Using Pinax and Django for Collaborative Corpus Linguistics (Greek)

If you are interested in web design and the possibilities it presents for collaborative work in Ancient Greek Linguistics, you must see James Tauber’s BibleTech2010 talk (embedded below). It’s almost an hour long, but well worth the time.

James begins by explaining Django, a core tool for managing basic functionality on a website. He then explains Pinax, a product that runs on top of Django to power much of the functionality of social networking sites. He finishes this discussion, though by presenting the possibilities of using this combination to power collaborative work in corpus linguistics, using Biblical Greek as his example.

He is developing precisely the kind of tools needed to do the lexicon project I have in mind. Here’s the talk. Feel free to comment on its implications for Greek Linguistics.

Using Pinax and Django For Collaborative Corpus Linguistics from James Tauber on Vimeo.

Renaming the Greek "Middle" Voice?

I agree with Carl Conrad that the term “Middle Voice” creates the false impression that the real contrast in Greek is between active and passive and that the “middle” voice is something of a misfit in an otherwise clear system. I have been thinking about what term could be used to replace “middle” that would avoid this implication and better fit the actual usage of what we have all been calling the “middle” voice.

Here’s my problem: The Greek middle voice is clearly NOT equivalent to the English reflexive construction, but it IS very much like the reflexive of some other IndoEuropean languages. I happen to be a fluent speaker of Spanish, so examples from that language are very easy for me to produce, but the same is true for French and Italian according to what I have read on those languages.

Here are a few Spanish reflexive constructions with English equivalents. Notice that there is a good deal of difference between the two languages in their use of reflexives. All of the Spanish sentences have reflexive constructions. Many of the English equivalents do not.

Me corté.
I cut myself.
Me corté el dedo.
I cut my finger.
Me voy.
I’m leaving.
Me compré un nuevo reloj.
I bought myself a new watch.
¿Te diste cuenta que Alfredo ya llegó?
Did you realize that Alfredo has arrived?
Se despertó el bebe.
The baby woke up.

Of course I could write hundreds of these examples easily, but I think this is enough to make the point. Reflexive constructions vary widely between languages. The Greek “middle” voice is very much like the reflexive of Romance languages, but quite unlike the English reflexive. If I were writing a Greek grammar in Spanish, there’s no question of what I would call the “middle” voice: la voz reflexiva. But calling it the “Reflexive Voice” in English could cause serious confusion since many “middle” voice Greek verbs require active voice English translations, not reflexive ones.

So, what should we call the “middle” voice to avoid the confusion caused by the term “middle” and also avoid the confusion that could be created by calling this voice “reflexive” in English?

Carl Conrad's "Understanding Ancient Greek Voice"

Several links in the discussion below have ceased to work, so I have disabled them. You can now find the papers referenced in this post at Professor Conrad’s Ancient Greek Voice page at Washington State University.

If you are interested in the topic of Voice and the problematic issue of deponency, you should read Carl Conrad’s “Active, Middle, and Passive: Understanding Ancient Greek Voice.” It’s available as a PDF download from

For further discussion of the same issues, see his “New Observations on Voice in the Ancient Greek Verb.” This 21 page discussion provides wonderful detail and clear reasoning. He raises compelling questions about the semantic import of the morphological distinction between what have traditionally been called the aorist middle and passive forms.

You can find the paper at

It’s wonderful to have both his and Pennington’s views on the topic available online for free!

Topical Index

The topical index is now up to 82 topics linked to 272 specific sections within the grammar. This should be enough to enable you to quickly find where I have discussed your pet issue, or perhaps to determine that I haven’t discussed it yet! Give it a try. I would love to hear your reaction to the way I have presented any issue of interest to you.

The topics include everything from traditional grammatical categories to terms from Linguistics that I have found useful in writing the grammar.

Have fun.

Topical Index

Scope of a Hellenistic Greek Grammar III: Papyri

Since the papyri have been mentioned twice already in this discussion of the scope of a Hellenistic Greek Grammar, I thought I would offer a little of my own take on the issue.

