Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The practical use of Greek accents

Greek accents have an undeserved reputation for being of no practical use. If sheer curiosity is not enough to persuade students to learn them, I hope these reasons might be more effective.

A knowledge of Greek accents:

1) helps you analyse previously unfamiliar vocabulary.

You are reading through the book of Acts and reach 1:18 where you have the phrase πρηνὴς γενόμενος. Many people are likely to be unfamiliar with the former word and so the question naturally arises as to whether it is the genitive singular of a first declension feminine noun *πρηνη. It is the accent which instantly tells you that this is impossible. Nor is this an isolated example. People who know the accents probably use them on a regular basis to decode and process unfamiliar texts.

2) helps you spot typos in Greek more readily.

Just as vultures hover over a battlefield, misplaced accents hover round other typographical errors in Greek. If you are an editor you probably will not check every ancient quotation, but not infrequently an accentual error is the first thing you notice to be wrong with a quotation and this leads you to check further. For example, if you know accents and you are reading Bart Ehrman's Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p. 128, and come across ἐν ταῖς παλαίας ἀντιγραφαῖς, it may be that you instantly notice there is a missing iota in παλαιαις, or it may be that the wrong accentuation highlights the problem first. What if you're not sure whether there's a typo? After all, παλαιας is a possible word. Do you have to refer to an edition? No, the impossible accentuation on παλαιας confirms that there is at least one typo on this word. It's not therefore a big leap to infer that there are two. You're able to be pretty confident that the Greek letters are wrong without consulting an edition.

3) can be one of the fastest rough and ready guides to assessing the quality of someone's scholarship.

If a work contains lots of typos, it's pretty likely that references will be wrong too. If the author hasn't bothered to check such superficial errors as typos then s/he probably hasn't checked other things carefully either (e.g. quotations). The same applies to Greek accents. Carelessness in one area is likely to imply carelessness in others. The great advantage of Greek accents is that books generally contain more mistakes in Greek accents than in other parts of the text. So if you're wanting to check levels of scholarly care quickly you can scan a few pages with Greek in for 30 seconds and get a pretty good idea whether the Greek is carefully written. You probably wouldn't be able to get such a reliable impression of the typography of the English of a book in such a short time. Of course I need to issue the caveat that a scholar whose Greek was badly written could make a significant contribution. However, if you're going round the SBL book stalls and don't have long to decide whether a book by an unknown author is worth purchasing, a knowledge of Greek accents might provide an economic advantage.

So in certain circumstances knowledge of Greek accents could save time or even money. Are there any other significant practical reasons for learning them?


  1. I think I disagree with your last point, for two reasons.

    First, I'm not sure "care" can be assumed to run on a continuum like that, with accents being at one point and references and citations being a further point along the same line, so that care in accents can be used, a minore ad maius, as an indicator of care in the other.

    Rather, there are different types of care, I think, which often use different parts of the brain it seems, and certainly depend on different skill sets and different personalities.

    Being the type of person who is willing and able to be anal about accents doesn't, therefore, have any necessary bearing on whether you are or are not also the type of person who carefully checks citations or other different types of references.

    (obviously you're a "accent person," and so I can understand how you might be tempted to think that accent awareness could make a good metric for other areas, but I really do think that's just like how, for example, mechanics tend to think that people who don't diligently change their oil on time must also be irresponsible in other areas of life, or how soldiers might judge people who don't have their shoes shined, and so on)

    Second, I'm especially troubled by the suggestion that the value of a book at SBL could be assessed by perusing the accuracy of the accents. If I spent year(s) in dedicated research of an important thesis, diligently tracing every citation and reference, mining every primary source, harnessing the best of my ingenuity to bring some new perspective to the issue, all in the hopes of helping and advancing the field, only to have someone dismiss it all as not-worth-buying because I had the wrong accent over a iota... well, I think I'd be tempted to show them a new definition of circumflex!

    But seriously, your example in #2 is a great counter-point to this. Regardless of how much one might disagree with Ehrman's Orthodox Corruption, it can't be denied that it was and is a pivotal work that everyone should be familiar with. And yet, by your measure, people might well be leaving it to languish on the book table at SBL because of the accent error on p. 128.

    Interesting post, and I liked your first two points. It's just the third that I disagreed with.

  2. I agree with Ryan that the last point is especially weak. For one, it ignores the fact that many typographical errors in ancient languages arise from editors and typesetters who do not know the original languages. This has long been a problem in the field. For example, in García-Martinez and Tigchelaar's Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, numerous Hebrew typos were the result of bad typesetting -- it was correct on Tigchelaar's side, with the typos the result of editors and typesetters who didn't know Hebrew.

