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Category Archives: Ancient Language

Moving words: which languages have the closest word order to Ancient Greek?

There’s an art to translation. It involves moving concepts from one language into another while trying to refit the same thought into a different set of grammar rules. In this study I’d like to look at one obvious part of the translation process: word order change. In studying this, I don’t mean to suggest that the inevitable changes in word order are necessarily bad or represent the degree to which information is lost in the act of translation. Quite the opposite. Where it is needed, the word order should change so that the meaning can be properly conveyed. Otherwise, there would be no point in translating anything.

Art of Conversation II (L'Art de la conversation II), Rene Magritte, 1950

Art of Conversation II (L’Art de la conversation II), Rene Magritte, 1950

What I want to investigate is how much the word order changes when translating a passage from Ancient Greek (specifically Koine) into various other languages. For instance, how closely can a Latin translation mirror Greek word order? Are Romance languages any closer to Greek word order than Germanic languages? Was medieval English more similar to Koine Greek syntax than contemporary English? And roughly how close is Modern Greek to its ancestor?

In this study, I’ll explore how much word order change occurs in several published translations of the same Koine Greek sample text, analysing eleven translations spread out over six languages: Latin, English, German, French, Mandarin Chinese, and Modern Greek. What I like about studying word order is that it’s a fairly obvious part of the language and you can see it move around. This is not a subtle study about ineffable shifts in semantics. It’s a crude, chunky experiment looking at how blocks of data move positions in different languages to express more or less the same thing according to different syntax rules. Although the sample text is short, at least this exercise can give a taste of how similar and distant the various languages are to Ancient Greek in this particular respect.

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Another Latin word for kill

roman soldiers relief

While I was translating some unseen Latin passages with my high school tutoring student, lo and behold, we came across another word for kill which I hadn’t yet collected! This word is:

cōnficiō, cōnficere, cōnfēcī, cōnfectum (con [with] + facere [make])
to make, effect, complete, accomplish;
to wear out, consume, destroy;
thus, to put an end to, kill.

It has been duly added to the list of Latin words for kill.

Of course, one of the larger questions remains unanswered. Namely, why does Latin have so many words for kill? What drove people to say the word “kill” in so many, many ways?

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Greek words for love, in context

A while ago, I tallied up the Latin words for kill. Today I’m doing something different: I’ll be studying the Greek words for love. Can I hear an “aww” from the audience? Or… was that a sigh of impatience?

010 agape_detail

Because to be honest, I’m tired of people talking about the Greek words for love.  It’s a staple of church sermons, and I think in the course of time a lot of misconceptions have developed around the Greek words. Etymology (or often folk-etymology) is one of the oldest rhetorical devices for moving into a meditative discussion of the “real”, “true” or “original” concepts behind words. Talking about the concepts is good, but I’d like it if people made less fudgey mistakes about the language in the process. What I take issue with is the unwary and unthinking focus on the exact meanings of individual words outside of their context. And the endless talk of two Greek verbs for love, agapaō and phileō, is possibly the most meticulously bungled case of them all.

Because no matter what language you speak, love makes more sense in context than on a vocab list. Let’s explore.

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How to beg for mercy in Latin

How to beg for mercy in Latin

What do you do when you have committed a sacrilege, when the Emperor has overheard your snide remark,[1] when you handed in your essay late, or you forgot to attend a meeting with your superior? You may have offended a higher power, who would rightly chastise you for your misdeeds. You must now avail yourself of this person’s mercy and hope to quickly mend the breach in your friendship.

If that is the case, you’ll want to apologise for your mistake. But what better language to ask for mercy in than Latin?

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Far too many Latin words for kill

Far too many Latin words for kill

How many words does Latin have for kill? One of the quirky, somewhat morbid attractions of Latin is that it has many, many words for kill. If you’ve ever studied Latin, you’ll probably remember interficere and necāre, two very classic verbs for kill. But it seems that the more literature you read, the more creative the language gets when it talks about killing. As far as I’m aware, no one on the internet has yet attempted to compile a list of Latin verbs meaning “to kill” longer than about five or six words, or tried to convey a sense of their shades of meaning. So! After much sifting through Perseus’ Latin word study tool, I have here thirty-three words where “kill” is either a primary or a secondary meaning. I’ve also tried to give a potted history of each word, and a little taste of their semantic range.

Feast your deadly curiosity!

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A word in Latin

fritillus, -ī m dice box.

Example sentence:

Marcus shook the dice box again. “Argh!” he said. “The lowest roll possible!”

Marcus iterum fritillum iecit. “Heu!” inquit. “Canis!”

A word in Latin

pūnītor, -ōris m avenger.

Example sentence:

“Have you seen the new Avengers movie?”
“No, I haven’t even seen the first one.”

“vidistine pelilculam cinematographicam novam ‘Punitores’?”
“immo, peliculam cinematographicam primam etiam non vidi.”