Category Archives: Languages

Review: Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew, Sue Groom

One of the great joys of working on the student’s handbook of Biblical Hebrew vocabulary this summer has been my entry into linguistics and biblical languages. I have long had a layperson’s interest in linguistics, and for me learning about nuances of historical change, sociolinguistics, and such has been one of the payoffs of learning biblical languages, a payoff I had to discover much on my own through authors such as Joel Hoffman and William Schniedewind. This past week I have also started working through

41H1K6GMXWL._SX299_BO1,204,203,200_However, though there are some great books introducing the layperson to linguistics and biblical interpretation, many seem to be more geared more to NT Greek: Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning, Campbell’s Advances in the Study of Biblical Greek, and so forth. So when I saw Sue Groom’s Linguistic Analysis of Biblical HebrewI ordered it on interlibrary loan right away. Groom’s book aims to introduce the linguistic tools that scholars have applied to the Hebrew Bible. However, though there were some useful chapters in this book, on the whole I found it somewhat of a disappointment.

The first hazard is the mention in the introduction that the book is based on Groom’s MA thesis. This is strange: theses and surveys tend to be very different genres. The second hazard is apparent in the table contents, which promises chapters on the corpus of ancient Hebrew, the development of the Masoretic text, the nature of Biblical Hebrew, ancient biblical translations, comparative philology, lexical semantics, and text linguistics. Hence, rather than orienting biblical studies students to the basic linguistic theories—e.g., syntax, phonology, morphology, etc.—she dives into current topics of discussion. And out of this 174-page book, the longest chapter (31 pages) is devoted to ancient translations that are better surveyed in a book on Old Testament textual criticism than in this book.

In the chapters that were the most useful, Groom glosses over the issues that perhaps need the most treatment. For example, her chapter on “The Nature of Biblical Hebrew” surveys discussions of diglossia, diachronic variation, and dialectical variation and geography—all in 14 pages. I found it hard to follow some of her discussions because she summarized complex arguments without sufficient examples. Still, I gained much from that chapter in particular, as well as her discussion of lexical semantics and comparative philology.

Perhaps the most useful part of her book is the conclusion, which integrates the many different methods she described in an analysis of selected terms in Judges 4. This really illustrated how one can use the biblical languages responsibly instead of in one of the exegetical fallacies so common in popular preaching.

So rather than recommending the entire book, I would recommend selected chapters, with the caveat that since this book was published in 2003 the scholarly discussions have certainly advanced. Overall, despite its usefulness, this book’s genesis as a thesis showed, since much of it felt like a literature review. For me, an ideal book of this kind might include a kind of workbook format, with examples to work through and questions for students to tackle.

That said, I just found out yesterday that I might be taking a seminar on historical linguistics and biblical Hebrew this fall, so I am sure to find out more about this area!

“These Are the Words” in Biblical Hebrew: Why You Should Buy our Upcoming Book.

John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry describes the need for a handbook of Ancient Hebrew vocabulary based on semantic domains. He contrasts this to most of the handbooks available now, such as Landes and Van Pratico/Pelt:

From a pedagogical point of view, furthermore, there is something perverse about trying to assimilate vocabulary according to frequency spectra.

Hobbins is right: this is not how people learn a language naturally. Of course any language textbook should start with high-frequency vocabulary. But you will learn that vocabulary in the context of the language overall, not as isolated words to memorize in order of frequency.

Hobbins recommends an English-language resource that arranges Ancient Hebrew vocabulary by semantic domains, or logical categories such as colors, anatomy, military terms, etc. He wrote that in 2007. So far nobody has written such a book.

This frustration was what led my mentor, David Pleins, to start writing “And These Are the Words”: A Student’s Guide to Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Categories. At some point in the process he brought he on as co-author. After Pleins devised the initial lists and categories, I scoured books with titles like The Days of Our Years: A Lexical Semantic Study of the Life Cycle in Biblical IsraelThe Semantics of Ancient Hebrew Colour Lexemes, and Weathering the Psalms: A Meteorotheological Survey to expand our lists. Oh, and yes, we did crib from Hobbins’ list of human anatomy terms.

I am proud to say that yesterday morning (3 AM!) we got the draft into the publisher. It feels nice to have a contract and know this will come out.

