Greek Linguistic Historiography

1.    Introduction

Study of the Ancient Greek verbal system has developed over the course of centuries, representing scholarship from numerous countries written in a variety of languages. The earliest Greek grammars were produced by the Ancient Greeks themselves, beginning around the 2nd century BCE, whereas the grammars of today are written primarily by non-Greeks. With the explosion in the field of linguistics in the 20th century, many of the older grammars have been discarded as irrelevant, dated, or unsophisticated.

The publication of Stanley Porter and Buist Fanning’s research on the Greek verbal system brought about fresh interest in the nature of the Greek verb.[1] Some have lauded Porter and Fanning’s work, as dramatically changing how we understand Hellenistic Greek, particularly Porter’s proposal of Greek as tenseless. For example, in his review of the published edition of Rodney Decker’s dissertation, Robert Paul Seesengood writes,[2]

“Even my oversimplification of [Porter’s] thesis should show that there are indeed some interesting new ideas in the study of Greek; if Porter is correct, standard works such as A. T. Robertson or Blass, de Brunner, and Funk will become of relevance mostly to scholars of the history of New Testament criticism.[3]

While Seesengood’s words should probably be viewed as somewhat hyperbolic (hopefully intentionally), the sentiment is nevertheless somewhat disconcerting for the field of Greek grammar, especially if such a view gained a foothold.[4] The fact is that even the leading NT grammarians of today stand on the shoulders of the giants before them. I would propose that the difference between a contemporary grammar and a grammar from the 19th century does not necessarily involve scientific progress—though progress does indeed take place—but it is more about the relationship of the grammar to its community, context, and historical situation. Fundamentally, I follow the view put forward by Thomas E. Payne that a descriptive grammar is, itself, a communicative act for a specific audience.[5]

With that in mind, the goal of what follows is to attempt a positive reading of these older grammars. There is value in giving these grammarians the benefit of the doubt that they did not explain the language arbitrarily and that they sought regularity as much as they could. To that end, the interpretation of the scholars below attempts to find as many commonalities with modern research as possible, within reason. This primarily involves attempting to overcome the dramatic terminological gaps between their analyses and those of the present. With this in mind, it is worth reiterating once more that this approach to the old grammars does not assume that the difference between the 19th century grammars and the grammatical research of today is entirely one of terminology and not theoretical or linguistic advancement, but only that the difference between then and now is not as clear cut and dramatic as it initially appears.

In bridging the gap between then and now, perhaps the two most important resources are the literature reviews found in the beginning sections of both Fanning and Porter’s work.[6] Each section on a given grammarian will be followed directly by a comparison with the historical observations of Fanning, Porter, and others where relevant. While there have been a number of other works published since 1990, most of rely heavily on Fanning and Porter for establishing the historical background of research. For example, Evans says very little about the 19th century grammarians at all.[7] This is the case, at least, for their published works. Their own literature review was likely distinct and independent from both Fanning and Porter. Where relevant, reference will be made to the work of Rodney Decker, Constantine Campbell, and various others who discuss the grammatical work of past centuries.[8]

Lastly, Chrys Caragounis contributes to the discussion by providing the only other analysis by a New Testament scholar of the ancient grammarians.[9] It is precisely these ancient grammarians that provide an important back drop to later work—both because the 19th and 20th century grammarians essentially build on their work, but also because Porter frames a substantial portion of his discussion in light of them and their conception of tense and aspect.

As this project develops, the section headings below will become hyperlinks.

2.    Ancient Grammar

2.1      The Stoics

2.2      Dionysius Thrax & the Tékhnē Grammatikḗ

2.3       Apollonius Dyscholus

2.4       Other Ancient Grammatical Works

3.    19th Century Grammars

3.1      August Matthiä (1808; 1818; 1827)

3.2      Friedrich Thiersch (1818; 1826; 1830)

3.3      Georg Benedikt Winer (1825)

3.4      Philipp Buttmann (1833)

3.5      Franz Bopp (1837; 1845; 1850)

3.6      William Trollope (1842)

3.7      Raphael Kühner & William Jelf (1866)

3.8      Alexander Buttmann (1878)

3.9      Georg Benedikt Winer & William Moulton (1882)

3.10    Georg Curtius (1883)

3.11    Karl Brugmann (1888)

3.12    A. N. Jannaris (1897)

3.13    William W. Goodwin (1897)

3.14    Friedrich Blass (1898)

4.    20th Century Grammars

4.1      James Hope Moulton (1908)

4.2      Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1900; 1909)

4.3      Jacob Wackernagel (1920-1924)

4.4      A. T. Robertson (1923)

4.5      C. F. D. Moule (1959)

4.6      Robert Funk (1983)

5.    Conclusions

6.    Bibliography


[1] Stanley Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament with Reference to Tense and Mood (New York: Peter Lang, 1989); Buist Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[2] Rodney J. Decker, Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark with Reference to Verbal Aspect (New York: Peter Lang, 2001).

[3] Paul Seesengood, “Review of Rodney J. Decker, Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark”, Review of Biblical Literature, 2003 <http://www.bookreviews.org/> [accessed 5 October 2011].

[4] This is true regardless of whether Porter’s rejection of Greek as tenseless is ultimately accepted by the field.

[5] Thomas E. Payne, “A Grammar as a Communicative Act–Or What Does a Grammatical Description Really Describe,” in Perspectives on Grammar Writing (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 3007), 127-42.

[6] While Porter’s review is far more thorough in the sources reviewed, Fanning’s discussion stands in stark contrast in terms of how favorably past research is viewed. It is this contrast that is most important for our own evaluation here.

[7] T. V. Evans Verbal Syntax in the Greek Pentateuch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[8] Rodney Decker, Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark with Reference to Verbal Aspect (New York: Peter Lang: 2001); Constantine Campbell, Verbal Aspect, the Indicative Mood, and Narrative (New York: Peter Lang, 2007).

[9] Chrys Caragounis, The Development of Greek and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2007). Caragounis’ primary interest is less the history of scholarship and more the claims of Porter on tense. However, he places a strong (positive) emphasis on ethnically Greek grammarians and surveys their contributions.

6 thoughts on “Greek Linguistic Historiography

  1. i was wondering if you would write something about Hermann Paul and Badouin de Courtenay!
    i have been looking for the English translation of Paul’s by H A Strong “Principles of the history of language” but have not been lucky. Please let me know if you could help in some way.

    regards
    praveen

  2. Thank you Mike for the resourses to Paul’s book. And i guess i lost the point that your focus was Greek Grammars.

    regards
    praveen

  3. Well, I’m definitely interested in the broader history of linguistics, its just that Ancient Greek is where I have planted my feet. It’s something that I would like to expand to eventually, it’ll just be a while. Right now, I’m working through the comparative philologists’ views of the Greek verbal system.

    There are a couple books that cover this same era for the broader field. Dirk Geeraerts, for example, has a superb book entitled, Theories of lexical semantics that does an excellent job and has a great discussion of Hermann Paul and others with reference to their work in semantics.

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