Usage of καί

Originally published May 15, 2012: Usage of καί

Earlier today, Eric Rasmusen posted the following comment in the Punctuation in Ancient Greek Texts discussion. While his comment is related to that topic, it raises a question more specific to the usage of καί, and I would like to invite other comments more particular to the use of that conjunction than to punctuation.

Here’s what Eric had to say:

I don’t know Greek. I have a question about Biblical Greek, which often strikes me as ugly in literal translation. I was just reading Colossians in English and wondered whether most of the “and”‘s in it ought to be translated by periods. In other words: is the Greek word kai actually mean NEW SENTENCE?

3:13 Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have aquarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.

3:14 And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.

3:15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful.

And here’s my response, to which you can feel free to add:

I agree that overly literal translations sound “ugly.” That’s because they try to make English sound like Greek, and that’s just not normal English usage!

As to the meaning of καί…

No. Καί is not equivalent to a verbal punctuation mark. It can be used in all of the ways that the English word “and” can be in English, plus a few others. I’ll stick to ways that have a parallel in English to make the discussion below easy to follow.

Usage of καί to link words

Καί can be used to link two or more simple words in a list:

χρυσὸν καὶ λίβανον καὶ σμύρναν

gold and frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11)

Σίμωνος καὶ Ἀνδρέου

Simon and Andrew (Mark 1:29)

To link phrases

Καί can be used to link two or more phrases:

γῆ Ζαβουλὼν καὶ γῆ Νεφθαλίμ

The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali (Matthew 4:15)

To link clauses

Καί can be used to link entire clauses:

τέξεται. . . υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν

She will bear a son, and you will name him “Jesus” (Matthew 1:21)

Usage of “and” in English differs from the usage of καί in Greek.

In English we often omit “and” when it would sound repetitive. For example, in the first example above (Matthew 2:11), a more natural English translation would be “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” rather than “gold and frankincense and myrrh.” In a list of three or more items, we tend to use “and” only between the last two in Engli sh. In ancient Greek texts, however, it is quite common to find καί between each set of items in the list. While including “and” in all of these places in the English translation would sound “ugly” as you put it, including και´in Greek sounds quite normal.

Because Ancient Greek had a much more developed system of grammatical endings (for verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, etc.), it was possible to write sentences that were considerably longer than what would be understandable in English. Often the parts of such long sentences were held together by conjunctions like καί. There were, of course, many other such conjunctions, but καί was among the most common. Overly literal translations attempt to make English work like Greek and include all of those conjunctions rather than breaking the long sentences down into the smaller units that English usage requires. This results both in “ugly” sounding sentences and a significant loss of comprehensibility.

Note added February 14, 2022:

For more on punctuation in Ancient Greek, see these posts:

 

Punctuation in Ancient Greek Texts, Part I

Esther 2:3-8 in Codex Sinaiticus
Esther 2:3-8 in Codex Sinaiticus

Originally published on December 27, 2010: Punctuation in Ancient Greek

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 regarding punctuation in Ancient Greek:

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:

WHATDOESTHISSAY

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

http://greek-language.com


A few years later, I posted two other discussions of punctuation in Ancient Greek. You can find them by following the links below:

Another topic tangentially related to this one is available here: Usage of καί.

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.