As I said, nobody has published a book like this in English before. Mark Wilson wrote a similar one for New Testament Greek, but it has one fatal flaw: he excludes all rare words except those etymologically related to common words. If we had taken such a principle in our book, it would be 1/4 of its size. This especially applies to many “daily life” words for clothes, furniture, etc., many of which are infrequent in the Bible.

Why might our book be useful?

First, vocabulary acquisition is essential to fluid and fun reading of the Scripture in its original languages. But the Hebrew Bible has many words that are infrequent, words that will not appear in frequency handbooks like Landes and Van Pelt/Practico. And learning vocabulary is best done in context—in this case, in the context of related words. So rather than merely learning a word for “scribe,” we can also learn words denoting books, writings, documents, pens, and ink.

But learning words by semantic domains should not just be an exercise in rote memorization. In an appendix of our book, we have collected “cluster verses” that contain several words for one category. For example, Numbers 31:50 is an ideal verse for those trying to learn words for jewelry:

And we have brought the Lord’s offering, what each of us found, articles of gold [זָהָב], armlets [אֶצְעָדָה] and bracelets [צָמִיד], signet rings [טַבַּעַת], ear-rings [עָגִיל], and pendants [כוּמָז], to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.’

That’s six different words in the semantic domain of “Jewelry,” which we have under “Clothing.” These verses enable students to learn biblical Hebrew vocabulary by engaging the text.

Second, these lists can serve as a springboard for many exercises in linguistic exploration. Because this is a student handbook, we did not differentiate words beyond basic semantic referents. But of course, words that refer to the same thing can be very different. The word “testicles” and the word “balls” refer to the same thing, but they are not used in the same contexts!

Similarly, we intend these lists to be used by students of Biblical Hebrew to compare words. Is one word poetic and another used in prose? Is one earlier and one later? Is one distinctive to a particular author?

For example, while reading Proverbs, I might come across the word יָפִיחַ, “witness,” as in a legal witness. But I wouldn’t know at first glance that this word is distinctive to Proverbs, and that the rest of the Hebrew Bible uses עֵד to refer to a witness.

Throughout the book, we have marked all words that are rare (used <10 times) as well as hapax legomena. This enables the student to explore words that are rare and have contested or ambiguous meaning. This also signals to the reader that some of our glosses are less sure than others—not because of any shoddy work on our part but because the word itself is infrequent to start with. If a word appears once in the Hebrew Bible, and if it is part of a list in Leviticus or employed as figurative language in poetry, context might not tell us much about what the word means.

Thirdthis book might be very useful for programs teaching biblical Hebrew using communicative pedagogy, such as Randall Buth’s Living Biblical Hebrew and Paul Overland’s Learning Biblical Hebrew Interactively. The lists in our book supply many terms used in daily life. There is something weird about having studied a language for years and being able to talk about complex morphology and syntax, but being unable to create sentences any five-year-old could create in their native tongue: “I want to eat an apple,” “The tree is in the forest,” etc.

I will continue to post updates as we hear back from the publisher. In the meantime, I might do a few blog posts illustrating the usefulness of this tool.

Bus drivers, ballet dancers, and biblical scholars: skill and effortlessness.

I live in San Jose, CA, but three days a week I hike up to Berkeley for school. (Any of you who live in the SF bay area know that is a trek!) What this usually entails is a 20-minute bike ride, a 45-minute bus ride, a 50-minute train ride, and a 30-minute walk. (I could do the drive in 1 hour (on a good day) but I think the stress of that drive would shave a few years off my life.)

This morning I was talking to one of the bus drivers. He told me he used to drive big rigs. I asked him, which was harder? He said buses, hands down, because of the pressure of being responsible for so many lives. He said (paraphrasing), “We make it look easy. But every moment, we are constantly aware of our surroundings, of the traffic, and our minds are always working.”

His statement brought me back to when my mom took me to see The Nutcracker when I was a teen. Ballet dancers make their art look so graceful, so effortless, even fun, as if bouncing and twirling around on stage for an hour just comes naturally. Of course you know that their craft is the result of years of disciplined practice, and results in bloody toes and worn-out joints. But the ballerina, like the bus driver, has practiced their skill for so long that others don’t see how hard it is, because they make it look easy.

