Update to Lesson 17 on the Greek Present

I just added a short paragraph to the section on usage of the Greek present. Here’s what I added to the end of that section:

    What you can know for sure when you encounter a Greek present form is that the focus is not on when the action begins or ends. The Greek present form indicates imperfective verbal aspect. That is, it conveys a focus on the ongoing action, not on the beginning or end of the process.

This does not change anything I had already said. It just makes the connection to verbal aspect theory a little clearer.

Punctuation in Ancient Greek Texts, Part II

Here is a good example of what I had to say in my last post about the lack of punctuation and spacing in Ancient Greek. The image is from Codex Sinaiticus, Philippians 1:1-2.

Philippians 1:1-2 in Codex Sinaiticus
Philippians 1:1-2 in Codex Sinaiticus

Here is the same text with spaces added between the words:

Notice in addition to the lack of punctuation and spacing, the regular use of abbreviations for the words God (ΘΕΟΥ - ΘΥ), Lord (ΚΥΡΙΟΥ – ΚΥ), Jesus (ΙΗΣΟΥ – ΙΥ), and Christ (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ – ΧΥ). In Codex Sinaiticus as in all of the early manuscripts, such abbreviations are marked by a macron (¯) over the letters. I was not able to do that when I typed out the version with the spaces above. By including both the first and last letters in the abbreviation, the CASE of the words in question is clear (Genitive in this context for all of them), so even the abbreviations present minimal difficulty for a reasonably fluent reader of Hellenistic Greek.

To see the earlier discussion, go here:

On January 6, 2013 I added a third post on the topic of punctuation:

Important! [Added Jan. 19, 2015]
While the earliest manuscripts of the biblical texts did not contain punctuation, it is usually clear to a competent reader of Ancient Greek where the punctuation belongs.

It is a serious mistake to assume that the absence of punctuation in those manuscripts means a person who does not read Greek is free to choose where to put the punctuation in an English translation. To make decisions about where the punctuation belongs it is necessary to read Ancient Greek very well. Many options that would seem to be available in an English text are ruled out by the structure of the Greek text.

Punctuation in Ancient Greek Texts, Part I

Recognizing that readers of this blog represent various levels of competence in reading Ancient Greek and levels of familiarity with Hellenistic Greek texts, I am posting an email I wrote to a user of Greek-Language.com back in 2005 in response to the question, “Did Ancient Greek use punctuation?” If you already know the answer to that question, just skip this post! (Or better yet, comment!)

On Mon, August 29, 2005 I wrote:

Dear __________:

Thank you for your letter. Your question is an interesting and important one, and we have considerable evidence with which to answer it.

The ancient Greeks did not have any equivalent to our modern device of punctuation. Sentence punctuation was invented several centuries after the time of Christ. The oldest copies of both the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament are written with no punctuation.

In addition, the ancient Greeks used no spaces between words or paragraphs. Texts were a continuous string of letters, with an occasional blank line inserted to mark the end of a major section, though even this was not always done.

They also had no equivalent to our lower case letters. Texts were written in all capitals.

While this clearly creates some challenges for Bible translation, those challenge are seldom very large. As a simple test, try reading the English text in the following line:


With very little difficulty you can probably tell where the spaces should be and what kind of punctuation belongs at the end. You can tell this because you are a native speaker of the language in which the text is written, so you can easily recognize the words as well as the implication of the word order. Native speakers of Ancient Greek, in the same way, could recognize where one word ended and another began even though the spaces were not written. They could also distinguish a question from a direct statement without the need of punctuation.

Here’s the real problem: You and I are NOT native speakers of Ancient Greek.

While I read Ancient Greek quite well, I did not grow up speaking it. All modern scholars, including those who grew up speaking Modern Greek, are in this same situation.

When there is more than one possible way of dividing the words in a sentence or paragraph, or when there is more than one possible set of punctuation, we must look for clues as to what the author intended in order to correctly determine which is the correct division and what punctuation the author would have used if it had been available.

Of course there is an element of subjectivity in this process, but many scholars have dedicated the better part of their lives to reading the Biblical documents in the original languages and have come to have a good sense of the style and preferences of each author. As we develop this skill, it becomes easier to see what the author would most likely have intended in each of the few places where a sentence could be divided more than one way.

If you do not read Ancient Greek and Hebrew, it is important to compare various translations to see what the options for punctuation might be. Then you should ask yourself which punctuation results in something that the author would most likely have said. This may not always provide you with the correct answer, but it will be a valuable learning experience.

Thank you again for your letter. I wish you well in your studies.

Micheal W. Palmer
Greek Language and Linguistics Gateway


Since the writing of this post on December 27, 2010, two other discussions of the lack of punctuation in Ancient Greek have been posted. You can find them by following the links below:

Another topic tangentially related to this one is available here:


Important! [Added Jan. 19, 2015]
While the earliest manuscripts of the biblical texts did not contain punctuation, it is usually clear to a competent reader of Ancient Greek where the punctuation belongs.

It is a serious mistake to assume that the absence of punctuation in those manuscripts means a person who does not read Greek is free to choose where to put the punctuation in an English translation. To make decisions about where the punctuation belongs it is necessary to read Ancient Greek very well. Many options that would seem to be available in an English text are ruled out by the structure of the Greek text.

