The Change from SOV to SVO in Ancient Greek

I have added the following article by Ann Taylor to the bibliography at

The change from SOV to SVO in Ancient Greek.” Language Variation and Change. 6.1 (1994) 1-37.

While the order of major sentence constituents is quite free at every stage in the development of Ancient Greek, the distribution of those constituents is not random at any stage, and one particular constituent order can be shown to be dominant at each stage. Taylor argues that the dominant constituent order was verb-final (SOV) in Homer, but changed to verb-medial (SVO) by the Hellenistic period.

Using the paradigm of Kroch (1989), Taylor constructs two models—one for the verb-final grammar of the Homeric period (before 800 B.C.) and one for the verb-medial grammar of the Hellenistic Koiné (c. 100 A.D.). She describes the intervening period (Herodotus, c. 450 B.C.) as in part like Homer and in part like the Koiné. She shows further that the ratio of these two constituent orders in Herodotus is also supported by an independent measure of the distribution of weak pronouns and clitics.

Noun Entries in a Future Lexicon: ἔλεος

Our current lexica for Hellenistic Greek fall into two categories on the basis of their approach. The more traditional ones offer suggested translations (not real definitions) and examples of usage. The UBS lexicon classifies words on the basis of perceived semantic domains, grouping words with overlapping meaning into sense categories.

What I envision for a future lexicon is one that does not fit comfortably into either of these categories. It would provide examples of usage, of course, but it would provide a definition along the lines of modern dictionaries such as, and the discussion of examples should be different from what we currently find. Entries for nouns, for example, would also include information on the types of predicates for which the noun may function as an argument.

Let’s look at ἔλεος as an example. As something to be thought of (desired, neglected, remembered), ἔλεος functions as an argument of verbs like θέλω, ἀφίημι, and μιμνῄσκομαι:

1. ἔλεος θέλω καὶ οὐ θυσίαν· (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7)
2. ἀφήκατε τὰ βαρύτερα τοῦ νόμου, τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὸ ἔλεος καὶ τὴν πίστιν· (Matthew 23:23)
3. μνησθῆναι ἐλέους (Luke 1:54)

When used to speak specifically of something that transpires between two people (where an English translation might speak of showing mercy), though, ἔλεος may serve as an argument of ποιέω. It is not an attitude to be shown or demonstrated, but an action to be  done.

4. ποιῆσαι ἔλεος μετὰ τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν (Luke 1:72)
5. ὁ ποιήσας τὸ ἔλεος μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ. (Luke 10:37)

Notice the usage of a prepositional phrase μετά + genitive to modify ἔλεος in this sense.

In the catholic epistles we find ἔλεος used as an argument of δίδωμι and λαμβάνω in  contexts where it involves an interaction between two parties. Ἔλεος is presented as being transferred from a giver to a recipient:

6. δῴη ἔλεος ὁ κύριος τῷ Ὀνησιφόρου οἴκῳ (2 Timothy 1:16)

Two verses later what is given (δίδωμι) is not ἔλεος, but the ability to find (εὐρίσκω) ἔλεος.

7. δῴη αὐτῷ ὁ κύριος εὑρεῖν ἔλεος (2 Timothy 1:18)

Here, ἔλεος functions directly as an argument of εὑρεῖν.

8. ἵνα λάβωμεν ἔλεος (Hebrews 4:16)

Here the focus is on the receiver rather than the giver, but ἔλεος remains a thing to be transferred from an actor to a recipient.

Still, in James 2:13 we find ἔλεος again as an argument of ποιέω:

9. ἡ γὰρ κρίσις ἀνέλεος τῷ μὴ ποιήσαντι ἔλεος·

A lexical entry that takes these examples seriously might define ἔλεος as an action to be done for the benefit of another, despite that other’s lack of merit—an action that can be viewed as a gift in appropriate contexts. But the entry would also need to specify that ἔλεος is never presented as a quality to be demonstrated. In this sense, it is unlike the English word mercy.

This does not mean of course, that we should avoid translating ποιεῖν ἔλεος as show mercy, but it does mean that commentators and even casual readers of the Greek text should recognize that such a translation, while necessary, is required because of the peculiar demands of English, and the image that would come to mind for a speaker of Ancient Greek at hearing ἔλεος was different in important ways from the one that comes to mind for English speakers who hear mercy.

Grammatical Terms in Ancient Greek

Back in March, Louis Sorenson posted a helpful comment to B-Greek: The Biblical Greek Forum. In it he included a link to a great resource for finding the terminology that Ancient Greek writers used to describe their language. Here’s the relevant portion of his comment:

Randall Buth in his books Living Koine lists some of these terms in his appendix on pages 175-178. William Annis has collected a number of those terms primarily from Eleanor Dickey’s Ancient Greek scholarship: a Guide to Finding, Reading, and Understanding Scholia, Commentaries, Lexica and Grammatical Treatises, from Their Beginnings to the Byzantine Period, Oxford University Press, 2007. You can find his collection of terms at

This terminology could be very useful in developing a new reference grammar for the Hellenistic Period. For earlier discussions of that topic, go here.

