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Tag Archives: English

Twelve tenses: When English outdoes Ancient Greek in precision

I have sometimes heard people say, “Ancient Greek is the most precise language in the world.” This usually comes from people who have not studied Greek for themselves and haven’t really seen its quirks first-hand.


I don’t know how best to respond. True, there are distinctions which Greek makes that English doesn’t make, but in turn there are distinctions English makes which Greek doesn’t make. (For example, “I said” and “they said” would both be expressed εἶπον [eipon] in Ancient Greek, since the first person singular and third person plural look identical in certain tenses.) As long as the idea of overall precision is left undefined, it’s not really possible to measure whether or to what extent one language is “more precise” than another.

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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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