Scope of a Hellenistic Greek Grammar V: The "Problem" of Dialect

When we discuss the “scope” of any grammar it is possible to discuss two quite different things. One is the range of issues it should address (See Scope IV). The other is the range of literature it seeks to cover, what I called “Documentary Scope” in my original post on this issue (Scope I, II, and III).

The problem of defining the documentary scope of a Hellenistic Greek Grammar in the past century was fairly straight forward. It included either the Christian New Testament, or the New Testament plus the Septuagint. Little outside that body of literature was of immediate interest. The computer revolution, however, has made this limitation seem unreasonable, since we now have relatively easy access to a much broader range of literature.

What I have written in my first three posts on Scope was written as a way of thinking through the implications of this challenge. I suggested that an authoritative grammar of Hellenistic Greek should address at least (outside the biblical texts) a broad representation from other early Jewish and Christian literature and much of the available papyrii from outside the Jewish and Christian traditions.

Now I would like to consider the “problem” of dialect. This issue is acutely problematic with some authors who were able to manage more than one dialect reasonably fluently. Take Flavius Arrianus, for example. He wrote the Discourses of Epictetus (ΤΩΝ ΕΠΙΚΤΗΤΟΥ ΔΙΑΤΡΙΒΩΝ) and the Manual of Epictetus (ΕΠΙΚΤΗΤΟΥ ΕΓΧΕΙΡΙΔΙΟΝ) in fluent Hellenistic Koiné, but his History of Alexander (ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ ΑΝΑΒΑΣΕΩΣ) is a clear attempt to imitate the Attic of Xenophon and in his Indica (ΙΝΔΙΚΗ) he strives for the Ionic of Herodotus. In neither of these last two does he represent the actual speech of his time, but he certainly did represent the language of fine literature.

In my original post on Scope I suggested that we should include Arrian’s History of Alexander, but I would now reject that judgment. If our aim is to reflect the Hellenistic Koiné, the language seen in the biblical texts, then we should limit the Documentary Scope of the grammar to works that reflect that level of literature.

In this case, what we need goes well beyond a list of Hellenistic authors, but a considered discussion of each of their works and its relationship to the Koiné.

8 Replies to “Scope of a Hellenistic Greek Grammar V: The "Problem" of Dialect”

  1. Part of the papyri revolution was to emphasize style *over and against* grammar, so that some (including Moulton, I think) held that Josephus’ grammar was fundamentally different than that of the New Testament.

    This comes to questions of what is grammar. Does grammar exist at a level beyond issues of dialect and literary style?

    1. Yes. And this is precisely the question of scope, isn’t it? What should count as the legitimate domain of a grammar? By “a grammar” in this case I mean an attempt to explain the customary usage of a particular community or set of related communities. What defines that community and that “customary usage”?

    2. The problem of scope is exactly why I would advocate a large coverage grammar. Carl is quite right about the usefulness of Smyth. The problem is that beyond the NT, LXX, most Hellenistic and early Roman Greek texts have no thorough grammatical representation.

      Even for authors like Josephus, we don’t have much more than the passing ad hoc observations and intuitions of scholars. And while I do not doubt that such observations are valuable and generally accurate–after all, they tend to come from scholars who have devoted their scholarly lives to these texts. Because there is no broad coverage grammar of Hellenistic/early Roman texts, it is difficult to state just how precise they are or how pervasive they appear across the corpus of texts.

      An alternative, might be the production of a grammar of Hellenistic Greek that doesn’t focus the New Testament directly. Considering how much grammatical material we already have on the NT, it might be more useful to have a reference grammar that takes Josephus, Philo, Epictetus, or Strabo as its starting point.

      Hmm, now that sounds daunting.

      1. It does indeed sound daunting. As Carl points out (below), Smyth does a very good job of covering the vast majority of what we seen in those authors, but I would like to see a grammar that covers those authors as well as the New Testament and Septuagint materials. Since a number of authors were able to handle both the literary language of the Attic revival and what we might call the literary Koiné, a grammar that covered the entire range would have certain advantages.

        While a multi-volume work that treated each “dialect” in a separate volume could also address the full range of hellenistic texts, it would involve significant duplication since there is a considerable amount of overlap between the dialects. If instead, we seek economy by treating the classical revival texts in the same volume with the Koiné, how should this be done?

      2. That would be preferable. It was difficult to tell whether how broad of a scope you were advocating. What I proposed was under the assumption that you were thinking of a narrower scope.

        1. Thanks Mike. I would like to eventually see a Hellenistic Greek grammar that covered the full range of Hellenistic Greek texts, but I realized that goal will take time to accomplish. It will require the efforts of many people. Motivating them to do the job could be difficult! There doesn’t seem to be a lot of money in it.

          The internet and computer technology more generally may make the goal more attainable than it now seems, though.

  2. I think the question is a catch-22. I personally think that Smyth currently is the single most useful grammar for anyone working in Hellenistic Greek texts, but BDF remains a necessary supplement — and BDF doesn’t claim to be useful apart from a good Attic grammar. The root of the difficulty lies in the fact that the target literature (assuming that this is to be identified as Hellenistic Jewish and Christian including NT and LXX as well as Hellenistic Jewish authors and Patristic writers) is composed in “dialects” ranging across a pretty broad spectrum between the colloquial language of street vendors and the official documents composed by state scribes. Greek literature of antiquity, as much or more than any other international tongue in history, is a language expressive of a rich cultural heritage. Josephus and Philo both knew Attic literature well enough to reflect the older classics in their writing; so also did Clement of Alexandria and others. It is arbitrary to exclude Jewish and Christian writers who commented on the LXX and the GNT whose writing is affected or “infected” by the Atticist movement; it is arbitrary also to draw lines that will include all texts of the Hellenistic-Roman period, but unless there’s some halfway house between those two options, I think the chronological termini post- and ante quem would be more meaningful. My guess is that it would be just about as difficult to write a grammar of Modern Greek that would ignore the literature written in the Katharevousa.

    1. Thank you, Carl. As always, you write with clarity and considerable insight.

      The question for me is how best to represent this diversity of dialects in a single grammar. We could follow the lead of BDF in pointing out where Koiné structures differ from Attic, though I would like to see more consistent and extensive citing of the Atticist literature from the hellenistic period.

      I would love to have a grammar that clearly showed how Josephus differs from Mark’s Gospel, how Arrian’s History of Alexander differs from Luke. Comments on contemporary Atticist works seems more significant to me even than comparisons with the earlier classical Attic writers.

      I’m currently reading bits and pieces of Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History (ΒΙΒΛΙΟΘΗΚΗΣ ΙΣΤΟΡΙΚΗΣ), and I’d love to have a grammar that addressed its linguistic relationship to the wider range of hellenistic writers.

      What would a grammar look like that did this? Would it include subsections for different dialects under each linguistic form or function it addressed?

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