Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fake Languages Hit-List: Koine

My background is in Classics, so I have a lot of angst with the seminary culture of "Koine Greek".
I'm sure many people think that this is just snobbish of me, that my reservations are some sort of katherevousizing complex, but this is not the case. OK, I just used the word "katherevousizing" which refers to a classical revival in Modern Greek which sought to purify (katharos) the language of more recent additions (including Slavic vocabules), so obviously I'm a bit of a snob. Or at least, a total geek. But the deep antiquarian delight in more ancient forms of a language is not why I hate Koine. If it were, then I'd insist we toss Attic Greek for Mycenaean. In fact, since the alphabet itself is a later Semitic borrowing, I'd insist we go back to the Linear B syllabary. But that's not my problem with Koine.

My problem with Koine is that it is NOT a language!

I keep hearing people talk about "Koine Greek" as if it were a language. Koine is NOT a language. It's a dialect. The language is Greek. Yes, I've taken linguistics courses and yes, I know that the line between language and dialect can get very blurry. But there is a line. I just want there to be a little bit of respect for the line and for the Greek language in general. So here's a little history/historical linguistics lesson (with my running cranky commentary). If you know all about the history of Greek, then you can skip this and go to the proper part of my rant.

History of Greek and "Koine"

Once upon a time, there were some folks hanging out on the Balkan peninsula. This was a long, long time ago. We have no idea what language they spoke or what language family it was in. Then some other guys showed up from the steppes of Asia who had an Indo-European language. They liked things like horses and cows and kings.

Anyway, these Indo-European folks pretty much started dominating. And their language is more or less what can be called "Greek". This language pretty much broke down into three big dialectical groups at a pretty early period: Doric, Attic-Ionic, and Arcado-Cypriot. There is a bunch of debate over when -- whether there was a Dorian invasion, Dorians in the Mycenaean period, etc. etc. -- But this is a short history lesson. So basically around 800 BC we had these three big language groups. All three of them are still Greek.

How are these dialects different? Mostly really little ways. Like, Attic-Ionic likes a long eta (ê) where Doric and Arcado-Cypriot like long alpha. They do different things with dentals -- alternating s and t -- that sort of thing. There's some difference in how labio-velars developed (that's an original kw sound that comes to be a plain old plosive -- t or p or k, depending on dialect and on what kind of vowels are around it). There are variations in aspiration (where you get breath or h sounds) and in really basic words like prepositions and particles (ei, ke, an, etc.)

That's pretty much it. Now, granted, in some of the sub-dialects, things can get pretty freaky. Reading Sappho's Lesbian Greek throws a bit of a curve to someone who's only done Classical Attic Greek. And don't get me started on Boeotian. Boeotian is just *special*. But if you know one dialect really thoroughly, you can learn the others lickedy-split.

So everyone in the city-states is going along, speaking their dialects for a few centuries. They can mutually understand each other (except Boeotians) and laugh at how people from other poleis (plural of polis; there will be a quiz...) talked funny. Life was good.

But then around, oh, 350-300 B.C. things started getting bad. The Peloponnesian war never got resolved and the crankiness between Athens and Sparta meant that everybody got pulled into it and some new major players started emerging. Like the Thebans (who were Boeotian, but that actually doesn't matter). The real problem was the Macedonians.

The Macedonians were up there in Thrace. ("Up" as in "north" and as in "there are some mountains"). They wanted to be cool, but basically they were barbarians, meaning that they didn't quite speak Greek. Thracian was different enough to not count as Greek. They also had blond hair and horses. But they were all like, "Hey, the Greeks are totally not up to being cool anymore, so we can be cool. Let's get cultured and out-Greek the Greeks. And then let's conquer some stuff."

So that's what they did. They brought Aristotle up to their capital at Pella to educate the royal prince Alexander. The cultural education part didn't quite take -- except for homoeroticism and a bit of mythological veneer. But the conquering part worked out well. He had to do it fast, because the Macedonians couldn't keep their act together long enough to sustain a lengthy plan of world conquest. So he conquered most of the known world and a some of the unknown parts. He probably would've made it to Alaska, but it got cold and he got sick and he died.

