Reading Dead Grammarians

I’m totally ripping this off directly from the B-Greek list, but its definitely worth it if I can get a few more people to see this little discussion.

Several days ago, Elizabeth Kline wrote this:

In James 3:3 we see an example of a preposed genitive noun TWN hIPPWN.
One way to read it, TWN hIPPWN modifies TA STOMATA (J.Huther) which is
within a prepositional phrase EIS TA STOMATA. Another reading, TWN
hIPPWN modifies TOUS CALINOUS. J.B. Mayor suggests TWN hIPPWN modifies
both TOUS CALINOUS and TA STOMATA. Alford suggests that TWN hIPPWN
might mean something like “in the case of horses” thus linking ideas
CALINAGWGHSAI … SWMA from the immediately preceding context.
Alford’s suggestion is interesting in light of proposals in recent
text-linguistics about fronted constituents. S.Levinsohn talks about
TWN hIPPWN in Js. 3:3 (Discourse Features SIL, 2000, p63). Levinsohn
suggests that TWN hIPPWN is preposed to indicate a shift from talking
about people to talking about horses. What I find interesting here, is
that Alford in the second half of the nineteenth century had a very
similar reading without the trappings of text-linguistics. The
terminology is quite different and Levinsohn certainly frames the
question differently, nevertheless … draw your on conclusions about

(My Emphasis)

To which Steve Runge replied,

You seem surprised about the agreement you find in their analysis. IMO, it is foolish to begin anywhere else than with what the “Dead Grammarians” have said. I include Carl and Wallace here out of respect. Most had internalized the language more than I could ever hope. The main problem I have with them is the fuzziness of explanations at times, ones that are dependent on English or Latin. I mean to say that they had a poor medium to communicate their thoughts, not that their thoughts were poorly formed. If you look at the commentaries and grammarians that Levinsohn cites for support, most of them are the same vintage as Alford.

Another related issue with the dead grammarians is their ability to explain WHY they claim what they do. They know a duck when they see one, but at times fail to provide the meaningful characteristics that make a duck a duck and not a seagull or goose. This is the area that I think text-linguistics has the most to offer. This kind of description should, if done properly, allow those following behind to understand the thought process step by step, compared to choosing from a long list of potential syntactic forces. This is particularly the case where there are several complicating factors at work in a single context, as in James 1:22-23. Text-linguistics can help one understand the role played by each component that makes up the whole. Does Alford offer any basis for his conclusion for you to weigh it against the competing alternatives that you cite? You called it interesting, making me think it was the outlier compared to other more modern explanations. Levinsohn reaches the same conclusion, but leaves a trail of bread crumbs.

Simply having an answer leaves the exegete in a poor position to evaluate the alternatives. Too often, statistical factors are called into play, even in traditional grammar. “The vast majority of the time X functions as Y, therefore in this context the evidence leans toward reading it as Y.” The exegesis of hOUTWS in John 3:16 is a good example of such argumentation.

If someone claims a brand new reading that has hitherto been overlooked by scholarship, watch out. Unfortunately, linguistics is being used by some as a hip new way of tickling the ears, being little more than smoke and mirrors with nice poly-syllabic words. Linguistics, if it is used properly, should help you understand what is going on under the hood; it does/should not change the car. In my experience, I have found that any claim I might make on the basis of discourse grammar and linguistics can be supported by the previous claim of a dead grammarian. They knew their stuff, knew whom they were stuffing, and stuffed them with eloquence. It behooves us to linger over this same stuff, as you so often demonstrate in your research. Thanks for passing it along on the list.

And finally, Elizabeth Kline again replied,

Actually the surprise is more rhetorical than real. I have been reading “Dead Grammarians” (sans Wallace who is a special case) along with linguists for 25 years. Just reminding some of the “young turks” that the old NT scholars are not to be despised, the linguistic framework you (not Steve R.) are all excited about now will be dead and gone and people will continue to read the old NT scholars.

One significant difference between Alford and Levinsohn, Alford doesn’t attempt to draw any broad generalizations about fronted constituents and fit them into some sort of large theoretical framework, Levinsohn does. Alford is commenting on the text and not writing a grammar of discourse. That is one justification for reading linguistics.

Levinsohn (DFNTG 2000 p63) marks TWN hIPPWN TOUS CALINOUS as a “point of departure” and states that TWN hIPPWN is fronted with the “point of departure” and marks a “switch of attention” from humans to horses.
Alford tells us in language almost anyone can understand that TWN hIPPWN is new information whereas we already know about CALINOUS and STOMATA since they are mentioned in the preceding context. Alford claims that the position of TWN hIPPWN is emphatic and is connected with the (head) noun STOMATA not CALINOUS. J.Huther agrees with him on both points. The notion that fronted constituents are emphatic is a commonplace generalization in the older exegetical works. However, this observation isn’t set into a large theoretical framework like functional grammar (S.Dik, T.Givon). Perhaps this is one reason we still read Alford and Meyer, we aren’t required to demystify the dynamics of a very complex hybrid (eclectic) theoretical framework to read Alford.

The notion of “points of departure” in Levinsohn isn’t present in Alford (stating the obvious) but Alford’s treatment does have implications for discourse cohesion and thematic development. The difference is that Levinsohn pulls out, highlights and labels aspects of the surface structure that contribute to discourse cohesion, thematic development and so forth. This is a useful project, not to be despised by advocates of the traditional grammar.


Read dead grammarians.

Read linguists.

It’s not an either or. It’s both and.

7 thoughts on “Reading Dead Grammarians

  1. All I can say is that I know I’m up in years, but it does feel a bit strange to find myself described as a “dead grammarian” even “respectfully.” Eh bien, que dis-je? Vive la grammaire morte! Or should I say, ζήτω ἡ γραμματικὴ ἡ τεθνηκυὶα!

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