I think of biblical languages in the same way. My undergraduate Greek professors made Greek look so easy. Of course, each of them had studied and taught Greek for many years. In the case of one of them, we were the last first-year Greek class she taught before retiring after over dour decades of teaching. Another one of my professors, Daniel Turkeltaub (a Homerist), often compared learning Greek to working out at the gym: there is no substitute for disciplined, methodical practice, day in and day out. Only with that practice can you get to the point where it looks effortless. And, I would add: like the bodybuilder, we aspire to get to the point where it looks effortless.

All this is to say: using this metaphor of building a skill, honing a craft, helps keep me motivated as I try to practice my discipline in Greek and Hebrew.

Speaking of biblical languages, I am hoping to come out with some resources on my blog soon to help students of biblical languages. There are a lot of things I wish I had been aware of when I first started learning Greek, in particular the scholarly conventions and (sometimes) outright falsehoods that we learn in first-year Greek to make the language make sense. As scholar of comparative religions J.Z. Smith titled one of his books, map is not territory. One of the projects I am working on is for a professor writing a handbook for students of biblical Hebrew. Another is something much smaller I will post here.

Book Review: Understanding the Alphabet of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This 39-page guide to the paleography of the Dead Sea Scrolls could not have been written by a more qualified guide.  Not only is Yardeni a scholar of ancient Semitic philology and paleography, but she has a degree in graphic arts and calligraphy, so she brings an artist’s eye to her work that most scholars of ancient texts don’t have such formal training in.

yardeniIn this lavishly illustrated book, Yardeni divides Hebrew paleography during the Second Temple period into four categories:

  1. Pre-Jewish (late 3rd century – 167 BCE)
  2. Hasmonean (167-37 BCE)
  3. Herodian (37 BCE – 70 CE)
  4. Post-Herodian (70 CE – 135 CE)

She provides detailed examples of each period, although the last period is, she admits, not well-attested.  At the end of the book she provides a “cheat sheet” of the specific writing styles of each period.  However, through these four period she sees three major developments:

  1. Development of medial/final forms familiar today (e.g. of mem, nun, and tsadi)
  2. Leveling of letter height, more even lines
  3. Development of serifs/flourishes in gimel, zayin, tet, nun, ayin, tasdi, and shin/sin

Overall I really enjoyed the pictures in this book, which made it clear how the script changed over time.  I do think she could have made the book longer and described certain things more.  For example, she could have devoted specific chapters to each of the four time periods, rather than breezed through each one in a few paragraphs.  Often I felt the ratio of illustration to text was off, so that images of manuscripts were not explained adequately.

Still, this is a fun little volume, and I would recommend it for a good 45 minutes of reading and future reference.

Bad Translation, or how Heraclitus got misrendered.

HeraclitusA few months ago I found a translation of Heraclitus’ fragments from Penguin Classics.  This would not have excited me so much had this translation not included the Greek.  A chance to read Heraclitus’ famous aphorisms in Greek!

However, my alarm bells started ringing when I found this translation was done by Brooks Haxton, a contemporary poet.  For reasons I’ll explain better below, I am very leery of “poetic renderings” of classical texts by modern  wordsmiths who may or may not have any clue about the ancient language they translate from.  (Haxton may have formal training in classical Greek, but I could find no evidence of it.)  This is as much a problem for Sufi poets as it is for Greek and Latin.  Sadly, in trying to convey the spirit of Heraclitus, Haxton often remakes Heraclitus into his own image: a contemporary free verse poet.

Awful Translations

Here I’ll look at two of Haxton’s strangest translations — and the much better Greek originals.  First we start with Heraclitus’ most famous fragment:

Ποταμοῖσι δἰς τοῖσι αὐτοῖσι οὐκ ἄν ἐμβαἰης· ἕτερα γαρ <καἰ ἕτερα> ἐπιρρεῖ ὕδατα. (fragment 41)

Haxton translates this as

The river
where you set
your foot just now
is gone —
those waters
giving way to this,
now this.

First of all, where does Haxton get this incessant line breaking?  This is not in the aphoristic Greek text.  He is making some poetry, and his own style of poetry no less, when that is simply not in the original.

What’s more, this translation is not even accurate.  It should be rendered something like

You cannot step into the same rivers twice; for different (and different) waters flow.

Haxton is not even close.  Of course all translation involves interpretation, but Haxton isn’t even translating.

Another aphorism runs thus:

Φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεί. (fragment 10)

This aphorism is harder to puzzle out.  It literally translates to something like:

Nature likes to hide itself.

