Modern Greek & Hellenistic Grammar

Some have called the claim that Modern Greek has something to add to the study of Hellenistic Greek controversial.


But I think that depends on what you mean and what context you intend to use Modern Greek. For the first or second year student, I would heartily agree that Modern Greek isn’t going to be terribly helpful.

But when it comes to understanding the Greek text by the more advanced scholar, particularly for being able to teach the beginning student, Modern Greek is much more important.

Let’s look at an example.

According to Artemis Alexiadou, Liliane Haegeman & Melita Stavrou, the two demonstrative positions in Greek have distinctly different meanings (the footnotes are theirs):

Context A: Mary is at the butcher’s pointing to a pork joint that she wants to buy.

a. Mary: Thelo afto to butaki.
want-1SG this the joint
‘I want this pork joint.’

b. Mary: ??Thelo to butaki afto.[48]
want-1SG the joint this

Context B: A paragraph from a guide book about a Greek town.

c. I poli eci pola istorika ktiria pu xronologhunte apo ti vizantini epoci.
the town has many historical buildings that date back to the Byzantine period

d. Ta ktiria afta episceptonte kathe xrono ekatondadhes turistes.
the buildings these vistis-3SG every year hundreds tourists

e. ??? Aftra ta ktiria episcenpttonte kathe rono ekatondadhes turistes.
these the buildings visit-3SG every year hundreds tourists[49]

Manolessou & Panagiotidis (1999), Manolessou (2000), Panagiotidis (2000), and Grohmann & Panagiotidis (2005) observe that in Greek the pre-article position of the demonstrative afto entails greater deictic strength, in contrast with the post-nominal position in which the demonstrative is used as discourse anaphoric, namely to refer back to an entity that has been previously mentioned. Only the pre-article demonstrative can normally be used along with a pointing gesture: based on this observation it is generally agreed that only the pre-article demonstrative is genuinely deictic.[50]

Artemis Alexiadou, Liliane Haegeman & Melita Stavrou, The Noun Phrase in Generative Grammar (Studies in Generative Grammar 71; Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2007), 120-121.

[48] For some speakers (b) is acceptable with contrastive intonation on the demonstrative and an accompanying deictic gesture.

[49] Notice that the ‘strategy’ discussed in the preceding note is not available for rescuing (83e) since the buildings in question are not physically present, and so one cannot point to them (unlike the butcher’s customer who actually sees the joint).

[50] Interestingly, a different proposal with respect to the interpretation of post-nominal and pre-article demonstratives is made by Tasmowski De Ryck (1990), who argues that the pre-article demonstrative has a thematic interpretation (i.e. it represents an entity already known/given) while the post-nominal demonstrative has a rhematic (i.e. new) interpretation.

These words, sparked my curiosity as to what we can say about the status of demonstratives in Hellenistic Greek. So I perused the texts for a bit. I didn’t do anything comprehensive, just perusing. But what I saw, in my randomness, fit – if we assume that footnote 48 was generally true for the Hellenistic Period.

Likewise, it *appears* that pre-nominal demonstratives are not allowed in situations like what we see in Context B above. Granted, this was more difficult to test. What I did was search through the non-narrative texts of the New Testament and examined the kinds of contexts and pragmatic situations where the author used pre-nominal vs. post-nominal demonstratives. The different, I though, was quite striking. For example, in Paul, pre-nominal demonstratives are only used in a couple different situations:

  1. Pronominal situations: Rom 11:30, νῦν δὲ ἠλεήθητε τῇ τούτων ἀπειθείᾳ, “but now you have received mercy as a result of their disobedience.”
  2. Quotes from Direct Speech: 1 Cor 11:25, τοῦτο τὸ ποτήριον ἡ καινὴ διαθήκη ἐστὶν ἐν τῷ ἐμῷ αἵματι, this cup is the new covenant in my blood.”
  3. References to previous words written (i.e. the external real life referent is the text itself): 2 Cor 7:1 ταύτας οὖν ἔχοντες τὰς ἐπαγγελίας, “Therefore, since we have these promises…” (Cf. Eph 3:1
  4. Abstact Concepts that cannot have an external referent: 2 Cor 11:17, ὃ λαλῶ οὐ κατὰ κύριον λαλῶ ἀλλʼ ὡς ἐν ἀφροσύνῃ ἐν ταύτῃ τῇ ὑποστάσει τῆς καυχήσεως, “ In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool.”

If what Alexiadou, Haegeman, & Stavrou say is correct for Hellenistic Greek as well, then it would have been ungrammatical for Paul to have said: ἐν τούτοις τοῖς κλίμασι instead of ἐν τοῖς κλίμασι τούτοις in Romans 15:23.