And so there was suddenly a whole bunch of turf that was nominally Greek, with lots of cities named "Alexandria" (because if you're conquering the world, then, by golly, you want to make sure everyone knows your name!) And the people left in charge of stuff were Alexander's old army-buddies from the washed-up remains of the Greek city-states of yore. So, people had to start speaking Greek.

But they didn't know Greek, except perhaps a very little bit for trade. They had no ties to any of the particular city-states with their particular dialects. So they spoke a pretty watered-down version of Greek. It was mostly Attic with a few Ionic and Doric elements thrown in for size. But they dropped some of the more "precise" bits of the grammar. After all, how often do we really need a future perfect? And we can certainly be a bit lax about what's a job for the subjunctive and what is optative territory, can't we? Sure. And different areas will throw in a bit of their own stuff. Everyone does that. If you go somewhere and they've got some kind of fruit you don't have, you don't say, "Stop! Hold everything! I need to make up a new name for this fruit in my own language!" You just start talking about "papayas" and "mangos". No big deal.

The Pure, Unadulterated Rant

This, my friends, is Koine. It's a homogenized and diluted version of Classical Greek dialects (primarily Attic like they spoke in Athens).

Koine is not, contrary to the opinion held by Biblical scholars (that erudite and over-Germanicized bunch!) until quite recently, "a special wonderful religious language made up by God just for the Gospels!"

Koine is not to be listed as a separate language attainment alongside Classical Greek. That's what Special-Semitic-Languages boy did in one of my classes, boasting that he knew "Greek, Classical and Koine". And I was there debating about taking him down by piping up, "Oh, I should correct myself then. I said I knew Greek -- what I meant was: all the Classical dialects, Koine, Byzantine, Mycenaean, and the Homeric Kunstsprache." But the whole point of graduate school is to teach you not to do undergraduate crap like that.

Koine is also not to be pronounced much differently than Attic Greek. There are three differences. Count them. Three:

1) You can make the aspirates into fricatives. People do this on classical Greek, too. It's annoying, but permissible. This means, that the phi, theta, and chi -- which were originally pronounced as p, t, and k with a little puff of air after them, just kind of breathy (hence "aspirate") can sound like the English fricatives f, th, and German/Scottish ch. These changes actually happened during the period in question when "Koine" was spoken.

2) You are permitted to drop iota subscripts on long alpha, eta, and omega and just say "a", "ê" and "ô". People doing classical Greek do this, too. Which is also bad. They were diphthongized in the classical period and you could hear the "i". But you can do this and I won't get ticked at you, Koine-learners.

3) You can treat the accents as stress accents rather than as pitch accents. This means you can just stress the syllable with an accent on it. Earlier, it indicated the rise or fall of the pitch of hte voice. Again, this is something people do with classical Greek that probably they shouldn't. There is no clear evidence for the switch from pitch to stress until the 4th/5th c. A.D. with Gregory of Nazianzus' poetry and Nonnus' Dionysiaca. [Trust me. I know this stuff.] Still, I'm more tolerant about this because very few people do the pitch accent. We're rarely taught and so it just confuses people. I always do pitch accents with Homer, but the rest of the time I'm pretty lax.

Here are things that people keep doing with the koinê that really really irk me. I am warning you. I'm about to start being the Greek police and giving you citations in the halls. And don't tell me that your happy grad-student Greek teachers are telling you to do this. I will happily give THEM citations, too. I will give professors citations. Because this isn't about some little adiaphora matter-of-opinion stuff. This isn't theology. This isn't happy-sappy me-and-my-Jesus hermeneutics. There's a right and a wrong here. This is Greek.


Here's what you had better quit doing:

1) Stop calling the Div-School class "Hellenistic Greek". Seriously, can you read real Hellenistic Greek after this class? Can you sit down with some Callimachus? Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica? I don't think so. Are you reading a bunch of papyri or non-literary Greek? I don't think so. Just suck it up and call it "New Testament Greek" or even "Biblical Greek" (on the assumption that you'll be able to hack the Septuagint and non-canonical works).

