What are we reading when we read the Greek text of the NT, or other ancient Greek texts, for that matter? Or, more clearly put, what is the relationship of the texts we are reading to the original Greek which was written (or translated)?

This question often gets discussed with reference to the NT, given its importance in culture and theology. Let’s face it, not many people even know what Paraleipomena Jeremiou (aka, 4 Baruch) is, and among those who do, fewer still care what the original Greek text of the work actually was on a word-for-word basis. But it is a valid question to raise with any ancient text we have, save for extant inscriptions and other extant primary documents, like the papyri. In those cases, we can state with confidence that we are reading (for the most part) the text exactly as it was first written. My concern in raising this question is not with the accuracy of the NT, theologically or historically, nor of any of these other texts, but with something much more specific: do they attest the actual word order of the original texts in the minute details?

Linguistic analysis, manuscripts, and word order

My current research for my dissertation is concerned, among other things, with word order in certain verbal expressions. Greek word order is a fascinating, if endlessly vexing, topic of research in its own right. Many applications of modern linguistic methodology to Ancient Greek texts that I am familiar with involve, at some level, considerations of the word order of the Greek.

Word order is obviously an important aspect of study as all language communicates linearly through time. An utterance has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there is some degree of flexibility about what can go in what place. Ancient Greek happens to have a near perverse degree of variability in word order, at least in higher register literary usages, but variability in word order is exceptionally common in the languages of the world. Even in languages like English, which convey grammatical information based on word position, a surprising degree of flexibility is allowed. Real people using language use the order of words as one of the ways they communicate to hearers/readers about how to understand their communication.

Examining word order in a language requires reading a bunch of text (or listening to a bunch, though this is usually accompanied with taking dictation that is then read for actual study), noticing patterns in the word order, and then seeking to explain them. Having access to see and hear the communication is hugely helpful since word order variations often also correspond to variations in other aspects of communication, like pauses, changes in pitch, and physical gestures. Studying word order and its interface with various aspects of communication is standard practice in language study. There is, however, a problem that arises when working with ancient languages in general, and Greek in particular.

What is a text language?

The vast majority of Ancient Greek which we have access to comes to us through copies (or copies of copies of copies, ad nauseum). It is what we could call a “text language.” By “text language” I refer to languages or periods of a language that are only accessible through texts. There are no native speakers. This obviously includes languages like Ugaritic, which we only know through texts. But it also includes languages like Greek and French which, while still spoken today, have literary records of stages of the language which are not still used today. Any language which has been written for a while is a solid candidate for being a text language, as a written tradition longer than someone’s lifetime testifies to language usage that is now outside “living memory.” Of course, a language may not have changed much in a few decades, or even centuries, but then again, it may have.

Troubles with text languages

There are several interesting difficulties associated with studying text languages in general. One of these is that it is never entirely certain that the text before us perfectly conveys the actual language as the speaker/writer first produced it. Prior to the advent of audio recording, there was no foolproof way to record an exact copy of the words used in communication. All copying of the written word is, of course, open to a variety of errors. Even a perfect reduplication of a written text like what is made by a copying machine or printer or computer program is only as accurate as the text which it is reduplicating. Ancient texts are, as a general rule, notoriously filled with copying errors. This raises obvious difficulties for study in many regards. The one of particular interest at the moment is: if word order is part of communication and our texts are faulty in some way, then what are the implications for studies of Greek word order? This question is worthy of pondering in its own right, but it also hides a further significant question to be unpacked later.

Starting from this basic understanding of text languages and my interest in word order of Greek, I will entertain a few thoughts about some of the inherent and often undiscussed (at least in my experience) difficulties of using modern linguistic methodologies on ancient written texts. In the next post (Part II), I will bring in a book chapter by Suzanne Fleischman which will help clarify some of the obvious and not so obvious issues associated with studying text languages through the tools of modern linguistics. After clarifying the problem, Part III will return to considering this question specifically in terms of Ancient Greek.