Monthly Archives: December 2013

Are classicists disrespecting the Greek language?

Last summer I took a summer course in Greek at the local Greek Orthodox Church.  We began by reading the text out loud.

Source: flickr.com/photos/kirstyjmcnamara/5082309795/

Source: flickr.com/photos/kirstyjmcnamara/5082309795/

“No, no, you’ve got to speak real Greek!” the teacher admonished me as I spoke what I had thought was Greek.

I later learned that the way I was taught Greek was the Erasmian style typically used by classicists.  Now I was learning the modern pronunciation.  The modern one, I was told, is better, more melodious, than the stilted and pedantic Erasmian reconstruction.  Daniel Wallace disagrees, but listen for yourself (at about 4:40):

Moreover, my teacher claimed, it is disrespectful to pronounce Greek using the Erasmian style.  It disregards Greek as a living language.

For about a week, I fell under the spell of this argument.  Classicists, I thought, were doing it all wrong!  We should speak authentic Greek!

Wait a minute.  Authentic?  What does that even mean?  If we pronounce Homer using Erasmian pronunciation, we risk using a made-up phonetic system that was possibly never used.  But if we pronounce Homer using modern pronunciation, we commit the cardinal sin of presentism.  Neither seems very “authentic.”

In an ideal world we might pronounce a Greek text using the time period (roughly) it was written in.  So for Homer and Herodotus we could use Erasmian, for Koine texts we could use Randall Buth’s reconstructionand for modern Greek we could use modern Greek.

But then what of geographic differences?  Must we discern the difference between Attic and Ionic before reading a word of actual Greek text?  Must we learn the musical pitch tones of ancient Greek too?

And who exactly owns the past anyway?  It is dangerous to create a debate resting upon a modern group’s proprietary feeling towards a particular ancient culture, whether in the same region or not.  Modern Greeks are not striving to claim the religions or gender roles of Plato’s Athens.  Why the language?  And if, as some have told me, a modern Greek speaker trying to read Homer is like us trying out Chaucer or Beowulf sight unseen, what would make a modern Greek feel that ancient texts should be pronounced in a modern tongue?  The legacy of Greece is not just for modern Greeks; it has disseminated for centuries across all Europe and the U.S.

Clearly the question of pronunciation is a political one.  My answer is more pragmatic.  The Erasmian pronunciation, as ugly and fussy as some may call it, is phonetically simpler.  It predates the iotacism of modern Greek, the collapsing of vowel sounds that makes words sound the same (e.g., ᾿υμιν and ῾ημιν).  I prefer the sound of the modern pronunciation, but the ease of the Erasmian.

While we’re on the subject, check out Daniel Streett’s summary of this same debate at the 2011 SBL and Spiros Zodhiates’ Koine Greek Audio New Testament.

My journey into Latin.

After my first year of Greek, my next step became clear.  I wanted to learn Latin.  But I didn’t want to sit through another year of grammar-parsing.

“I’ll teach you!” exclaimed my professor.  I had mentioned to him that I was considering learning Latin.  As a medievalist in a religious studies department, I was his first Latin student in three decades of teaching.  We duly began working through Collins’ Ecclesiastical Latin.  My Greek – and two years of long-forgotten high school Spanish – has made Latin go by quickly.  Word order still plagues me.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/58558794@N07/7138446363/

Many would claim I am learning the wrong kind of Latin, or that I should learn Classical Latin first.  But I prefer to read that which holds my interest.  I can always pick up Virgil at another time.

This fall Dr. Macy and I are examining Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew Bible.  Did he get things right?  In the spring we hope to read some Bonaventure.  I am beginning to see the beauty of the Roman tongue.

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ἡ γλῶσσα: My odyssey in Greek.

I began Greek in the fall of 2012 under the tutelage of classicist Helen Moritz.  It drove me nuts.  So many declensions, prepositions, overly precise (so I felt) variants of conditions.  Our textbook relied exclusively on selections from Herodotus and Xenophon; I was learning Greek for Plato and St. John.

Rodney Decker writes about ἡ ὁμίχλη, the fog that follows every student of Greek:

What you may discover is that the fog tends to travel with you. But if you turn around, or walk back a few steps (i.e., chapters in your textbook), suddenly everything appears to bright and sunny.

The fog continued to follow me through my summer reading of Pseudo-Lucian’s Ὁ Ὀνος and a Greek course at a Greek Orthodox church around the corner from my apartment.  This fall I have had a break from Greek.  Next quarter I am reading selections from Homer’s Odyssey.  Out of the frying pan and into the fire!

The genesis of my Hebrew.

In 2011, a friend of mine told me he was learning to read Hebrew as part of converting to Judaism.  I was enthralled: “Do they teach that to non-Jews?”

It just so happened that Congregation Beth Shalom was next door to my church.  I took it as a sign.  Over the next year I progressed through the elementary grammar and began to work on Ruth before the rabbi and I both had to move away.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smolianitski/3908339519

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smolianitski/3908339519

When I came to Santa Clara University, I restarted Hebrew through independent studies in Ruth and Jonah with my New Testament professor Catherine Murphy.  It went so well that I was able to take Advanced Hebrew at the Graduate Theological Union.  Having never taken a formal course in Hebrew, I felt both intimidated and honored to be able to study Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Psalms (in Qumranic and Masoretic variants) with doctoral students.  Since fall 2012, I also been taking Jehon Grist‘s Advanced Hebrew courses through Jewish adult education network Lehrhaus Judaica.

My feelings on Hebrew have changed over time.  At first its sparseness scared me.  But during my first year of Greek, I grew to appreciate Hebrew’s lack of complicated declensions and particles.  Now I love its compactness and sound.

Welcome to Linguae Antiquitatum!

Greetings, and welcome to my internet home!

Over the past three-odd years of learning ancient languages, I have found few blogs devoted to this niche.  There are many blogs about learning Greek, Latin, or Hebrew (mostly written by classicists or biblical scholars), and these are superb.  But I wanted to fill a niche for blogs about all ancient tongues.

Though they are often deemed so, I prefer to not call Greek, Hebrew, and Latin “dead languages.”  Greek is still very much alive, though quite unrecognizable from Homer and Aeschylus.  Hebrew, despite its near-two-milennia death, also has a pulse.  But even the dialects I am studying, which are long-“dead,” are very much alive.  They continue to live on in their students.  Call me sentimental, but I just don’t like the connotation of “dead.”

I will read anything you give me, but I am more interested in religion, philosophy, and myth than in histories or legal documents.  In the ancient world, the lines between these categories were not at all clear.  But I would like to be upfront about my biases.

Most of all, I hope to blog my way through various resources for students of ancient languages, from commentaries and dual-language editions to lexicons and grammars.  I hope to provide insight and advice for others walking down this path.  Most of all, I hope you will join me.

A preview of what is to come:

  • Some introductory posts on how I got into each of my three languages.
  • A series on working through Philippians in Greek with the help of Jerry Sumney’s reader.
  • Some thoughts on Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew Bible and how they are presented in Scott Goins’ Vulgate Old Testament Reader.
  • A series on the Ten Commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy.