Teaching Greek: Differences in Audience

What do you see are the main differences between teaching biblical languages to seminary students vs. teaching them to translators?

This is a question that seems worthwhile to reflect on. The one sentence answer is simply this:

Bible translators and the linguists that consult and work with them already have the linguistic and grammatical background for studying the language and it looks nothing like the grammar taught in seminaries.

It’s like this: In Mounce’s first year grammar, he provides discussions of English grammar before discussing the Greek. This functions as a sort of way to provide hooks for students to hang the Greek grammatical discussion on. Most students, however, do not take any sort of formal grammar classes even for English these days. This makes Mounce’s approach generally quite helpful in one sense, since they learn something about their own language (albeit something fairly traditional). But at the same time, it introduces new difficulties, partially unhelpful, because English Grammar and Greek Grammar do not coincide.

In contrast to that, when a student studies applied linguistics with the intention of heading into bible translation, they aren’t so much learning about English grammar or Greek grammar or Tok Pisin grammar. Instead, they are learning (1) how language works generally, (2) what human languages share in common, and (3) a methodology to analyze any language’s grammatical structure on their own. This requires students to become familiarized with a wide array of grammatical constructions and patterns well beyond the English, German, Greek or even Hebrew.

The goal of the classes is to prepare students who are going to an unstudied minority language to both study and learn the grammar while also learning the language for communication. Such a goal requires a significantly broader view of grammar, where not only is there an active-passive system like English vs. an active-middle system like Greek, but also perhaps Direct-Inverse voice systems like Ojibwe or an antipassive system like Chukchi. No class can cover the vast amounts of variation in grammar that exists across all of human language. That is why students learn methods and analytical tools. These methods and tools mean that students already have the descriptive touch points for studying Greek, but they are vastly different than the ones found in any traditional grammar, whether Mounce, Decker, or Croy.

As a result, traditional grammars end up feeling extremely foreign for the linguistics students in how both inflectional morphology (e.g. case & number) and also syntax (particularly phrase structure which is never touched on) are represented. They are written in a grammatical nomenclature that simply does not mesh with linguistic terminology already learned. This has two consequences: first, a student who starts with applied linguistics is forced to relearn grammar, but only for Greek. This is highly inefficient, given what the student already knows about language structure. Second, traditional Greek grammar simply does not engage with a wide set of important topics and concepts for Greek that traditional grammars are unaware of or do not engage with. For example, no traditional textbook that I’m aware of talks about raising and control constructions in Greek. But Greek certainly has such structures and they can be found across the New Testament and Septuagint. There is little research into these types of concerns.

On top of all of that, there is the issue of how languages are learned. Translation/linguistics students are also taught language learning methods that have significantly more in common with what Randall Buth or Seumas MacDonald is doing than what is done in virtually every other 1st year grammar available.

After you’ve flown first class on an airplane, the thought of flying coach will never have any appeal to you ever again.

So considering all of this, to teach translation/linguistics students with a traditional textbook leaves the students frustrated because 1) they know there are better and easier ways to learn the language, and 2) their understanding of how to study and learn grammar in general is often in direct contradiction of the methods and descriptions provided in the traditional textbook.

In an ideal world, not only would translators studying biblical languages have a collection of tools and language learning resources tailored specifically for their needs, but also such tools and resources would begin to feed back into the learning of Greek and Hebrew for Biblical studies. When we look at the table of contents for our reference grammar, we see an opportunity to bridge this divide and do it in a way that benefits not only English, but also minority languages around the world.

20 thoughts on “Teaching Greek: Differences in Audience

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  1. I second that. I have fallen in love with Greek grammar and from that languages and grammar in general but knowing what books to get (when I actually have money) is a difficulty, especially books that won’t cost an arm and a leg.

  2. I guess the request for a reading list I would have, is how do you go from a Greek background into Linguistics, rather than coming to Greek from Linguistics.I find most of your posts followable, but only with careful attention and concerted effort paid to figuring out terminology. My theoretical interests are more about language acquisition per se though.