Indeed, this is how scholar of Greek philosophy Jonathan Barnes translates it in his Early Greek Philosophy, also in Penguin Classics (page 112).  But Haxton renders it:

Things keep their secrets.

This sounds deep and profound, if obscure and enigmatic.  But it is not Heraclitus.  Φύσις, or “nature,” (cognate with “physics”) is not the same as “things.”

Haxton should know better.  He is a poet, so he should know that precision in language is important, and that one should remain humble before other authors rather than taking such creative license with their work.  Instead, Haxton defends his idiosyncratic method:

My translation uses free verse to suggest the poetic ring of the original prose, which deserves to be called poetry as much as the metrical writings of thinkers like Empedocles and Parmenides. (xxviii)

This just doesn’t cut it for me.  I’m keeping this edition, but only because it has the Greek on one side of the page, not because of Haxton’s creative paraphrases.  Many reviewers on Amazon agree.

Haxton is not a lone phenomenon.  There are many modern translations of ancient literature purporting to be “more poetic” than more “academic” translations.  Aiming to replace the standard Lattimore/Green translations of the 1940s and ’50s, Oxford University Press debuted their Greek Tragedy in New Translations series, which aims to “go beyond the literal meaning of the Greek in order to evoke the poetry of the originals.”  The translations are not bad, but nor are they particularly accurate, turning the metric verse of classical tragedy into free verse.  While this series pairs a classicist with a poet, others eschew the classicist altogether, relying on a contemporary poet to translate a two-millennia old text from a different culture, in an archaic language, and which references the long-forgotten present of the text’s author.

But as I argued when I analyzed several contemporary translations of Euripides’ Medea, much of this is more publishing hype than a real advance in the art of translation.  Many of the great translators of Greek literature of the last century were also poets themselves!  Richmond Lattimore, whose Iliad and Odyssey were the accepted standard before Robert Fagles’ translations (and are still more accurate), published poetry for decades.  Fagles too was a poet. So is Barry Powell, a recent major translator of Homer.  Clearly it is not impossible to find scholars who also make good translators.

So Haxton represents what is, to me, an example of a lamentable trend in translation.  The intention is good: make ancient texts more relevant and interesting so the average person will read them.  But if one has to do seriously distort the text to do so, that is going too far.  And the best way to ensure that a translation is accurate is by hiring a scholar to do the translation rather than a contemporary poet. Not that scholars always do everything correctly.  And of course, no translation can get everything right.  But I err on the side of the historian and the philologist, not the poet.

Review: Iliad, Book I, by P. A. Draper.

Yesterday I went to my Greek professor’s office, frustrated at how slow and tedious translation homework can be.  (I admit, senioritis might play a role in my lack of motivation!)  He told me that doing Greek and Latin translation is like going to the gym.  Yes, it is tedious to look up every unfamiliar word and parse verbs and nouns.  But the more we do it, the better we get, even if the results are slow.  I left feeling reassured, ready to tackle more Greek.

51KHKSIg9UL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_But sometimes we do not feeling like going to the gym.  Sometimes we need to build up to a full workout.  Sometimes it’s okay to use readers with running glossaries. I’ve been practicing my Greek the past two summers using Nimis and Hayes’ Lucian’s The Ass: An Intermediate Greek Reader and Steadman’s Odyssey editions.  These readers go beyond most student commentaries’ grammar helps and give line-by-line vocabulary at the bottom of each page.  While they don’t facilitate much understanding of the nuances of each word, they do enable the reader to read fast and fluidly.

Earlier this quarter, I used Draper’s text to read parts of Book I of the Iliad.  Her book begins with an introduction on the current state of Homeric scholarship: who was Homer?  Was there a Homer?  When did he live?  How historically accurate is the Iliad?  She also spells out the intricacies of Homeric meter.  She has a huge bibliography of books on the Iliad, the Trojan War, and even modern fiction set in Troy.  And she has a lot of commentary.  A lot.  An example:

CCI02062015The art is a nice touch.

Although these glossed readers get a bad rap from Greek purists, I enjoy using them to read fluidly.  When I was straight out of first-year Greek, it gave me great confidence to be able to actually read something.  I would recommend Draper’s commentary on Homer to the student who wants to build that confidence.


Review: Commentaries on Plato’s Crito and Euthyphro.