2) Quit pronouncing things wrong. Really. I know why you do it, but there's no real excuse. In the textual transmission of the Bible there is ample evidence that some of the vowel levelling that happened to make Modern Greek what it is was going on. You know -- how almost all the vowels started sounding like "ee"? The fancy term for this is itacism. I don't like it. Not only that, but it's a much later phenomenon. We're talking early middle ages. It affects the transmission of Biblical text, yes. But no one was talking like that in Bible times. Upsilon does not sound like eta. Eta does not sound like iota. Upsilon does not sound like iota. Omicron-upsilon sounds different than just plain upsilon. -- But epsilon-iota does sound like eta. That's it. One sound-alike. That's all you get.

2b) And what the heck is your beef with omicron??? Poor little omicron, he is so mightily abused! Everyone seems to want to say the "o" vowel like it's an "a". I think this might be an American problem. We just can't say "o" properly. And the pronunciation guidelines for Greek in books stem from guidelines given in British school-texts. But British kids actually say the vowel in "not", "caught", or "ought" as "o". And so do I. But most Americans seem not to. At the Wells' house, I asked for coffee and Sam said, "Oh, you want coffee then, and not caffee; brilliant." I said, "What is caffee?" He said, "I'm sure I don't know, but a lot of people seem to want it over here."

Basically, "omicron" is a "little o". It's the same "color" vowel as "omega" (which means, literally, "big o"). It has the same place of articulation as the big o, but it doesn't last as long. Either make a short version of omega, or at least say omicron as "awww" with lots of rounding of the lips. As it is, when all you Koine-people read Greek out loud I have no idea if you're saying alpha or omicron. It's really very bad. This one might be worth a double-citation because someone has to stick up for omicron. Poor little guy....

3) Don't be a tool. This goes for people who know start with Classical and people who start with Koine. Think of Classical Greek as... oh, say... Samuel Pepys. And think of Koine as "Dick and Jane". -- OK. That's not quite fair... More like Goodnight, Moon. Obviously, the kids who read Goodnight, Moon are reading the same language as Pepys; there's just a lot less of it -- less vocabulary and only the simpler parts of grammar. But it's not a different language. Still, if you can read Pepys, you can definitely get through Goodnight, Moon without batting an eye. But people trying to read some Patristics or Plato after a year or two (or three, or even four) of Koine are really going to have their work cut out for them!

I'm irked by everyone here (which makes me suspect that certain people will be deeply irked by me -- oh well). I'm annoyed by people who do Koine for a year or two or three and then waltz around feeling very special about their Greek. When I say I studied Greek or know Greek, they say, "Oh, me too!" I feel this way also about doctoral students who do New Testament and feel spiffy about the Greek. I totally respect your Bible-reading skills. But being able to read one book in a foreign language isn't the same thing as knowing the language. Sorry. Once you're reading some things that aren't in Goodnight, Moon language (earlier stuff, literary Hellenistic stuff, later Patristics stuff), then I will give you Greek props.

I'm also ticked off by the people who have done classical Greek and feel vastly superior to the world. Guess what, classics people: you know more than the Koine folks because... they're only learning Koine! You are only special to the extent that everyone else is deprived. It's sort of like saying, "I got creme brulee and that beats the rice krispies bar you got! I am better than you! I win!" Seriously. Don't be a tool.

Especially because my Greek beats yours, classics undergrads. I've read Greek as a large part of my life at a very high level for a good chunk of time. I edit the translations of classics professors. I eat your lexica for breakfast because I don't use them to read but only for research. The strong undergrad-level Greek student's work looks kind of like macaroni art to me. Sorry, but it's true. Please quit bragging to me. It hurts to listen and have to refrain from squashing you.