    This was an especially difficult problem before unicode fonts became ubiquitous but remains a problem at times because not all keyboard maps are the same, meaning a font change or other edits might introduce errors that were not in the unpublished manuscript.

    Secondly, most scholars now cut and paste their primary text instead of typing it. So most is going to be correct simply because it's pasted from a correct source. The accents being correct thus won't say much about whether the scholar is careful or not.

  3. > most is going to be correct simply because it's pasted from a correct source. The accents being correct thus won't say much about whether the scholar is careful or not.

    Oh, but it does. How many people take the time to correct final grave accents out of flow? That's one of the most glaring errors, not only is student papers, but also in published material. It occurs all the time when individual words are copied and pasted into an English sentence, but in that setting there can never be a final grave accent. Or what about words with "enclitic double accent" that are left with both accents even though there is no enclitic following...?

  4. I express deep appreciation to Dr Williams for catching numerous accent errors in our 2005 Byzantine Textform edition (which accents were ported over solely by computer, untouched by human hands -- even a reasonably careful proofreading was still unable to catch all the errors before publication). Yet, thanks to the efforts of Dr Williams and others, our 2010 Byzantine Reader's Edition is now virtually free of accent errors.

    (And I speak as one who teaches NT Greek in the Wenham-type format, without using accents except where absolutely necessary).

  5. To Ryan I would reply that, as I said, point 3 is only a rough and ready tool. I am not denying that there are counterexamples. However, I don't think his mechanic analogy really works. Accents do indicate the extent to which an author has sought to avoid error (generally defined) in publication.

    The illustration from Ehrman actually serves to reinforce my point. You would buy Orthodox Corruption at SBL using my criteria because there are relatively few mistakes in the Greek. Of course, I'm not suggesting that you would not buy a book because you notice a few errors. However, if, as sometimes happens, in 30 seconds you have noticed 5 errors (which you would not be able to do with Orthodox Corruption) you can be pretty sure that by the time you've spent two days reading the book the number of errors will be quite high. Also, I've yet to read a book which had a high number of accent errors and didn't also contain other errors of a more serious sort due to lack of care. If you know a counterexample I would be grateful to know it.

    As Rod points out in reply to Jason, merely cutting and pasting is a sure way to ensure that your accents are wrong! Also, I would point out that knowledge of the accents will often help you to determine (in general) whether accents result from (a) cutting and pasting; (b) authorial typing; (c) scrambled files; (d) incompetent publishing staff.

    While one might not be sure in individual cases these produce different patterns of error and one will therefore gain insight into the composition history of a published work. This may in turn evoke sympathy towards the author (if s/he is a victim of editorial error) or a knowledge of how the author writes books (which might be relevant in many ways).

  6. I'm agree with Jason about the typesetting. When I published my 2001 article in NTS, the typesetter introduced multiple errors in my Greek, which I had to fix in the proofs. (The process was better for my 2010 article.) Thus, I would amend P.J. point about one's scholarship to include also the scholar's editor and publisher. Unfortunately, since the process is opaque to us, it is hard to assign the proper responsibility for what is a joint production.

  7. Fair point, Stephen. But the process is not always equally opaque. A journal might be known (by authors who have submitted manuscripts to it) for resetting the Greek. Other publishers are known for asking for camera ready copy of monographs. Don't blame the publisher for errors in the latter case (though we may censure their processes). These things may be factored into an assessment. These would be footnotes I would add to qualify my initial assertion. Also, with your NTS article you fixed the problem in proofs, and this is a reflection of your scholarship. If you had not corrected them in proofs it would likewise have reflected on your scholarship.

    But I like your point since it shows how a knowledge of the accents is even more useful than I had said: it can in fact give you insight not just into authors but also into publishers, and may well help you decide not to go with some publishers, because they will mess up your Greek.

  8. Good points, P.J. Final responsibility is on the scholar, even if it means avoiding certain publishers.

  9. The knowledge of Greek accents (and breathings) becomes very important if you read Greek texts written on manuscripts, because on manuscripts words are not written separately.

  10. In any case, proper Greek accentuation will assure that Pete does not put your book down at SBL... or over coffee at Tyndale House. Plus it earns you points with other people who rejoice in proper details (like me).

  11. I still don't think I would go that far with you, P.J. I guess the heart of my concern is that I'm not comfortable with the notion of judging something by anything other than the thing it's meant to be judged by.

    That sounds a little harsh, so let me stress, this is a good natured and respectful disagreement, I hope that comes through in my comments.

