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Attic Greek idiom

Attic Greek idiom means the natural way of expressing yourself in the Greek of ancient Athens in Attica. It was not just the words and grammar that made Greek different from English, it was also how you expressed your thoughts.

Beyond the words and grammar of a language there is idiom: the common or natural way of saying things in a language. After all, you can follow the rules of grammar perfectly and use words with all their right meanings and still sound like you are from Mars. That is why people learning English sound so strange, like Borat.

Comparing Attic Greek idiom to English tells us as much about English as it does about Greek.

Attic Greek idiom was plain, simple, direct and clear where English has a bad habit of dressing things up in abstractions and metaphors, like bad Shakespeare. English is round-about, like a liar. Greek is sharp, like a knife. Greek prefers verbs and actors, English prefers nouns and states of being.

Attic Greek did have metaphors and abstract words, but nothing like what English has. This makes Greek seem shockingly plain to those who speak English. Translators have to fight the urge to dress up the Greek, a fight they do not always win. Even the same Greek word will be translated in different ways – not because it has a different meanings, but because it sounds bad in English to keep using the same word.

Some examples:

Notice how the Greek prefers people and verbs while English goes out of its way to use nouns:

English: After their departure
Greek: When they left

English: The combat began
Greek: They began to fight

English: The system of ancient warfare
Greek: How the ancients fought wars

English: Attempt his rescue
Greek: Try to save

English: Died on the field of battle
Greek: Fighting, he died

English: Suffer ill-treatment
Greek: Suffer terribly

English: No one can tell the number
Greek: No one knows how much

English likes to dress up simple facts in dead metaphors:

English: He came off the victor
Greek: He won

English: He was made a laughingstock
Greek: He became ridiculous

English: Matters were now ripe
Greek: Everything was ready

Where English likes to use abstract qualities – justice, beauty, utility – Greek likes to use “the” with the right adjective: the just, the beautiful, the useful. “The great and good” is a Greek turn of phrase. And so:

English: A lover of beauty
Greek: Loving the beautiful

From all this you should be able to tell that the phrase “the powers that be” is Greek. And so it is: it comes to English from Greek by way of Tyndale’s translation of Romans 13:1 in the New Testament, a translation that the King James Bible kept – but which most Bibles of the past 50 years do not. Instead they say “authorities that exist”. That is still partly Greek: the pure English idiom would be “existing authorities”.

– Abagond, 2008, 2017.

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