Καλὰ Χριστούγεννα (Merry Christmas in Greek)

I wish you all a wonderful Christmas.

The folks over at Omniglot.com provided a recording of the phrase in the title of this post that was used here from 2010 to 2015. My link to that recording ceased to function this year, so I replaced it with a recording of my own. Click the triangle below if you want to learn to say “Merry Christmas” in Hellenistic Greek.

New audio added November 25, 2016



Thanks to Omniglot.com for providing the audio that was used in this post from 2010 to 2015!

A note on pronunciation added in 2014:
The pronunciation from Ominiglot.com was done using Modern Greek pronunciation. While there are several important differences between Modern Greek and the way the language was spoken in the Hellenistic Period (Koine), none of those differences impact the pronunciation of καλὰ Χριστούγεννα. Of course at the time of Jesus and Paul no one would have said καλὰ Χριστούγεννα since Christmas was not yet celebrated. When it did come to be celebrated, though, early Christians would have pronounced this phrase the same as it is pronounced today in Greece.


A note on spelling (Added 12/15/2015)
There is one small difference in spelling of the Christmas greeting between 300 CE and the present: the system of written accents has been simplified. Contrast the following spellings. Can you see the difference?
Modern: Καλά Χριστούγεννα
Hellenistic: Καλὰ Χριστούγεννα

Input and Output in Acquisition of Hellenistic Greek

In earlier posts I have mentioned the notion of Comprehensible Input and its crucial role in language acquisition. Now I want to address a different issue that has equal implications for teaching and acquiring Ancient Greek: the distinction between receptive and expressive language, also called the input/output difference.

In acquisition of an additional language, reception precedes expression. That is, a student’s ability to understand develops much faster than her or his ability to speak. The ability to read develops faster than the ability to write. While research has clearly demonstrated this, it’s quite easy to see for anyone whose ever taught a modern language to any degree of fluency. Students that have a great deal of difficulty speaking German in class can nonetheless understand what the teacher is saying in German at a significantly higher level. Students who struggle with writing in French can nonetheless read French texts with grammatical constructions well beyond the ones they are able to write.

Now let’s think about the implications for teaching Ancient Greek. What is our objective? I think it is quite uncontroversial to propose that most Ancient Greek classes are focused more on reading than on writing. What we want our students to be able to do is read fluently, not write fluently. That is, our objective is most clearly aligned with reception, not expression.

While we might disagree over how beneficial it is to have students speak or write in class (output), these activities are clearly not our goal in and of themselves. Since our goal is reception rather than production, we could argue that having students learn to speak Ancient Greek is not a productive use of time (though some would disagree). Still, hearing Greek spoken clearly is a good use of time. It provides, in addition to reading, input that is useful to the student. Of course, the quality of this input must be high to be of real value. It must be comprehensible input.

I would love to hear comments from any of you who have experience relevant to this question. Have you been asked to speak or write (output) Greek in your classes? How helpful did you find that experience? Have you had instructors who spoke to you (input) in Greek? Did you find it helpful? If not, what was the nature of the way the instructor spoke? Were you able to understand based on the context? If not, it was not really comprehensible input.

It is my view that speaking to the class in Greek WILL aid acquisition so long as what is said is comprehensible based on the context in which it is spoken.

El Diccionario Griego Español

An article by Elvira Gangutia explaining the origin and progress of the Diccionario Griego Español, the largest diccionary of Ancient Greek produced to date, appeared in 2007 in Arbor: Ciencia, Pensamiento y Cultura. You can download a PDF version of the article at http://dge.cchs.csic.es/bib/arbor.pdf. It’s written in Spanish, of course, but there’s a (very rough) translation of the abstract at the beginning of the article. If you can read Spanish, the article can be quite informative.

Here’s my own abstract and comments:

There was a significant revival of Classical studies in Spain in the 1960s. A part of that revival was the recognition of a need for a Greek lexicon directed at university students and faculty. Under the direction of professor Rodriguez Andrados a small group of researchers began work on the project. They quickly realized that the volume of Greek documents available had increased considerably since the most recent lexica were produced. The job was simply too massive for such a small team.

They broadened their objectives, embracing new fields of study and new methods. The research team was expanded, and the first few volumes of the dictionary began to appear. As computer resources began to emerge, these were incorporated, allowing both faster processing and greater reliability. The web has proved a vital tool in recent work on the lexicon.

The enormous scope of the work has not permitted a quick conclusion to the project, although it has received considerable acclaim. So far, seven volumes have appeared (one since the writing of Gangutia’s article).

The latest volume covers ἐκπελλεύω—ἔξαυος. There’s an enormous amount left to be done, but what’s available now is a significant advance over previous efforts. When will a similar project get underway in English? We can only hope.


Poster of book cover (borrowed from ΕΝ ΕΦΕΣΩ)A few weeks ago, Mike Aubrey announced on ΕΝ ΕΦΕΣΩ the release of Steve Runge’s new book, Discourse Grammar of New Testament Greek. To see the announcement, visit his blog at ΕΝ ΕΦΕΣΩ.

This is a ground-breaking work, in that it approaches grammar from a linguistic perspective not previously employed in a full grammar of Biblical Greek. Notice the subtitle: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis.