Greek Vocabulary: Are we cooking the books?

cook-the-booksUndoubtedly the best-selling Koine Greek textbook used in seminaries and colleges throughout North America is Bill Mounce’s user-friendly grammar, Basics of Biblical Greek, which is now in its 3rd edition. Mounce requires students to cover 320 NT vocabulary words in the course of the first year (two semesters). As he describes it, once the student has learned these 320 most common words, she will know 80.25% of the words on any given page of the Greek New Testament.

I see numerous problems with this claim that I think are worth considering. Please note, this post is not meant to be an attack on Mounce or his textbook. I think highly of both. Indeed, the problems I describe apply to all standard NT Greek textbooks.

cookbooksThe first and biggest problem is that it simply doesn’t work in practice. That’s because Mounce et al have students learn lemmas, or lexical forms. For example, the student learns λαμβάνω as ‘I take.’ When she opens her Greek NT, however, she may encounter words like λάβε, λαμβάνονται, εἰλήφειν, εἰλημμένα, ληψόμεθα. Many of these hardly look like λαμβάνω at all. I regularly encounter students in their 3rd and 4th year of Greek who can’t recognize these words to save their life (or their grade 😉 ), yet according to Mounce’s way of counting, the student knows them. The situation is even clearer when we come to words with “irregular” principal parts. On Mounce’s reckoning, if the student has “learned” ἐσθίω then he by definition “knows” ἔφαγον when he sees it on a page of Greek text. But, as any elementary Greek teacher can tell you, that’s simply wishful thinking.

Second, we are very unclear on the meaning of the words “know” and “learn” when it comes to vocabulary. Students may “know” the Mounce vocab words in the sense that they can match them to a one-word English substitution on an exam. But, that is a rather minimalist version of “knowing” a lexical item. At the least, I think we would want students to know the range of meanings for a word. Think about it: when we talk about learning a new vocabulary word in English, it usually entails being able to 1) recognize it and comprehend it quickly (whether in written or audio form), 2) spell it, 3) pronounce it correctly, 4) use it in a sentence, 5) provide a definition for it, 6) provide synonyms for it, 7) know its connotations and collocations, and 8) locate it semantically in relation to other possible word choices. The definition of “know” used in Mounce, however, has nothing to do with the standard usage described above. Rather the student “knows” a word when she can recognize the correct English gloss for it. Is this really something worth striving for?

boyfriend-called-me-a-hipster-doesnt-he-know-that-word-is-so-maiThird, to expand on #7-8 above, knowledge of vocabulary occurs on a spectrum. We can have a basic grasp of a word, but what we strive for at higher levels of proficiency is a thorough grasp of the word that would allow us to make intelligent statements about its usage. Thus, for example, do we really know the word “munch” if we don’t know that it’s a lower-register way of talking about chewing? Do we know the word “hipster” if we don’t know that word is so mainstream? Do we know English if we can’t distinguish between “conversing” and “chatting?” To get to this level, we have to have a very broad vocabulary, and this is simply not something that any NT grammar aims for.

In most cases, grammars limit themselves only to words used in the Greek NT. But this is a highly artificial limitation. Why not take into account the LXX? Josephus? Χαρίτων? These would give us an accurate picture of the lexical range of Koine Greek. If someone told you they knew English, but what they really knew was the Russian glosses for 80% of the words in The Catcher in the Rye, what would you make of such a claim? Likely not much! Yet, that is exactly the kind of thing that standard NT Greek approaches to vocabulary lead to.

If we are interested in reforming Greek pedagogy, a first step is to stop juking the stats and stop cooking the books!836842499

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13 Responses to Greek Vocabulary: Are we cooking the books?