This past quarter I read Plato’s Crito and Euthyphro in Greek.  My classmate Brian pointed out that this was the first time we’ve ever finished a work in Greek — previous classes on Herodotus and Homer clearly didn’t offer that satisfaction, and even when we read Euripides’ Medea we only got through about 2/3-3/4 of it.  This quarter’s plan was to read the two dialogues above, but we actually finished before the quarter ended, and got to read Aristophanes’ speech from the Symposium as a treat.

I thought it would be helpful for other Greek students to review the three commentaries we used this quarter: John Burnet’s 1924 critical edition with notes, Chris Emlyn-Jones’ Bristol Classical Press commentaries, and the Bryn Mawr Commentaries on each dialogue.  Obviously, I am not a Plato scholar, so I can’t assess how accurate and current each commentary is on Platonic scholarship.  But I can speak from my experience as a member of each commentary’s target audience: an intermediate student of Classical Greek.  Since it would be impossible to analyze every detail of all three, here I use a test case from the Euthyphro to generalize about all three commentaries and their series.

A Test Case: Euthyphro 10e9-11a3

In this passage Socrates concludes the argument that began in 10a about the difference between something being carried and somebody carrying something.  Clearly, the action comes before the state: something is carried because someone carries it, not vice versa.  In 10e9-11a3, Socrates crowns this line of reasoning by pointing out that Crito cannot equate piety with being god-loved, because, according to Crito’s logic, something’s being pious makes it beloved by the gods, so defining piety and beloved by the gods is circular reasoning.  Here Socrates plays with the distinction between φιλεῖσθαι and ἐφιλεῖτο, between “to be loved” and “someone loves it” (the middle voice cannot be rendered into English).  This is one of the most convoluted and difficult to translate passages of this dialogue:

ἀλλ᾽ εἴ γε ταὐτὸν ἦν, ὦ φίλε Εὐθύφρων, τὸ θεοφιλὲς καὶ τὸ ὅσιον, εἰ μὲν διὰ τὸ ὅσιον εἶναι ἐφιλεῖτο τὸ ὅσιον, καὶ διὰ τὸ θεοφιλὲς εἶναι ἐφιλεῖτο ἂν τὸ θεοφιλές, εἰ δὲ διὰ τὸ φιλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ θεῶν τὸ θεοφιλὲς θεοφιλὲς ἦν, καὶ τὸ ὅσιον ἂν διὰ τὸ φιλεῖσθαι ὅσιον ἦν:

G.M.A. Grube translates it:

But if the god-beloved and the pious were the same, my dear Euthyphro, and the pious were loved because it was pious, then the god-beloved would be loved because it was god-beloved, and if the god-beloved was god-beloved because it was loved by the gods, then the pious would also be pious because it was loved by the gods…

A real headache-inducer in any language!

John Burnet

John Burnet’s critical edition and commentary on Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Euthyphro is the starting-point for the other commentaries, which both rely on his text.  Though he was one of the foremost Plato scholars of his day, by now his references to Plato scholarship are dated, since his text was published in 1924.  But his philological help is still good, and he also gives text-critical notes, which the other two do not focus on.  Judge for yourself:


But one major frustration with Burnet is that he often assumes a higher level of Greek than most of his readers would have nowadays.  We don’t see it here, but sometimes he will throw out a phrase such as “Archilochus writes that…” and quote the Greek of another author as if we have read him and know the work well.  Because of this, Burnet’s commentary is not enough for an intermediate Greek student to read Plato without a teacher.

Chris Emlyn-Jones’ Bristol Classical Press commentaries

Chris Emlyn-Jones, who wrote BCP’s commentaries on both Crito and Euthyphro, is a British classicist.  His texts come complete with lengthy introductions providing a guide to the arguments in each dialogue and some of the key contemporary scholarship.  His commentary provides some philological help, but more often focuses on the argument itself.



I really liked using Emlyn-Jones’ commentaries because they helped with the arguments more than the other two.  But having used the Bristol Classical Press commentaries on Homer’s Odyssey last year, I don’t think this is a general feature of the whole series, as those ones were more philological in nature.  In sum, if I were only using this commentary, I don’t think I would have been able to read the Euthyphro very well.

Bryn Mawr Greek Commentaries

John Hare‘s commentary on Euthyphro and Gilbert Rose‘s commentary on Crito are both much shorter, and geared strictly toward philology.  I had never used a Bryn Mawr Commentary before but this appears to be the modus operandi of the whole series.



