I’ll never forget arriving at my college, opening my mailbox for the first time, and getting my assignments for the first day of class. I was used to high school, where first days were pretty much a waste. You know, where they handed out books, assigned seats, took role . . . first assignment for my Greek class? Memorize the alphabet and read the first chapter of the language book.
One of the first things we learned in class was that fraternities and sororities have no clue how to pronounce Greek letters. There’s no long-I sound made a single letter, so traditional pronunciations of ioto, pi, psi, chi, etc. are all WRONG. Should bee pronounced ee-ota, pee (no snickering, please–we have a letter pronounced that way too;-), psee, etc.
Then we got into the really complicated stuff. See, Greek’s pretty much the opposite of English. In English, our meaning depends entirely upon word order. If you write a sentence like “Man dog tells the to deck get the off the,” you’ll leave your readers scratching their heads. In Greek, however, this would be perfectly acceptable–everyone would know what you mean, because the cases, genders, numbers, and aspects tell you what goes logically with what.
Confused yet? Number and gender we English-speakers get okay. Granted, we don’t often have words that denote gender (and even though we do with some, they’re being phased out), and number’s a no brainer. We all know the difference between singular and plural. But what in the world are those other things?
Well. Case is what tells you the role of a noun in the sentence. If it’s the subject, it will be in the nominative case (will also be nominative if it’s a predicate nominative, which usually follows a “being” verb). If it’s possessive, then it’ll be genitive case. The dative case signifies an object of a preposition, the thing to, for, or with which something is done, as well as its location in or at. Direct complements are in accusative case, and vocative is reserved for direct address (tell me, woman, what you mean).
The only way you can tell what adjectives and adverbs modify in the sentence is by matching up cases.
Verbs get voice and aspects instead of cases (and of course, number). These denote things like whether the subject is acting or being acted on, whether it’s progressive, past, present, future, or perfect–and they get waaaaay more picky than we do about it!
Oy, and then there are moods! Imperative, subjunctive, optative, indicative, imperative . . .
Translating Greek texts must be done in sections. First, we generally parse. That means we go through the sentence and look up each word, noting what case, aspect, mood, voice, or whatever it is, as well as the basic definition. (Not that there’s always a basic definition. Just like Greek has four words for “love,” often one of their words equals four [or twenty] of ours.) Meanings often change greatly depending on what other words it’s going with. It’s complicated.
Thankfully, by the time the New Testament was written (and Stray Drop takes place) the extra-complicated Homeric and Attic Greeks had given way to Quasi-Greek, which is far closer to being a synthetic language than its uber-analytic predecessors. After a year of studying Ancient Greek, most of use could translate the New Testament with only a small lexicon to help us. (Lexicon=dictionary, FYI.)
I think what I most gained from these classes, though, wasn’t just the ability to translate Greek: it was the lessons about linguistics in general, about what transcended the particular languages and was universal to all. And, too, what changed in the thought processes because of those things that were different.
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