Turner on the Optative Mood

This is one of those quotes that really, really gets under my skin, while at the same time, making me laugh.

“Moreover, the refinements inherent in the use of the optative were beyond the powers of uneducated Greeks and most barbarians.”[1]

It makes me laugh because it’s a rather funny statement. It gets under my skin because it’s quite prejudice, though I highly, highly doubt that Turner intended such a thing – and all those uneducated Greeks and barbarians are dead now anyway.

It also seems to be to be false. Its not that “the refinements inherent in the use of the optative were beyond the powers of uneducated Greeks and most barbarians,” but that the “refinements inherent in the use of the optative were beyond the powers” of non-native speakers, who didn’t learn the language as an child. It’s the same reason that many speakers of Slavic languages really, really struggle with how to use the indefinite and definite article in English. Many Slavic languages don’t have an article of any kind. They are too formally different, even if they express similar meanings.

To say that the uneducated and barbarians couldn’t understand the optative is rather silly considering various languages used by numerous illiterate people groups around the world that have significantly more refined grammatical systems.

There are minority languages that differentiate between two or three different past tense. One might use for referring to events that happened earlier that day, another might be used for events that happened on the previous day or past week, and still another might be used for events that happened more than a week ago. And these are people groups who are definitely not educated by the standards that we measure or likely not even by the standards of the educated Greeks. But they do just fine using their highly refined languages on a daily basis.


[1]James Hope Moulton and Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, Volume 3: Syntax. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963), 119.

3 thoughts on “Turner on the Optative Mood

  1. While I do think it’s a silly comment, I’d be curious to see some evidence for differences in usage between the literary and street speakers/writers. But I guess we would have to resort primarily to the papyri for evidence of street speakers/writers. I don’t doubt that usage of the optative in the GNT is scantier than in Josephus and Philo, but it might be worth checking Epictetus, if Arrian cited him more or less verbatim — which must, I guess, remain questionable.

  2. I’d be curious about the distribution of the Optative across different dialects during the Classical period before Alexander the Great, to whom I would attribute much of the change, rather than a difference in education (though my ideas are entirely speculation since the vast, vast majority of my study has been limited to the the couple centuries surrounding the NT).

  3. I don’t think it would be very easy to put together a very satisfactory account of distribution of optative among Greek dialects before Alexander, primarily because so little has survived of the non-Attic dialects and what has is literary, outside of inscriptions. I think most non-Attic prose would surley be Ionic — like Herodotus and the fragments of Heraclitus. What one would really like to know is how the literary language differed from the vulgar language in that earlier Hellenic era. So I don’t really think that conclusive evidence would readily be come by. At any rate, I would not agree that the spread of Koine Greek to areas that Alexander conquered and that dynasties founded by his generals came to govern is the major factor. But I rather think that this is a speculative matter anyway, as there’s not the evidence needed to test the notion.

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