Of all three commentaries, this was the best for understand some of the linguistic oddities of the text itself.  He helps parse unusual verb forms, explains messy syntax, and gives rough translations when necessary.


Which commentary should you buy?  All three, of course!  Each has different strengths.  Burnet’s is good for the text of Plato.  The Bryn Mawr commentaries were the most invaluable in actually reading Plato.  Emlyn-Jones’ were the most important for understanding Plato.  What’s more, while writing this review I also encountered Jacques Bailly’s commentary on Euthyphro for Focus Classical Commentaries, so there are at least four commentaries.  This is good news for anyone who is trying to read Plato without a teacher.

Onward and upward!

Review: A Brief Introduction to the Arabic Alphabet.

513Gt9F-IsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ever since my brief stint studying Arabic last year, I’ve wanted to get back into it.  Since I won’t have any Hebrew courses this spring, now seems like the perfect time.

In preparation, I picked up John F. Healey and G. Rex Smith’s A Brief Introduction to the Arabic Alphabet.  This short (106 pages) book details the history of the Arabic alphabet.  Both authors are scholars of the Arab world, and Healey in particular specializes in writing systems of Semitic and Near Eastern languages.

This book’s seven chapters can be divided into roughly three parts.  The first part contains two chapters on the various writing systems that led up to the Arabic alphabet: Nabatean, Syriac, Aramaic, etc.  I really liked this chapter because it helped me see the connections between the Arabic and the Hebrew alphabets, including how letters that sound different in Arabic and Hebrew today likely corresponded more in biblical times.  He spends several pages reviewing every letter of the Arabic alphabet to trace how its shape evolved from Nabatean to early Arabic papyri to the Arabic script we know today.

The next two chapters describe the earliest Arabic writing, including inscriptions (dating back to the 3rd/4th century CE) and papyri (7th century CE).  The earliest papyri, dating to 643 CE, is a receipt given by ‘Abdullah ibn Jabir, the commander of the Muslim conquest of Egypt, for 65 sheep.  This corresponds to year 22 in the Islamic calendar — the 22nd year since Muhammad and the early umma moved to Medina.  It fascinates me to think that the earliest extant written texts in Arabic correspond to the beginnings of Islam.  One wonders if this is the actual beginning of Arabic writing on an extensive scale.  The Mecca of Muhammad’s youth was a major trade hub, and it stands to reason that there were receipts and other trade-related documents written in Arabic before Muhammad began his prophetic career.  And while there were oral poems in Arabic before the Qur’an, one wonders if the Qur’an marks the beginning of written literature in Arabic.  I wish Healey and Smith had discussed some of these issues.

The final part of the book describes various Arabic scripts.  Of course, Arabic’s cursive script lends itself naturally to calligraphy, and Islam’s aniconic tendencies meant that Arabic writers developed complex, artful, and often practically illegible forms of calligraphy with which to embellish the words of Allah.  Healey and Smith provide 16 illustrations of various forms of calligraphy.  They conclude the book by describing other languages that use the Arabic script, including Persian, Pashto, and Urdu.

When I’m studying a language, I like having background information about the history of the language and how it evolved.  One of my frustrations with Greek is that I haven’t been able to learn that information!   In this book in particular, I would have liked more maps clarifying exactly where different scripts emerged and different inscriptions found.  Other than that, this book was a helpful, hour-long read, and for the adventurous there are several suggestions for further reading in the back.  I would recommend it to any student of classical or Qur’anic Arabic.


Review: Two Greek Philosophical Lexicons.

Since I have been studying Plato this past quarter, I thought I would order F. E. Peters’ Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon to see what I could glean from it.  I later discovered J. O. Urmson’s The Greek Philosophical Vocabularyanother book with the same objective.  Here I review both as a student of Greek, not a scholar of ancient philosophy.

Introducing the Competition

F. E. Peters, an ex-Jesuit classicist and scholar of Islam, wrote his short book in 1967.  J.O. Urmson‘s background is slightly different: he was also trained as a scholar of Greek philosophy, and translated Aristotle for Penguin, but went on to do work in moral philosophy.  Both market their books to intermediate students of Greek language and philosophy who perhaps have studied little to no Greek but still want to understand the ambiguous philosophical terminology they encounter in ancient texts.  Having taken a several philosophy courses, including three specifically on ancient Greek philosophy, I think I’m in his target audience.