  3. In Mounce’s first year grammar, he provides discussions of English grammar before discussing the Greek.

    Funny. I never really learned English grammar analytically until after a year of Greek.

      1. I don’t think I really learned English grammar until I started teaching Latin—and that was after 3 + years of Classical Greek and 2 + years of Biblical Hebrew.

        I second the idea of a basic Linguistics bibliography.


    1. And that has dangers of its own, since applying the rules and categories of Greek grammar to English grammar has led to much prescriptivist dogma with no basis in the English language whatsoever.

  4. I’m a linguistics student who’s starting to learn Greek this semester. I don’t know how traditional our lecturer’s methodologies are, but a lot of it is quite similar to what I’ve done in my ling classes, there’s a lot of pattern recognition and formulation of rules. Although the terminology is often very different a lot of what we do fits in fine with modern ling theories.

    But not always, like how a predicate has nominative case. I’d love to see a government and binding explanation for this cause I just can’t see how it works!

    So coming to Greek from linguistics has some mixed blessings.

  5. As an ESL teacher who has learned koiné, some classical Greek, Spanish, and some Tagalog (Filipino), NT Greek teachers could make significant progress simply by moving beyond the “parse and translate” model. For example, I often use “corrupted texts” in English teaching where I’ve modified forms etc., then have the student correct them. Doing so for NT Greek would allow the students to think about the target language in the target language without requiring that teachers re-work their entire approach. There are of course many other similar activities.

    Second language acquisition and teaching theories are hugely varied. I hope NT Greek pedagogy doesn’t wind up in the same place that verbal aspect studies did for a while, where there seemed to be a “linguistic” position (Porter et al.) and a “traditional” position (Fanning et al.), but in reality the “linguistic” position was only one among many possible linguistically-informed views, as demonstrated by “The Greek Verb Revisited”. NT Greek studies as a whole, including pedagogy, need to be both more open to general language studies and more cautious of those who represent them.

    Perhaps more succinctly, in all things, ad fontes!

    1. I would go even further: that Fanning (1990) was the truly linguistic position and that Porter (1989) was as sort of pseudo-linguistics–the product of precisely the kind of difficulties in terminology that I describe here. Porter’s desire to jettison himself from the earlier Greek grammatical tradition without sufficiently preparing for interdisciplinary work in linguistics resulted in a dissertation that is methodologically unmoored from both traditional grammar and contemporary linguistic theory.

      1. “Interdisciplinary” is the key word, at least in the case of seminarians. What is the minimum amount of linguistic training that a seminarian would need in order to responsibly engage with linguistics in an interdisciplinary way, given that most seminarians are learning language for basic exegetical analysis, and not for original and exhaustive argumentation? Interesting to consider. Even setting pedagogical considerations aside, general-linguistic competence will only become more and more necessary as more and more “novelties” from linguistics (or from pseudo-linguistics) make their way into the world of NT Greek.

        Also, a request for the grammar (I’m sure that’s what you were looking for in publishing this post!). Most NT students have yet to see examples included in their grammars from synchronic non-biblical documents, esp. those unearthed over the last century-and-a-half. As a modern language teacher and learner, this seems absurd, esp. since examples from the NT are already familiar to most learners in translation. If you include a significant number of papyrological examples, I’ll thank you by buying two copies.

        1. Yes indeed. Interdisciplinary work is hard. As a linguistic-only, I’m glad that I don’t really need to worry about it as I work on Greek!

          As for non-biblical documents, we’re working with the following corpus:
          Apostolic Fathers
          OT Pseudepigrapha
          NT Apocrypha
          and a still undecided quantity of Greek papyri.

          With digitized texts, there’s no excuse for not going far and away beyond just the NT.

        2. Excellent! Probably pushing my luck here, but if you were to guess when this project might be published (“all going well,” as they say in the shipping industry), what would you say?

          5-10 yrs., based on your table of contents?

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