    What I'm saying though is that X should not be judged by Y; X should be judged by X.

    Or in other words, books should not be judged by their covers, and to my mind, scholarship not judged by greek accents.

    Now, you're saying that in your experience you've found a high correlation between having accent errors and having other errors of scholarship.

    That may be, but I think it would be a mistake to induct from that experience a rule of thumb that quality of scholarship can therefore be judged by quality of accents.

    My reason for that is two-fold:

    for one, while it aligns with your experience, it contradicts mine.

    two, I don't see any necessary logical connection between accent errors and other scholarly errors. It does make sense that some people who are careless with their scholarship could also be driven by that same carelessness to be careless with their accents, but theoretically it is just as likely that a similar number of people are careful with their accents but careless in other areas of scholarship, and likewise, careful with their scholarship but careless with their accents. (in other words, some A may be B, but not all A is B and not all B is A).

    That last option is, in our little field, particularly likely, I think, because - as Maurice notes - there is a long standing "Wenham" tradition in NT greek education which downplays accents. There are, therefore, many people who have gone through the education system and come out as careful and accomplished scholars, and yet have a deficiency in their knowledge of accents. The existence of this Wenham tradition, on its own, makes it problematic, in my opinion, to use accent accuracy as a measure of scholarship, even in a rough and ready sense.

  12. Ryan, I do not think we are miles apart. My observation is for the purpose of stressing the utility of learning accents. Equally one must learn to overcome prejudice. It is a bit like the rule of thumb that what a professor writes will be more worthwhile reading than what a first year student writes. It is a generalisation to which there is an absolutely vast number of exceptions. There are many things we use to make quick assessments of books: accents are just one of a number of indices, along with credentials of the author, publisher, commendations (even though we know they haven't always read the book), typographical accuracy. The correlation is never total.

    I would also say that alongside the Wenham tradition there is the equally established tradition of printing Greek in monographs and journals with accents (except in certain disciplines such as epigraphy). Authors know this is the case and ought to be motivated to get it right. If they misspell Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht we will still be able to identify the publisher, but I hope that a good scholar would consider it worth getting right and if they don't I might well wonder what else they didn't think was worth getting right. So I'm suggesting that someone who didn't think it worthwhile checking accents might also be someone who didn't think it worth much time checking the commas in their quotations. This may not make their argument any weaker, but there comes a level of inaccuracy which is so high that it is hard not to feel that the author might not also be imprecise in defining concepts and so on.

    One more observation which hasn't been relevant till now: a PhD supervisor recently commented to me that one of his students lacked curiosity, and the supervisor was commending curiosity as a key virtue of a good research student. I had to agree. A good student would want to find out simply because of curiosity. Now I know that life is short and therefore Greek accents may be well down the list for many people -- I'm not saying that they should be high up the list -- but if someone can stare at pages of Greek for hundreds or thousands of hours and not wonder how those little things on top of the letters work, they may also be a person who hears many times that a manuscript is dated to such and such a time and never has the curiosity to find out why and whether its right. In short, I reckon that someone who doesn't have the curiosity to investigate something regularly in front of them is less likely to make significant discoveries. Therefore I'd estimate (with no data to back this up) that a book by someone who didn't know how accents worked would be marginally less likely to contain significant discoveries based on investigation of primary material than one by someone who did know how they worked.

    Gross generalisation, of course.

  13. I question the absolute need to use accents for the early church never used them.

    While there may be some interpretive uses for them as you mentioned in point one; I think it would be better to leave the accent there in those cases for the student to look them up.

    If a language requires them, by all means include them... but the writers of Scripture never used the.

  14. Here! Here! I second the call to learn accent rules as a benefit to actually reading Greek texts. I vividly remember struggling to identify the use of the relative pronoun in Acts 1:13 (ὅ τε Πέτρος καὶ Ἰωάννης καὶ Ἰάκωβος) only to discover that the accent on ὁ was from the enclitic τε. You can bet I didn't forget that rule when I got to Rom 1:20.

  15. Drew Longacre12/29/2010 4:06 pm

    As a product of the so-called "Wenham approach," I can emphasize with the accent-illiterate. I'm sure some here would be quick to discount my own textual work on the Hebrew Bible because I was citing Greek texts with grave accents according to their contextual form, rather than the acute accents appropriate for an isolated citation (admitedly a copy-paste pragmatism at work here). It would be a mistake, however, flippantly to discount the hours of careful collation and analysis that went into my work on such a relatively trivial point. I guess I'll have to go back and change all my accents so people will at least read my work. :)