On Greek Readers: Vocabulary

Sidenote on "Student"

I forgot to mention this earlier, so I’m making a sidenote here. I’m trying to use the word "reader" to consistently refer to the annotated text and "student" to refer to the person using this annotated text. Though "reader" would be perfectly appropriate for both, I figured that would be confusing. No promises on consistency though!

And I also want to point out that by "student" I mean anyone who is still working on learning the language...which I think includes just about anyone who wants to use a reader. I certainly include myself. So this is not meant to refer to someone in school...just someone who is learning. Now, without further ado...


If there is anything you could say about the function of a reader, it is that it will aid the student read by providing help for a selection of vocabulary. Many readers include more, but other than the text itself, this is basic to the definition of a reader. So, let’s just throw a bunch of vocabulary notes at the bottom of the page and call it a day! Woohoo, let’s go!

Well, no, that’s a bad idea. We need to think about this first. We should be using readers to enhance our knowledge of the language, not to excuse our laziness.

Readers Should Not Encourage Being A Slouch

It is a lot of work to read a Greek author you have never read before (especially if you’ve never read it in English or Greek). Unless you are more advanced that I, you often have to look up a lot of new vocabulary, find that many of the words you thought you knew you didn’t know well enough because the new author uses the words differently, that you get to see a number of expressions you are not used to, and that you sometimes even have to deal with this author’s slightly different spelling and morphology (I really found this one to be true when reading papyri). It can be so much work that the exercise is very frustrating. How frustrating it gets will have much to do with where you are coming from (I found reading Dionysius of Halicarnassus difficult but the Protoevangelium of James easy, probably because of my background). So I think one of the goals of the reader is to take away as much of the frustration as possible without hand-feeding the student. This leads us to our first guideline of this post, #5 in the series...

Guideline #5: The goal of a reader is to decrease the frustration of reading unfamiliar text without giving so much that learning is hindered unnecessarily.

So how do we do that? Well, in one sense it is really quite easy. If someone reads through large portions of Greek text, he’s going to learn something. We just need to think about how we can maximize that.

One way that I’ve seen readers do this is by not supplying all the theoretically unknown words but having a list of especially common words to memorize. These readers encourage an increased vocabulary rather than excuse a small vocabulary. Kubo did this by listing words occurring over five times in a book at the beginning of a book’s vocabulary. I noticed Decker does something similar, as do many others. This is a great idea, and any selection of significant length will have words that are good to memorize. By requiring this of the student, you simultaneously encourage them to read and learn as well as save space on your page.

Guideline #6: Find a set of vocabulary for your reader that would be beneficial to memorize and supply these to the student outside of the main text.

What Is The Value In Looking Up All Those Words?

You may say to me, "So we can forget LSJ, BDAG, and Lampe and just use readers from now on." μὴ γένοιτο! (which, for you non-Greekers who haven’t run into this, is a phrase Paul likes in Romans, which could be rendered "definitely not!" or "hell no!" if you think he would use that kind of language) There is definitely a point to having lexicons, and at least some the readers (like Mounce and Decker) explicitly make a point of this. So why would you need them?

So we’ll start with a question that I think is easy to answer. Let’s say a student is translating 1 Clement. Is there value in making the student look up every word in the lexicon? I think the answer is a mild "yes" followed by a very strong "no". Yes there is some value in that there is always the potential to learn more about a word from a lexicon due to its thoroughness than there is from a gloss in a reader. But the "no" outweighs the "yes" to me. The "no" comes from two reasons.

First, radically interrupted reading can hardly be considered reading at all. Looking up a word in a lexicon takes time, requires you to put down the book you are actually reading and to focus on a completely different book. By the time you’ve come back you’ve lost your train of thought for the sentence, much less for the paragraph or chapter. Mildly interrupted reading, where you have to glance to the bottom of the page sometimes to get the meaning of a word in context is certainly better, but obviously not the ideal. But it is better, and that’s what a reader can give you easily. To move out of the realm of mildly interrupted reading would require a huge vocabulary, which is a good goal. But in the meantime we’ve got readers to help! By the way, I wouldn’t look up those terms "radically interrupted reading" and "mildly interrupted reading". I made those up. And yes, your personal measure of coolness is directly correlated with the number of terms you can coin and get away with. I’m just working on that coolness score... :)

Second, and just as important, having to find words in LSJ all the time can be a beat down. You have to be in the mood for it. Sometimes you just want to sit back and read, and when you’re in the mood for that, you should be able to do so. The beat-down-factor is a very important one to keep in mind more generally as well. I am sure there are many a pastor who dropped their Greek after seminary because it took too much time. We all know that wouldn’t be the case eventually because time in the text breeds greater speed and ability. But until that point it is better to give them tools that facilitate their study without actually replacing their learning experience (which is a significant problem, and even though I love books and computer tools for dealing with ancient texts, we all know they can become a substitute for real learning) with the hope of keeping them in the text.