The papyri are extremely valuable for documenting language change. They are not as helpful for documenting a particular point in the middle of that change. Their very variability offers great evidence for the shifts that were occurring in pronunciation during the Hellenistic period, for example, but they don’t help in understanding Luke’s discourse preferences.

Their importance, from a linguistic point of view, has been that they have given us a clearer picture of conversational or informal Greek in and around Egypt and have clarified to some extent what we might call business Greek or the language of commerce. These are legitimate concerns for a grammar of Hellenistic Greek, but are not necessarily crucial for understanding the biblical documents.

It is very hard to sort out all of the variation in the papyri, but they are nonetheless fascinating.

See also, “Scope of a Hellenistic Greek Grammar IV.”

Scope of a Hellenistic Greek Grammar

We could speak about the scope of a grammar of an ancient language in several ways. We could talk about what issues belong in a beginning grammar, what in an intermediate, and what in an advanced or reference grammar. Perhaps I will write about that at a later time. The issue of scope that I have in mind now is the documentary scope. What documents should serve as the basis for the grammar. What documents should the grammar enable its users to read?

This is an important question for Hellenistic Greek in particular because the answer has seemed obvious for so long, but there is reason to question the traditional answer. The majority of grammars of Hellenistic Greek deal either exclusively with the New Testament or are limited to the early Christian Literature. While the traditional reference grammars give passing attention to the wider Hellenistic literature, beginning and intermediate grammars in the past fifty years have seldom ever referred to anything outside the New Testament.

The early Christian literature is, of course, extremely important, and is what the majority of students of Hellenistic Greek most want to read. But do we not risk misunderstanding by failing to examine a wider range of literature? Here are a few ways in which a wider range of literature could make understanding of the biblical texts more accurate:

  • Grammatical structures that appear infrequently in the New Testament can be understood more clearly by comparing them to a wider range of examples.
  • Questions about the meaning of particular words and phrases that appear infrequently in the New Testament could by more clearly defined by considering a broader range of usage.
  • Comparison with texts outside the Christian tradition can clarify what common discourse structures looked like in Hellenistic literature at a broad range of levels. This would enable us to see what is truly unique in the early Christian literature and would also allow us to see how people outside the early Christian movement would have understood the earliest Christian texts.
  • I am attempting to move in the direction of including a broader range of Hellenistic literature in my own beginning grammar. While it is still heavily dominated by the early Christian literature, I am reading as much as possible outside that tradition to make sure that what I have to say in the grammar is actually true to a wider range of texts.

    Here are some of the texts I have been reading:

      Epictetus, Discourses (ΑΡΡΙΑΝΟΥ ΤΩΝ ΕΠΙΚΤΗΤΟΥ ΔΙΑΤΡΙΒΩΝ)
      Arrian, History of Alexander and Indica (ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ ΑΝΑΒΑΣΕΩΣ, ΙΝΔΙΚΗ) [Deleted on 1/26/2011]
      Diodorus Siculus, Library of History (ΒΙΒΛΙΟΘΗΚΗΣ ΙΣΤΟΡΙΚΗΣ)
      Chariton of Aphrodisias, The Story of Callirhoe (ΤΑ ΠΕΡΙ ΚΑΛΛΙΡΟΗΝ ΔΙΗΓΗΜΑΤΑ)

    These texts represent a fairly wide range of styles and literary levels, though not as wide as it might appear at first glance. The Discourses of Epictetus, for example, were actually written by Arrian. Epictetus did not write down his own teachings. The relationship between him and the document that bears his name is similar in some respects (not identical) to the relationship between Jesus and his words as presented in the Gospels. Jesus did not write them. In fact, he may have spoken in Aramaic, and the Gospel writers had to translate what was remembered of his words. Arrian wrote from notes, violating the intention of his teacher who thought true philosophy should be oral, not written.

    I would love to hear from you about what you see as the ideal documentary scope of a Hellenistic Greek Grammar.

    See also, “Scope of a Hellenistic Greek Grammar II: Jewish and Early Christian Literature.”