NA28 with two parallel English Texts

Yesterday I received a very nice gift from my church where I regularly teach classes in Biblical Studies. At the end of an afternoon meeting, the Minister of Christian Formation handed me a copy of the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft double diglot edition of  Novum Testamentum Graece. The two parallel English texts, on facing pages from the Greek, are the NRSV and the REB. Amazingly, the entire volume is just under seven and a half inches tall, just over five and a half inches wide, and only an inch and a half thick—a comfortable size and weight.

The Verb in Koine Greek

There’s a wonderful discussion of Albert Rijksbaron’s book, The Syntax and Semantics of the Verb in Classical Greek: An Introduction, going on over at the B-Greek Forum. The participants are discussing the book one section at a time, comparing it’s observations on Classical Greek to the available data for the Hellenistic Period. While the discussion is focussed largely on the New Testament, there is some attempt to reach beyond that corpus to the wider early Christian literature, and perhaps even the wider Hellenistic Koiné.

Rijksbaron’s book gives a very good overview of the verb in the Classical Period. It would be great to see a parallel treatment for Hellenistic Greek. Perhaps this discussion, with participation from advanced students as well as seasoned professors, will lead to the eventual production of such a treatment.

Take a look.

Μὴ γίνεσθε ἑτεροζυγοῦντες ἀπίστοις

Recently I was approached by a friend who wanted my take on Paul’s comment that Christians should not be “unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14). This particular friend is in an interfaith marriage and had been challenged by someone who took Paul’s comment as a prohibition against such marriages.

Μὴ γίνεσθε ἑτεροζυγοῦντες ἀπίστοις· τίς γὰρ μετοχὴ δικαιοσύνῃ καὶ ἀνομίᾳ, ἢ τίς κοινωνία φωτὶ πρὸς σκότος;

I’ve spent some time looking at the way this verse has been used and reading the relevant section of 2 Corinthians carefully. Here are a few observations on what I have found:

1. The passage in question (2 Corinthians 6) does not address marriage at all. It is about the work of the gospel, the work of early Christians in spreading the “good news” (to use Paul’s favorite term for it elsewhere). If this one verse refers to marriage, it seems quite out-of-place here.

2. The phrase “unequally yoked” translates the Greek word ἑτεροζυγοῦντες—a compound of the two words ἕτερος and ζυγέω. A problem with interpreting this as a reference to interfaith marriage is that the verb ζυγέω is not used elsewhere to refer to marriage. It refers to wearing a device that allows two animals (or slaves) to work together, not to form a family together. If Paul used the term figuratively to refer to marriage, he used it in a very odd way.

A much more reasonable interpretation of the verb would be something like, “Don’t partner with unbelievers [in the work of spreading the gospel].” In fact, in the very next clause Paul asks, “What partnership (μετοχὴ) [is there] between righteousness and lawlessness?” (τίς γὰρ μετοχὴ δικαιοσύνῃ καὶ ἀνομίᾳ).

Note that I’m not arguing a theological point here. I can’t speak for Paul about his view of interfaith marriage. I just notice that this particular verse does not appear to be about marriage at all, but about partnership in the work of the gospel.

There’s a separate issue that can be raised in reference to this same statement in 2 Corinthians 6:14, and that has to do with the word ἀπίστοις. Most published English translations render ἀπίστοις as unbelievers. While this adjective does seem to have that sense in a number of other contexts, it is important to realize that it is a combination of the privative α- and the adjective πιστός (faithful) and can also describe a lack of faithfulness rather than a lack of belief.

Of course translating ἀπίστοις  as unfaithful would significantly change the meaning of the passage. Rather than arguing that the Corinthians not work with unbelievers in the spread of the gospel, Paul would be arguing that they should not work with those who are unfaithful. This could very well include his opponents within the Corinthian church! Why would he have to counsel them not to work with unbelievers in the spread of the gospel anyway? Why would unbelievers want to be involved in that work?

If we read ἀπίστοις as unfaithful, we would see Paul as counseling the Corinthians not to work with unfaithful Christians. Doing so could damage their witness. He prefers that they work with those who are faithful (πιστός) like him.

The Sociolinguistics of Translating Canonical Religious Texts

After reading some comments on Sociolinguistics over at the b-greek forum a few days ago, I was fascinated to find a 1994 paper by Eugene Nida on Sociolinguistics and translation today. The article is available online. If you are unclear on the distinction between Sociolinguistics and other forms of Linguistic inquiry, you will find this article helpful.

The Sociolinguistics of Translating Canonical Religious Texts