Urmson’s book seems to be to be better for beginners.  In his introduction, he writes that his book has 500-600 entries, so he clearly covers more terms than Peters does.  For example, Urmson has 79 entries under A, while Peters has only 31.

Urmson’s definitions are much simpler and to the point.  He never runs over one succinct paragraph, always with quotes in both transliterated Greek and English from various philosophers.  For example, see his entry on kakos (evil, bad):


Urmson 2

And so on, so that we get a good sense of what the word means and where to go to look it up.  I do wish Urmson hadn’t transliterated the Greek: it doesn’t help the Greekless reader, and it gives me a headache because, well, Greek should be in Greek!

One of my major frustrations with this book is that Urmson seems to base his work far too heavily on Plato and Aristotle.  For example, under phusis I found no mention of the pre-Socratics, only 8 citations of Plato and Aristotle.  I found little on any later philosophers.  Also, Urmson could have put something in his introduction about how his work differs from Peters’.


41a2rcDf6BL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Peters’ book, on the other hand, seems better for more advanced students.  Rather than providing a concise explanation for each word, he gives a history of its usage.  That way the reader doesn’t try to read, say, the Platonic use of eidos (form) into the pre-Socratics or Aristotle.  For many entries, Peters also explains how the word was used in pre-philosophical texts such as epic poetry.  His entry on phusis runs for five paragraphs, divided by thinker:

  1. Heraclitus
  2. Parmenides, Empedocles, Atomists, Plato
  3. Aristotle
  4. Stoics
  5. Plotinus

For each thinker, he cites specific passages, making this book far more useful for anyone seeking to trace the history of a term in Greek philosophy.  As a comparison to the entry on kakon in Urmson, here’s Peters’ version:




This format means that Peters’ entries are longer, though he covers fewer words.  For example, his entry on kakon runs for two pages, versus Urmson’s one paragraph.  But there are some words not in here that I felt should be.  Since I was reading Crito and Euthyphro, I looked up the words discussed in those two dialogues.  I found dike, eidos, episteme, kakon, and pathos, but found no mention of idea, which Urmson included.  Neither lexicon included eusebeia or hosion.  Hosion, which means holiness or piety, is a pretty major oversight, since that is the entire subject of Euthyphro.  Nor were “holiness” or “piety” in the English-Greek index.  If these words are missing, what else might be?  To be fair, this book is only 200 pages, and not everything can fit.

In the back of the book, there is also an English-Greek index, so readers who want to know, say, the Greek word for “justice” or “intellect” can figure out where to look.  He provides entries for many English words to account for the diversity of translations, but sometimes still misses the mark, as when he omits “right,” a possible translation for the Greek word dike.

Despite these advantages, Peters’ book might be information overload for beginners.  This book is not very useful for the student who doesn’t know philosophy as well.  I was hoping for something that explained terms on a more basic level, as Urmson does, rather than giving brief references to various thinkers.  I don’t merely want to know that a particular thinker used a term a particular way.  I’d like a brief summary of the text, or a quote from that text.  Without those things this book is less useful to the student of Greek who is just starting her study of philosophy.  Also, it is more dated than Urmson’s book: Peters’ book came out in 1967, while Urmson’s debuted in 1990.


Ideally, you should get both of these, as neither is obviously better than the other. Both Urmson and Peters [1] [2] were reviewed favorably by academics.  But if you’re on a tight budget, I would go with Peters, because his entries make it clearer how different authors define a word, and tend to be more comprehensive in covering a wide range of Greek thinkers.

Translating Plato: what gets lost in translation?

Now, at the end of the term, I have finally finished the paper for which I was reading Allan Bloom on translating Plato.  My paper, “Justice In Translation: Rendering Platonic Drama in English,” analyzes Plato’s characterization of Crito and Socrates in the Crito.  Through an examination of each character’s style of speaking in particles, syntax, and forms of address, I conclude that Plato’s dramatic portrait of each character is inseparable from the philosophical arguments contained in the dialogue.  For Plato, poetry and philosophy, form and content, are one.  (Imagine what Plato would be like if he had wrote treatises rather than dialogues!)  In the second part, I look at six contemporary translations, and I find that none of them render Plato’s literary element in a satisfactory way.  They seem to be focused only on the content of each character’s arguments.

Anyway, if you’re interested, my paper is here.  It was fine to write because it pushed my philological skills, and it made me look at the Greek particles systematically (and use Denniston) for the first time.