Now whether I’m right or not, I’m not sure, which is why I used the word “appears” above. I don’t think we can draw definite conclusions on the issue from this very cursory & ad hoc study I did this afternoon.

But if I am correct on this, then there are two important things to remember:

1) Greek word order issues are never discussed in beginning classes in terms of the why?. New students only learn the what?. They need to learn the reasons for different word orders.

2) What I just covered here is something you could very easily teach to your students: “Students, this is why the order of the demonstrative in the NP matters and this is what it means.” See, that was simple, wasn’t it?

13 thoughts on “Modern Greek & Hellenistic Grammar

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  1. Upon further thought, I’m inclined to think that this observations applies even to Classical Attic — it’s not just a matter of Hellenistic Greek and Modern Greek. Smyth: οὗτος (less often ἐκεῖνος) may take up and emphasize a preceding subject or object. In this use the pronoun generally comes first, but may be placed after an emphatic word: ποιήσαντες στήλην ἐψηφίσαντο εἰς ταύτην ἀναγράφειν τοὺς α᾽:λιτηρίους having made a slab they voted to inscribe on it the (names of the) offenders Lyc. 117, ““ἃ ἂν εἴπῃς, ἔμμενε τούτοις” whatever you say, hold to it” P. R. 345b. The anaphoric αὐτός in its oblique cases is weaker (1214).

      1. Indeed, it’s more useful than BDF, although I wouldn’t want to be without BDF. Smyth is what the Bible software companies really should pursue rather than stuff like Thayer’s lexicon.

        1. Frankly, that’s an absurdly large collection; I can see putting it in a package with other reference works that are really Classical: Allen & Greenough, the Homeric grammar, and the like. But very few specialists are going to want that whole bundle.

  2. I was a linguist, now I’m reduced to delight that you’ve namechecked my friend Io Manolessou (whose PhD was on the evolution of definiteness in Greek).

    There’s a general problem with Classical Greek grammar not being restated enough in terms of Modern linguistics. I’m actually surprised that New Testament Greek may be in the same bind, I assumed that community was more with it.

    Don’t get me started on the universal bad ASCII transliteration of Greek in linguistics papers. Ick.

    I’ll confirm the modern intuition for free. I can get a deictic interpretation of (b), but only by practically screaming: θέλω το μπουτάκι ***ΑΥΤΟ!!!1!!ένδεκα!!***And (e) can only be read as “It is THESE!! buildings, not the other ones, just THESE!!!11!!, that hundreds of tourists visit every year.”

    … I could actually ask at this point whether anyone respects Robertson for his 1000 pp. grammar, with loads of mentions of Modern Greek; but I suspect I already know the answer…

    1. I’d say that Classical Grammar is doing better than Hellenistic – because of people like Rijksbaron, the Bakker’s, Wakker and Dik, in Functional Grammar and others like Silvia Luraghi & Rutgar Allan working in Cognitive Grammar, not to mention Devine & Stephens in Government & Binding.

      There’s probably only three or four linguists working on Hellenistic & NT Greek and then scores are NT scholars who have dabbled in linguistics on the side, but don’t really know what they’re doing. A few of those ones have actually caused more trouble than good – e.g. Porter who has been arguing for the past 20 years now that Hellenistic Greek had not yet developed tense (sigh…) or Kwong who has a disturbing obsession with statistics you can read about HERE.

      …And by the time Robertson’s grammar got to it’s 3rd edition, it was just short of 1500 pages.

  3. I think the dangers in using Modern Greek directly to understand NT Greek are two-fold. First, the two dialects are obviously different, so a speaker of Modern Greek may be led astray regarding NT Greek. Worse, the apparent similarity of the two languages gives the researcher false confidence.

    I commonly see the same sort of thing among my Hebrew students who are learning both modern and biblical Hebrew. (My students’ confusion, in fact, was one impetus for a class I taught on the history of Hebrew, which later became a book.)


    1. Joel, that’s exactly why I prefaced this post with an emphasis on the advanced scholar.

      The only claims about the relevance of Modern Greek to Hellenistic Greek that I am willing to make are those that can be sustained by the data. I have no interest in simply saying that Modern Greek is always relevant for study of 1st century Greek. All I say is that it can be relevant. Just like any language can be relevant, typologically. There is much that could (and should) be pulled from linguistic study of Russian that would be significant for the study of Hellenistic Greek as well — all the more so for Modern Greek.

      1. I agree that any particular language can help us learn more about language in general, and the more we know about language in general, it is in turn easier to understand a specific language. I get concerned when people bypass the middle step of learning about language in general.

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