And also, please tell everyone you know here that I know Greek. Can we just have a little notice on the website that says "Jen is resident student Greek and Latin expert"? It's not to stroke my ego -- it's that I really hate having people offer to help me with my patristics Greek stuff because they're taking or have taken "Koine 101" or some undergrad Greek classes. I know they mean well and that not everyone doing patristics really knows the languages. I know they're trying to be all ministerial with their mad Greek skills. It's very Christian. But it feels like having someone offer to help me use the bathroom. I can do it myself. Really.

Sorry that I got snarky there. The point isn't how special I am. It's how very relative "special" is. If I weren't here, someone else would be "most special at Greek". So what? Why don't we infuse some specialness into the SYSTEM where everyone can enjoy it? How about that?

I wish I had power. I want to stage a coup of the Greek classes. Except that I know the grad students teaching "Hellenistic Greek" need that stipend money to put food in the mouths of their wee, starveling children/dogs. I want Greek to be taught in such a way that: 1) it gets done properly (with people not dissing my buddy omicron), 2) it is easier for people who just want to do Bible, and 3) it makes going further easier for the people who want to do more than just Bible. Classical language pedagogy is very, very fraught. Even the usual trends for correcting it are also fraught. I would love to fix it all, but even with my mad language skills, I'm just one little voice crying in the wilderness -- without a PhD. It's not your fault; it's not your teachers' fault. It's probably not even their teachers' fault. The fraughtness goes way, way back to British schools where boys were seven when they learned Greek and Latin and could be beaten when they bungled a paradigm. Seriously. This is where most of today's methods come from. The "newer" methods just put some liberal Romanticized veneer on top of this in the optimistic belief that a person can just look at Greek or Latin and magically read it as long as there are some pictures. This is how it is. And it's pervasive. We can only do what we can.

...But don't diss the omicron anymore or there will be consequences. You've been warned.


  1. You'll be glad to know that Stephen Carlson (who is teaching my NT Greek course) is very much emphatic about distinguishing between sounds, especially the "ο".

    One issue is that Munce (the textbook we're using) says "ο" is pronounced as in "not". But, as you note, "not" is pronounced by Americans like "caught", which is just wrong. Stephen had us go all Dead Poet's Society and scratch out that footnote (along with another one about the neuter plural:

  2. Couldn't agree more. I continue to be puzzled as to the point of just teaching people Biblical Greek (although it has a long pedigree as the first step of learning Greek; Ben Jonson makes fun of someone who is proud of knowing "his Greek Testament" in The Alchemist), but even more so how perfectly intelligent people here at Duke come out of their first year of Greek stumbling over stuff like Paul where after a year of Greek at Chicago we were reading Plato--it's not just that Plato is a clearer writer! If I could join your ranting as someone who does know Greek (though I, poor soul, do still run to the lexica), nothing frustrates me more than people referring to anything in the New Testament as 'literary Greek' (the usual candidates are Luke-Acts or Hebrews). New Testament people need to come to terms with the fact that the clearest stylistic analogue to the Greek of the New Testament would be the Book of Mormon. Just because something is profound does not make it good style, and no one in their right mind who has read any real literary Greek would find the New Testament good literature. Only the sort of people who think Hemingway knew what to do with the English language would think Luke knew what to do with Greek. And yes, calling New Testament Greek "Hellenistic Greek" is flat-out lying.

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  5. You heard the man: I am, evidently, a moron. He is a Latin teacher who reads random blogs on the internet so we should trust him when he pronounces judgment on classicists at the doctoral level. I am sad that he hasn't told me where I made the errors in this post that led him to believe I'm a half-wit. So, unfortunately, I can't learn and improve at all. But perhaps he thinks I'm so moronic that I couldn't even learn. Boo hoo.

    I'll have to send back all my degrees and fellowships and grants and essay prizes. And I should put out disclaimers everywhere that I've published saying "Oh, you should know, the chick that wrote that is a moron. A dude commenting on her blog said so; you might not want to trust the whole academic peer-review process." And I'm sure I should resign from my editorial positions. I can't believe that I've just been wasting my life and injuring so many people with my idiocy. I should just be a janitor or a barista. Or a Latin teacher considering that I'm more than qualified and have a good number of years' experience teaching at the university level. Why did I ever start on this whole silly *second* doctoral program thing! Thanks, David!