    Aktionsart and Aspect

    A number of years ago–May 4, 1997 to be exact–I offered a clarification of the terms Aktionsart and Aspect on the b-Greek discussion list. I have decided to post here the essence of that discussion because even this late, both terms are still being used in Biblical Studies, often without a clear distinction between their meanings.

    The original post to b-Greek can be found at

    Here’s a very slightly edited version of what I had to say then. My additions are included in square brackets [ ]. Deletions are indicated by elipsis (…).

    The older grammars use the term ‘Aktionsart’ in a way that is not synonymous with its use in modern linguistics. As Mari [Olsen] stated in her recent note, many linguists use the term as a synonym for ‘lexical aspect.’ Others (especially in the study of Slavic languages) use it to mean ‘aspect which is expressed explicitly through derivational morphology (See R.L. Trask’s A Dictionary of Grammatical Terms in Linguistics for examples.)

    A.T. Robertson and company use the term in neither of these senses. They use it in a very broad sense covering both lexical and grammatical aspect as well as both the writer’s *perception* of an action and the writer’s *portrayal* of that action.
    . . .
    We can distinguish between (1) the way an action really is (out there in the real world, independent of the way we talk about that action), (2) the way that action is perceived by a language user, and (3) the way that same language user decides to portray that action.

    In the traditional grammars the term ‘Aktionsart’ is used for a bewildering mixture of these three.

    In modern linguistics, those linguists who use the term at all (It is interesting that the term did not even appear in David Crystal’s Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, Blackwell, 1991.), tend not to ever use it to represent (1). Many use it to cover both (2) and (3) when they are tied to *lexical aspect* (as Mari stated).

    We might also distinguish between ‘Aktionsart’ and ‘lexical aspect’ taking ‘Aktionsart’ to refer to (2) while ‘lexical aspect’ represents only (3). On this view, however, we may want to reject Aktionsart, seeing it as beyond the scope of what we can legitimately know. In biblical studies, for example, I might argue that all we can know is how Paul [or any other writer] chose to portray an action (3), and that we can never know for sure how he perceived that action (2). If I take Aktionsart to refer only to (2), I would then reject the term, and say that linguistics is legitimately concerned only with aspect–not aktionsart. Much of the discussion in the traditional grammars does take ‘Aktionsart’ as referring to (2).

    Linguists who see ‘Aktionsart’ as Mari does, clearly have no reason to reject the term. Since in our context (biblical Greek studies), however, the term ‘Aktionsart’ carries the baggage of the confused discussion in the traditional grammars where it often covers (2) and even sometimes (1), I do not use the term ‘Aktionsart’ as Mari does when talking about biblical Greek. I prefer the term ‘lexical aspect’ for what she means by ‘Aktionsart.’ When I do use the term ‘Aktionsart’ I try to stick as closely as possible to what the Greek grammars mean by the term–where it is usually identified as ‘type of action’ ((1) and possibly (2)), not ‘type of presentation’ (3), though I doubt the authors of those grammars seriously considered the distinction between type of action and type of presentation).

    I hope this old post proves useful to some of you. Feel free to comment, challenge, ask questions as you like.

    Levinsohn's, "Toward a Unified Description of οὗτος and ἐκεῖνος”

    Steve Runge notified me a few days ago that Levinsohn’s paper, “Towards a Unified Linguistic Description of οὗτος and ἐκεῖνος,” is now out in print. You can find it in The Linguist as Pedagogue, a volume from Sheffield, edited by Porter and O’Donnell, 2009. I have not seen the volume, but Steve assures me that it contains a number of good papers, including Pennington’s chapter on deponency.

    Thanks Steve.

    More Additions to the Bibliography

    Here are two more books that I have recently added to my Greek Linguistics bibliography at

    Runge, Steven E. Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009. Price and purchase information

    Danove, Paul. Grammatical and Exegetical Study of New Testament Verbs of Transference: A Case Frame Guide to Interpretation and Translation (Library of New Testament Studies). T & T Clark International, August 18, 2009. Price and purchase information