Its All Greek To Me

January 28, 2015

Its All Greek To Me

There has always been this elephant in the room whenever I enter academic conversations as it relates to the Greek language. I was reminded of this recently when I was talking to a software developer who worked with programs specific to biblical and theological studies.

When he heard that I was Greek the topic soon turned to Greek pronunciations. He was beginning to take Greek at a local seminary and had heard that what was taught in academic institutions in North America had little resemblance to the actual language.

I couldn't help but sense an air of disbelief from the person when I confirmed what he had heard. It's a scenario I have found myself in a number of times over the years. Hence my ongoing frustration with the academic world when it comes to the language I was born with.

There are four basic mistakes that are typically made in the ""English"" world when it comes to Greek.

1. Using English grammatical rules to determine Greek grammar and syntax (as is evident in the way the article in Greek is often mishandled- John 1:1 is the classic example - Jehovah witnesses translate "was a god", rather than "was God").

2. Slavishly translate a word devoid of its parsing and syntactical relationship. (If I hear one more person tell me that "agape" love is a special divine love I am going to throw up).

3. Word order often becomes a huge hurdle for English only people. Typical sentence order in English is Subject-Verb-Objects. Greek (and Hebrew) is typically Verb-Subject-Objects.

I say typically because in Greek, it is consistent maybe a fraction of the time. Greek nouns, verbs, participles, etc. all have unique forms. So, you can literally put every word of a sentence in a hat, pull out different variations of the sentence and jumble the word order up and the sentence will mean the same thing in every case.

The nuance would be the stress a writer would want to place on an aspect of the sentence, but the meaning of the entire sentence would basically be the same. That is something that is hard to grasp for those learning Greek because its not intuitive to the way we normally think of language. That is why parsing is so important. So, a noun is not understood purely by its placement in a sentence, but by its form (parsing), same with verbs and so on.

4. Greek pronunciation. There is not a single seminary in North America-that I know of- that teaches proper pronunciation. What is taught is the Greek of the latin Erasmus, who butchered the language with latinisms which became the theological lingua franca for seminary Greek.

So, what is taught is really a foreign language to the country whose name it bears!! The last one is the ultimate language sin and the one that causes me the most consternation among my academic peers. I can't tell you the number of times I've had english-only speaking people tell me how I should be pronouncing my language.

I have a simple one word test that separates the real Greeks from the latin posers. I use the word, gyroscope. A person, taught to pronounce Greek properly will pronounce gyroscope dramatically different than someone taught the other way. Its an easy tell (another good word is psyche). In some respects, the theological world on this side of the planet is more concerned with exegesis and not pronunciation, but I still find it unprofessional to treat a language so carelessly, especially since it was the major vehicle God used to deliver the New Testament. Just saying!




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