Determining the Rules of Greek Grammar

Let’s say that  you’re trying to determine what is and what is not allowed grammatically in Greek and a particular set of data leads you to posit that a certain construction should not occur.*

Then in order to test this little hypothesis, you do a search across a number of Greek texts and find two examples of the construction that you had expected should not occur.

If these two examples appear in a single author whose native language is definitely not Greek and who is also known to often have poor grammar, would it be safe to maintain the original hypothesis that the construction is ungrammatical?

Okay, let’s get specific. I’ve been wondering about what is and what isn’t allowed in terms of the ordering of modifiers in the Greek Noun Phrases. My hypothesis has been that post-nominal Genitive NPs must beside their head noun. This stands in contrast to adjectives and demonstratives which have a significantly more varied placement following the head noun.**

I’ve already seen that genitive NPs cannot follow a demonstrative unless they have additional modifiers as well. We saw this in an earlier post, where the genitive NP is heavily modified –and total, there’s only two instances of this across the New Testament, Apostolic Fathers, Josephus and Philo. And since demonstratives are basically part determiner, part adjective, and part pronoun, it is just as easy to say that the genitive NP directly modifies the demonstrative rather than the head noun.

It followed that in order to prove anything decisively, I needed to check to see if genitive NPs could appear after an adjective phrase with the order:

D[eterminer] N[oun] D A[djective] Dgen Ngen.

This order does not appear in the Apostolic Fathers, Philo or Josephus, but it does twice in the NT, both in texts attributed to John: Revelation 6:17 and John 7:37. Interestingly, the words are virtually identical. The only differences are that in John 7:37, the author uses a prenominal adjective as well and says “of the feast” where Rev. 6:17 says of his wrath.

John 7:37 τῇ ἐσχάτῃ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ μεγάλῃ τῆς ἑορτῆς
“the last great day of the feast.”***

Rev 6:17 ἡ ἡμέρα ἡ μεγάλη τῆς ὀργῆς αὐτῶν
“the great day of his wrath.”

And John isn’t exactly known for the high caliber of his grammar. So the question is this:

Do I say that this construction is the effect of not being a native speaker and that technically this construction is either poor grammar or ungrammatical? Or do you I say that this construction is perfectly fine and grammatical, just not very common?

I would welcome your expertise.

*When I speak of grammar “rules” in this post (and in general), I am referring to the intuitive orderings of words in phrases and clauses, not prescriptive rules specified by school teachers such as, “Don’t split your infinitives.”

**This variation can likely be explained by means of information structure and pragmatics, but that question is not in focus here.

***This is a pretty literal translation, it would probably be better rendered as “the last and greatest day of the feast” or something like that. The point isn’t that of the great days of the feast, this was the last one, but rather the last day of the feast was also the great day of the feast in contrast to the other days.

3 thoughts on “Determining the Rules of Greek Grammar

  1. I presume from your sample literature that you are using Logos for this. I think you need a larger sample and if possible a wider sample. All of the literature that we usually look at is Jewish/Jewish Christian/Christian. All of them were influenced by their background, particularly the LXX (which is older and Hebraic). You could conclude that John had bad grammar but if so it probably reflects a common grammatical error in his community or as a result of his native language. Given the huge number of language groups that adapted/adopted koine Greek we are lucky that there is anything like standard grammar. This is most likely as a result of the general illiteracy of the day.
    In terms of answering your question I would suggest looking to textual criticism for the answer. Did later scribes often “correct” John’s grammar in these two places? If not, then it probably appeared to them as correct even if unusual.

  2. While your point about the width of my sample is possibly valid, in terms of size, my corpus is generally large enough, I think. Linguists who specialize in language documentation and preservation generally consider a corpus of about 300,000 words to be sufficient for writing a grammar. The NT provides a third of that.

    Whether we would expect scribes to correct this “error” if it is one is something I’m not sure of. There are two types of ungrammatical constructions – those that are not understandable (nonsense) and those that are awkward. I’d put this one in the awkward category. Awkward grammar errors are common to everyone at some point, we all “misspeak” at times. And, there actually tends to be a grammatical reason for them as well, but I won’t get into that now. I don’t care for speculation about any Johannine community either.

    There is always standard grammar, standard grammar is what makes any sort of communication possible. There are people who write grammars of “World English” today quite successfully, even in Africa & the South Pacific. The only occasions there this isn’t the case generally appear in obscure and remote regions such as the Amazon, where parents want their children to know the trade language, but they don’t know it well enough themselves to teach it and there aren’t any actual speakers of the language near enough to correct them. The result is that the children cannot function well in either language. But that cannot be the case here since the NT authors successfully communicated quite a bit. And there may have been a good amount of illiteracy in general, but all of our authors here were quite literate.

    As to the question of textual variants, I should have thought of that. There are a few manuscripts that omit the adjective in both cases.

  3. I think what is thought of as “standard” grammar is pretty much what is taught in the schools and upheld or altered by editors. For Koine Greek this means it is what the schools and the γραμματικοί taught. I think too that grammatical usage runs pretty much like other kinds of behavior that are transmitted culturally in human society: conformity to a standard involves what most people do and what several simply don’t conform to. I don’t think that “proper” or “bad” Koine Greek grammar can be explained to any considerable extent by whether or not one is a native speaker. My own experience of quite a few people who’ve never spoken anything but English is that they can’t write readily-intelligible or grammatical English even if they can usually make them selves understood orally. Then too there’s the matter of language being in a flux, older and newer phrasing being in use at the same time. My own observation regarding strings of genitive modifiers is that later writers of Koine Greek tend to attach them like beads on a string in often unwieldy sequence. As for “literacy,” it may well be that NT writers could all be termed “literate,” but that certainly doesn’t mean that they could write equally well; clear and good writing is not an ordinary human achievement. The literary quality of the Greek NT is hardly uniform and in fact varies considerably from one work to another.

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