  6. I apologize for the insult. I get irritated by rants of this kind and they put me in a bad mood (plus, I was drinking). You have an impressive knowledge of the subject and I should not have said what I did.

  7. It's OK, David. I am ranty and I didn't mean to subject the world to it. I was surprised to find that other people even found my blog because I'm not trying to be an expert or a pundit. And I got snarky, too. I deeply admire and respect Latin teachers. A bunch of my old school friends are in the HS/MS Latin-teaching gig and I did a bit of substituting back in the day. It's a *way* harder job than teaching college and (unjustifiably) more thankless. And the situation in education these days does drive one to drink. So my hat's off to you. -- Pax tecum.

  8. Thanks, Jen. Best of luck with your degree--and may your blogging be free from the assaults of unknown readers!

  9. After reading this post months ago, I thought I'd come back to it and say something more than "what the...?"

    For the record, there are a few of us out there who, when we use the words "Hellenistic Greek" or "Koine Greek" are talking about different things than what you say NT scholars do. Specifically, (and I'm sure you know this) if Koine isn't a language (and, yes, I agree it isn't), then Hellenistic Greek isn't a dialect that you use to refer to Strabo or whoever you're wanting to talk about. Hellenistic Greek refers to an *era* of the Greek language, not a dialect of the Greek language. And during that era, there was plenty of writing at numerous educational levels. Technically, the NT wasn't written during the Hellenistic era, but should be referred to as being part of early Roman Greek. My own blog stretches the term Hellenistic rather too far--I'm primarily interested in Greek from 300BC through 400AD, but I've got to keep my title short somehow.

    As for the term "Koine Greek" in biblical studies, you do deserve a little explanation here as to why profs use it and will likely protest against the term "Biblical Greek." You have a classical background, so I don't know what kind of knowledge you have about the debates in Greek grammar that went on (just as much, if not more, in England than in Germany) at the end of the 19th century. Biblical Greek, as a term, has the connotations for many biblical scholars to refer to "Holy Spirit Greek" -- the really idea promulgated by both grammarians and theologians that the Greek of the LXX and NT actually were separate languages created by the Holy Spirit specifically for revelation of scripture. When the non-literary papyri discoveries demonstrated that NT and LXX Greek were actually the standard spoken Greek of the era, the term "Koine Greek" was emphasizes *as a response* to the idea that NT Greek was a different language. So, ironically, the term you're ranting again was actually intended to do exactly the opposite of what you're claiming it does.

    More more point. Goodnight Moon--great book by the way--isn't a terribly fair way to talk about the Greek found in the NT. That's like saying that contemporary standard English is See Dick Run English because it doesn't like like T. S. Elliot or Annie Dillard. A spoken language is always different than its literary counterpart. I'll grant that you're merely ranting and rants always tend to be hyperbolic, but balance is needed somewhere. So perhaps you already know all of this, if you don't, read Goeffrey Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and Its Speakers. The second edition is excellent and does a much better job with Classical dialects than the first. The consensus view is that NT and LXX Greek is fundamentally inline with the normal spoken Greek of the period, and thus in many ways has more connection to reality than literary Attic, which differed from the spoken Greek even in 500BCE.

    Anyway, as I've now said a couple times, from the way you describe yourself, you probably know most (if not all) of this. I'm just bringing some balance to a hyperbolic rant.

    Also, you should probably know that online rants do have the potential to hurt funding. I know a couple people who lost doctoral funding because things said online.

  10. Re:
    "And think of Koine as 'Dick and Jane'. -- OK. That's not quite fair... More like Goodnight, Moon."
    Or perhaps more like the not-quite-English of "How To Assembring This Devise" instruction-sheets printed in Taiwan?

  11. This blog is so interesting, I hope someday the author will resume posting...