  1. nebarry says:

    What I want to know is why I have never heard of Chariton’s De Chaerea et Callirhoe, the full text of which is found at the Perseus site, It looks like it would be a halfway decent intermediate text, especially if an annotated edition were done (hint, hint). As it is, the only print edition appears to be the Loeb. As to the contents of your post, I couldn’t agree more. I especially encourage reading lots of texts outside of the NT. Absent a linguaculture in which constant communication in the language takes place, there is no better way of developing semantic fluency. If one has see the word in dozens or hundreds or thousands of contexts, seeing it the NT becomes no problem. It becomes more like living communication then an artifact to be excavated.

    • Thanks for the comment, Barry, and the link to Chariton. It would be great to see a Steadman-like edition, although with the Perseus interface, students already have parsing/vocab quickly accessible. Your comment also points out one aspect in which Classical Greek courses have a leg up on Seminary Greek–the use of texts/vocab outside the NT. In Classical classes, the vocabulary is not artificially limited. Frequency lists are still used, but I think the claims made for them are more modest.

  2. aldred says:


  3. pnitz says:

    I think we have, with this blog, a new maxim:
    “To know ἐσθίειν is not to know φαγεῖν”

    Of course you’re spot on with your observations. It made me come back to the idea of the role and purpose and necessity of learning vocabulary for beginning learners. Your blog spurred me to write more on that… The beginnings of a discussion are on AGBP

  4. wesandell says:

    Amen, Dr. Streett, keep up the fight for Greek fluency. I’m sure you have seen Michael Halcomb’s “800 Words and Images”? The intent is to match Greek terms with pictures and bypass English altogether. I think it’s a good start (even though it is limited to nouns). Yet as you say words have a wide semantic range. Is it a generic term, a specific type of that thing, a specific term that also can be used generically? I think it’s great that we are seeing stuff like this start to come out and hopefully we will get there eventually. Thanks for the reference to Χαρίτων, You should put out a list of Koine Greek extrabiblical books that would be good practice for those branching out and trying to expand our skill set, especially if they good novels. The next generation of seminary students will have such a wealth of resources we could have only dreamed about, but that’s okay I’m not jealous…

  5. Alan K says:

    Thanks for your post, Daniel. There are other fundamental problems I have with his grammar, for example, being stuck in 19th century Greek grammar theory, such as calling the aorist tense-form a “past tense”! 🙂

  6. Another excellent post! Thank you! : )

  7. David A Booth says:

    Most students who only “know” 320 or so words will become so discouraged in actually trying to read the GNT that most will simply quit.

    In pursuing fluency, any plan that doesn’t end with the students being able to read the NT with pleasure is a failure. Yes, this takes more than one year. But it means that any school that merely offers 1 year of Greek using Mounce’s grammar is doing a disservice to its students. If a school wanted to continue using this method, it still owes it to students to have integrated second and third year courses in reading, discourse grammar, lexicography, and ideally speaking and writing.

  8. Michael Roe says:

    Thank you for your post Dr. Streett. I cut my teeth on Mounce and the method you described. I have seen those weaknesses. You have clearly described some of the problems. Now, can you provide a few bullet points of recommendation for aspiring Greek language learners? How would you recommend advancing? I have found that my knowledge and fluency has increased as I translate and spend time in the text but would like to hear any other recommendations you might make for me to reach the point of reading with pleasure. Thanks again.

  9. Scott says:

    I get your point. However, I have to say I am in the middle. It is true that just memorizing the lexical forms won’t completely prepare you to make a good rapid reading of the Greek NT. However, and I suppose depending on how someone approaches their learning, most vocab is recognizable in other forms. There are always exceptions. We should ask in response to your article, what would we do otherwise? It certainly doesn’t help to go in depth and learn every possible form of only a few words. So, learning the lexical forms of the most common words one will encounter in the NT helps to grease the skids so to speak for further learning of forms and for helping to identify the words that are rare.

    As for including the vocabulary of the LXX, it doesn’t make sense to burden the student with the LXX until he or she has learned their way around the NT. Besides, it does seem that your interest is more about the Greek language as a whole rather than the mastery of the NT.

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