The Purpose of Greek Grammar

The following was written by Carl Conrad, a very accomplished and now retired professor of classical Greek:

One of the insights into how language works that I’ve gained relatively recently is that grammar — including lexicology, syntactic rules, morphology, etc. –, whether it’s the traditional grammar of “dead scholars” of the decades and centuries past or the theoretical constructions and analyses of the academic linguists of more recent years — is fundamentally analytic. It’s function is to help us explain or give an account to ourselves and each other about HOW the Greek utterance or written statement means what we understand it to mean. I honestly believe that grammatical analysis cannot begin until one has already reached at least a tentative understanding of the Greek text. But I also believe that grammatical analysis will not help one reach an understanding of WHAT the text means so much as of HOW it means what it means. Understanding the meaning must precede analysis. And that is why so much classroom work and self-study of Greek (and other languages, of course) turns out so often to be a waste of time: students can recite paradigms of verbs and nouns and regurgitate glossaries of Greek verbs and nouns and recite the rules of syntax — and still be unable to make sense of Greek texts.

Although his opinion certainly gains no stature because of my agreement, I heartily agree. The “Zondervan” method for learning Greek, in which we break down the genitive into 147 “uses,” is helpful in some ways. However, it’s nothing more than a stepping-stone, a scaffolding. Taken too seriously, it can become an obstacle. The authors of Greek documents did not consciously think, “I’m going to put in a dative of sphere here.” When we try to interpret cases or tenses by referencing a menu of possible options, we have already given up the real task, learning to think in Greek.

Grammar is not a substitute for reading and writing. It cannot, by itself, give you the intuitive feel for the language that extensive exposure and use provide. Until a reader begins to conform her thought patterns to Greek thought patterns and her modes of expression to Greek ones, she is not reading—she is merely decoding. Competency in a language is the ability to encounter a new construction or form of expression and make sense of it based on one’s feel for the language as a whole. That is a vital skill, and not one that can be learned from grammars.

The problem, though, is not too much grammar, which is also essential. The problem is too little exposure. As long as Greek courses consist mostly of lectures in English moving through primarily English textbooks, only occasionally referencing real Greek texts, the results will continue to be mastery of paradigms and mediocrity with paragraphs.

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Published in: on February 12, 2011 at 8:28 pm  Comments (4)  
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  1. His critique is a bit baffling to me. He is retired, yet he recounts an insight he came to “recently” which criticizes the work/approach of beginning Greek students. Seems to me that you have to get to first base before you can go much further.

    Admittedly, I haven’t read his whole essay, so there may be more to his thoughts. It is also helpful for beginners to learn from the mistakes of those who have gone ahead. But English-speaking kids learning English grammar are pretty wooden before gaining the skill of analysis through repeated work.

    Your comment about stepping-stones and not obstacles are helpful balance points to his paragraph, I think.

    • Well, it’s partly my fault that it’s baffling, since it’s a short quote out of context. Conrad is the moderator of an e-mail discussion group called B-Greek, and he’s still very much involved in Greek pedagogy. He’s just retired from the classroom.

      I think your scenario, the English-speaking kids learning English,is worth examining. Are they “wooden” because they haven’t formally studied grammar, or because they’re children with limited mental development?

      I tutored a man once who had almost zero grammar training. He did not know what subject and object meant, or the difference between an adjective and an adverb. But I never would have known just by speaking with him. He spoke English just fine, and had some proficiency in several other foreign languages. Now, I’m sure learning grammar would have been helpful for him, but he’s a testimony for how far you can get on little explicit grammar if you’re using the language all the time.

      Back to the kids, by the time they start learning any formal grammar in schools, they’ve heard and spoken tens of thousands (more?) of words in English. They have vast reservoirs of experience behind them before they ever circle their first subject or underline their first verb. In a sense, we’re teaching them things they already know, just not explicitly.

      Conrad and I are unhappy with the Basics of Biblical Greek type of approach, which (at least until the last edition) taught all the nouns declensions first. You don’t see any verbs other than ειμι until chapter 15. That’s not learning Greek; it’s learning charts.

      By contrast, I taught myself Latin using an inductive curriculum that opened every lesson with a substantial reading portion. Not all the grammar was explained; you were expected to figure it out. After the reading section, it explained the grammar, so you could go back to see if you had understood it correctly. It also employed heavy doses of student composition, missing from most Greek curricula. As a result, in less than a year, I’m better at thinking in Latin than in Greek.

  2. Interesting thoughts. I wonder if this isn’t part of the whole problem with exegesis as it is typically taught. It removes it from the world of real life grammar which we don’t even think about … we just do it. It is related to the topic I wrote about on my blog recently about hermeneutics, how we don’t know all the technical stuff but we do just fine most of the time.

    You mention Greek authors not thinking of the grammatical categories we use in exegesis. But we as English speakers don’t think of them either. When we hear it, we know what it means because of our familiarity and exposure to the language. And most words we use we can’t even give much of a definition for, at least without giving it some extra thought.

    I wonder if we could get familiar enough with ancient Greek or Hebrew to gain the same sort of fluency in understanding.

    Of course, I don’t know what the options are apart from a sort of saturation reading course and I don’t know how manageable that is.

    • Larry, I agree. I don’t think it would be particularly hard to adjust the way we teach Greek. It would simply require admitting that we aren’t doing a good job. When Phillip Melanchthon was developing curricula for the German schools, his plan was to have (where Greek speakers could be found, and there were some coming West from the Eastern Empire due to Islamic invasions) instructors teach Greek much like they taught other languages. As much of the instruction as appropriate to the level was to be in Greek. This is basic, really. In advanced French or German classes, the professor speaks primarily in the course language. Melanchthon advises that the teacher simply read John’s Gospel aloud the more advanced students. By more advanced students, he means the equivalent of our high-schoolers.

      All the way up until the 19th century, proficiency reading and writing both Greek and Latin was a prerequisite for university admission. Check out the sample admission interviews in John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. What cause our current plight is that in the 19th century, seminaries decided that instead of teaching a language, they would just teach a text. Thus, standards were significantly lowered, leading to less proficiency, leading to less benefit from learning Greek, leading to even more motivation to lower standards, and so on. It’s no wonder most seminary graduates don’t see the point of learning Greek if they can graduate from seminary without even a sixth-grade reading level.


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