When and How Do You Encourage Lexicon Use?

Okay, so it would be beneficial to provide vocab helps in readers. How do you decide which words? And once you decide on the words, how do you communicate to a student that they should stop and check the lexicon? I find both questions rather difficult but I think some guidelines could be stated. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Guideline #7: Words whose meanings are obvious in context are moderate to good candidates for simple glosses.

If the word’s meaning in a text isn’t really debatable, there is less value in going to the lexicon to dig through different possible options. There is value in having students go through the logical process to learn how to do that, but not all of the time.

Guideline #8: Words that have a very limited semantic range are excellent candidates for simple glosses.

If a word always or almost always has one meaning, unless you are researching something about that word, I don’t see how there is any real value in making someone look it up.

Guideline #9: If the meaning in context is debatable or if the word has a wide semantic range, then the word is not a good candidate for a simple gloss.

Let’s say you have a verb that could in this context carry several different meanings. If you supply a gloss for only one of those meanings in your reader, you have short-circuited some very legitimate thinking that the student should have to work through.

Of course even if the word has multiple meanings but there is one that is obvious in context, listing several glosses instead of one can have some value. At the very least that would alert them that this word has a large semantic range and if they wanted to memorize the meanings of the word, they should check the lexicon.

What other considerations should we keep in mind? I am open to suggestions.

So how do you signal to the student that a look at the lexicon is a good idea? Do you just say "See BDAG pg 87"? I don’t like that answer because it doesn’t help those who are just chillin’ and want to do some reading. Is just listing multiple glosses good enough a clue? Would listing multiple glosses then a "See BDAG pg 87" be a good indication? Whatever the method chosen, it should probably be stated in the introduction that this is what the reader means when it annotates accordingly. Thoughts?

To Gloss or to Define. That Is The Question.

I would hope that in the sphere of lexicons we’ve come to the conclusion of "Define", with some glosses for help. BDAG is a good example of this, and why it is such an important upgrade from BAGD. For the reader, however, the question needs to be asked.

At the moment I am leaning as follows: 1) If the word’s meaning is obvious in a gloss and it doesn’t fall within the realm of those that should be checked in a lexicon, a gloss is all you need and doing otherwise is a waste of real estate. 2) If the word’s meaning is not obvious in a gloss, like if the word in the target language is ambiguous, consider a definition. Otherwise, I am not sure. But the creator or a reader does need to keep in mind that definitions take up much more space. Taking the space is more than justified in a lexicon because the purpose of the lexicon is to explain words. That is not the main purpose of a reader. So I would say to define sparingly.

How Do You Pick Your Starting Vocabulary?

So what vocabulary should a reader assume? This is pretty easy when you pick a well-defined corpus. So if one wants to create a reader for a book in the NT, they have a limited set of words in the general corpus (the NT) and they can limit vocabulary helps to words that occur less than x times in that corpus. The NT guys have it so easy...

Guideline #10: If you are creating a reader for NT Greek, you already have a well-defined corpus and accompanying vocabulary list you can assume. Use it.

But lets say you want to create a reader for Hellenistic literature generally? What word set do you assume? If you take the words common in the corpus that might be a good starting place. After all, as we said above, readers should encourage vocabulary acquisition (even if that means they need to acquire some to catch up). But what if your list is too big? If you create a list of 1500 words that the student must know to start the reader, then you may have just intimidated a large number of people out of actually using it. The student’s background will determine if the assumed vocabulary is intimidating or not.

A great example of who got this SO right is the JACT (Joint Association of Classical Teachers). By creating a standard textbook they can have a standard vocabulary. And once they have that they can do exactly what they did; they created readers based on that vocabulary. So if you did learn from that textbook, you have a number of good readers at your disposal. Otherwise, you can catch up and then start using them.

So let’s say you want to create a reader for 1 Clement? Do you have a good starting place? I would say that you probably do. The majority of your potential market of students have probably studied biblical Greek, so you can start with that. But what if you want to create a reader for Epictetus’ Enchiridion? From what reading I’ve done in it (which is, admittedly, not a lot), starting with a base of NT vocabulary is less than ideal. Do you do like Sedwick’s Lucian reader (which is not a part of the JACT series) and assume an established word list like JACT’s? It’s an option, but I don’t see an easy answer to this one.

Guideline #11: If you are creating a reader for a book and most of the potential students using it will come from a particular background, consider using the vocabulary assumption from that background.

The Type of Reader Matters Here

If it isn’t obvious yet, the type of reader you are creating matters a great deal here. If you’re creating a reader for students at an early stage, for example, you are going to be very careful about the vocabulary you assume. Most students will not know all words that occur in the Greek New Testament more than twenty times when they finish first-year Greek. So if you’re writing a reader for them, don’t assume that kind of vocabulary.

So What’s Next?

So there’s our discussion on vocabulary. Next we move on to other aids for students...