Dover (1960) on Greek Word Order

In the course of researching my paper on word order for the SEBTS Greek and Linguistics conference (conference volume here) last Spring I had the chance once again to appreciate the work of the group I affectionately and respectfully call the “Dead Grammarians.” I am referring to that earlier generation of Greek scholars who likely started with Greek and Latin in middle or high school rather than in seminary like today. They had conversational abilities (or better) in several European languages and reading abilities in other ancient ones. What they might lack in terms of modern linguistic framework they generally made up for by internalizing the grammar. They knew phenomena when they saw them, even if they lacked the explanatory tools to show it. Their examples are a great lens into their insights, like this one I summarize from Dover in 1960. He had to have done all of his statistical computations by hand using printed Greek texts. Crazy, amazing stuff. His example about the dog prefigures Knud Lambrecht’s insights by 34 years. Here is how I summarized his work in my paper:

Dover demonstrates a keen awareness of the limitations of statistical data for making judgments about normal versus abnormal order. He notes, “It is easy, but wrong, to equate ‘statistically normal’ with ‘natural’ and ‘statistically abnormal’ with ‘distorted’, ‘inverted’, etc.” Furthermore, he notes that certain word classes are much more likely to occur at the beginning of a clause than others, leading him to classify these as “preferential words.” These include interrogatives, negatives, relative pronouns, sequential adverbials like πρῶτον or ἔπειτα. In other words, not all subjects or adverbs are created equally; statistics require nuanced understanding not to be misleading. Simply drawing conclusions on the basis of higher-level grouping of the data is thus fraught with peril.

Despite the disadvantages he faced in terms of the 1960 state-of-the-art, Dover’s claims anticipate the cognitive-functional approach described below in significant ways. In his chapter on logical determinants he highlights the critical importance of context, particularly in regard to the status of the information communicated in the utterance. He correlates changes in Greek word order to “modification of the tone and volume of the voice, so that two utterances which are identical in writing may be revealed in speech as standing in quite different logical relations to their contexts.” (32) He illustrates this with the simple expression “Dogs bite.” Although “dogs” is the grammatical subject and “bite” the grammatical predicate, changing the context naturally changes what each contributes to the context. “If the context of this utterance is a discussion of the habits of dogs, syntactical and logical subject coincide… If, on the other hand, the context is a discussion of creatures which bite, the logical classification of the elements of the utterance is the reverse of the syntactical; ‘bite’ becomes the logical subject, and ‘dogs’ the logical predicate.” (34) The key to understanding this difference, according to Dover, is understanding that “‘dogs bite’ is an answer to an implicit question; in the first context, ‘what do dogs do?’, and in the second, ‘which animals bite?’”(35) Much more could be said here, but the key point is that although statistics are generally helpful for identifying general patterns, they are insufficient in themselves for understanding the writer’s motivation for variations in constituent order. The information status of each constituent in a given context is determinative for differentiating emphasis from contrast.”

So my advice? Invest the time reading and listening to the Dead Grammarians. To do this profitably you will need to listen to them on their own terms, not anachronistically judging them for not understanding aspect or cognitive semantics. Work at getting past the hyphenated labels and paying keen attention to their expositions and examples.

A decade and a half ago I was challenged by three scholars over two days (independent of each other) at the 2006 ISBL meeting to build relationships with these older, traditional grammarians. At that time I was too arrogantly confident in modern linguistics to have invested the time. If you read through my Discourse Grammar (written the summer of 2008) you will find that I tie nearly every major claim back an anticipatory comment or two from the ‘Greatest Generation’ grammarians. The notable exception to this is the chapter on metacomments, which falls under the purview of Form Criticism.

The primary advantage that linguistics offers is greater clarity and explanatory power. It should not lead to claims that run counter to everything anyone else has ever claimed. If no one has ever noticed what you think you are the first to ever see in two millennia of research, chances are you are wrong. Go retro and invest the time reading and listening.