ patterns, there is a lot left to explain. In the preceding chapter I have tired to show an alternative way of handling the data. From this it appears that we need not describe one pattern as the preferred or unmarked pattern, but that differences in pragmatic function assignment can account for the different orderings. In such a description, we would not regard A1-P-A2 as unmarked, but explain its frequency from the fact that it is often the first argument that has Topic function and, therefore, ends up in initial position, and that in continuous narrative the predicate is the primary candidate for Focus function. Ironically, if we wanted to describe one pattern as unmarked in this description, it would be P-A1-A2, for it is very simple to describe the five other patterns in terms of ‘deviations’ (resulting from pragmatic function assignment) from this pattern.

In the clauses in which only one argument is present, we can see a similar phenomenon. A1-P is the ‘statistically unmarked’ option; I have argued that in A1-P the first argument is pragmatically marked.

Word Order in Ancient Greek: A Pragmatic Account of Word Order Variation in Herodotus, Page 93-4.

And now for my commentary on these two discussions.

First of all, Kwong and Dik’s perspectives are polar opposites.

Secondly, the quote from Kwong above is a single long and cumbrous sentence that really gets under my skin.

Third (and to the point), Dik is highly critical of the sort of statistics that Kwong has based his entire study upon. In light of her statements on statistics, Kwong’s literature review comments about Dik are rather striking:

The method and approach of Dik’s work is strange and largely disappointing. . . . Dik’s attempt to study the area pragmatically on the theory of Topic and Focus is a good try, but she fails to have a reasonable methodology and thus her work cannot give a satisfactory figure on Herodotus’ pragmatic word order (Kwong, 20; you can look up this page on Google Books if you’d like).

A couple thoughts on these words. I truly find them to be incredible. The Bryn Mawr review of Dik’s first book was incredibly positive – the exact opposite of Kwong. The only explanation I can think of consists of a combination of Kwong simply not understanding Dik with the extremely high value that he places on statistics in his own study (the few books that he speaks positively of in his lit review tend to be statistical). The vast expanse between the two approaches, one statistical and the other wholly pragmatic seems to have also introduced a gap in comprehension.

Personally, and this is my opinion (of course, I consider my opinion is correct, but am willing to be convinced otherwise), I think that Dik’s approach does far more justice to the data itself and is significantly closer to reality for Greek word order. In the end, Kwong’s work on word order will be viewed as idiosyncratic, which is unfortunate, because there is some good stuff in the book, particularly on semantic chaining (there’s also some good discussion of Topic change in chapter 8). He is simply too dependent upon statistics to be the last word, especially considering that word order statistics often vary from author to author and even from book to book within an author. I’d be curious as to whether Kwong’s word order proposals in Luke’s Gospel also work for Acts. I haven’t checked, but I’m a bit cynical.

With all of that said, there is also some strength in his exegetical claims, but I think that has more to do with how he relates his statistical findings to other linguistic/grammatical factors within the text than it does with any sort of true discovery about word order.

As for Dik, she doesn’t have everything right either. Her basic paradigm is great, though I’m suspicious about her claim that Verbs can be Pragmatic Topics, which is a unique distinction from typical Functional Grammar (and in every other framework I’ve read on this subject). As for the issue of simplicity, her explanations of constituents that follow the Verb leaves something to be desired. Post-verbal constitutents are  relegated to the category, “everything else” (in her 1994 book). I think there’s more structure following the verb than that. At times, she seems to want everything to be explained via pragmatics rather than other components of Grammar, which makes me nervous — though I’m not even sure if that’s an accurate description of her view either, so we’ll put that question aside for now.

But at least Dik is aware of the problems and dangers of overdependence upon statistics, which Kwong almost seems to embrace with open arms. Also her focus is on looking at word order as a discourse level phenomenon, while Kwong is entirely focused upon the sentence. I suspect that this is the cause of Kwong’s misreading of Dik. At least, that’s my working hypothesis.

So there are some reflections on two very different books on the same topic. I hope I haven’t bored you all to death yet.

11 thoughts on “Studying Greek Word Order: Comparing Classical & Koine

Add yours

  1. I am lot more skeptical about Helma Dik’s project after spending a lot of time with second book. It seems to me that about half the examples appear somewhat forced if you take into consideration all the other things that are going on in Attic Tragedy. Dik knows this, but that doesn’t change the fact that doubt about the project creeps in the deeper you get into the analysis.

    1. Could you expand on that?

      I’ve only read a small part of her second book, which I actually appreciated more than her first – she’s gained a number of new voices to dialogue with since 1995.

      What aspect of her argument are you skeptical about, specifically?

  2. I agree that there has been some smoke and mirrors with stats and word order. I’ve not resolved the best approach, but I’m highly skeptical of a lot that is said about this is a lot of NT studies. I’ll be interested to read any discussion that materializes here. (And now I’ve posted a comment so that I can subscribe to the comments! 🙂

  3. I’m at least as skeptical as Rod about this stuff. I’m reminded of a vote by the History Department at the institution where I taught on the question of whether they belonged in the division of Social Sciences or of Humanities. They clearly preferred a status among the Social Sciences, by which I think they meant that conclusions derived from statistical analysis of an inadequate quantity of data must necessarily be better than evaluation of evidence by Humanists. I’m always astounded to find analysts who suppose that the GNT or even the Greek Bible as a whole is an adequate database for statistical research into Koine usage.

      1. Yes, thank you, Mike. I’ve done so. Of course, it doesn’t really take much to arouse my skeptical instincts.

  4. I wrote a review of Kwong’s work for RBL, trying to engage it on its own terms. He turns a corner that I have not even seen Porter advocate: looking at specially ordered clauses in the pericope, rather than looking at a constituent in a special position within the clause. However, Porter was his doctoral adviser. It took me a week to catch where he made the shift. Here is the link:

    1. I meant to link to it originally, but I forgot.

      Steve, have you seen Jeffrey Reed’s article on word order before? Its actually quite good. He follow Chafe.

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