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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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Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis says that language affects thought. But not through words – and the ideas behind them – as Orwell supposed, but through grammar, the rules for putting words together. Whorf studied under Sapir at Yale. It was Sapir who had the idea, but it was Whorf who fleshed it out.

As a hypothesis it is not a proven fact, but an interesting idea that might be true.

Benjamin Lee Whorf was an American who worked for an insurance company, but his true love was language. He studied the language of the Hopis of the American south-west. There were no books about the language, but he found a Hopi in New York! Hopi grammar turned out to be nothing like English or any other language of Europe.

In English time and space are separate. Something can be far away but be going on right now. Time is divided into past, present and future. I ate, I eat, I will eat. Time flows by continually like a river.

We take this for granted and think any language must be like this, more or less.

But in Hopi grammar the world is conceived differently: instead of time and space, it divides the world into the manifested and the manifesting.

The manifested is everything that has come – all of what we call the past and most of the present, all you see about you and all that once was. All except for what is just starting or coming to be right now.

The manifesting is made up of the coming-to-be, the future, everything hoped for, intended, expected or thought about. The manifesting lies at the heart of the manifested. It lies in our hearts, in the hearts of animals and plants, at the heart of the whole world.

There is no time apart from space: if something took place long ago, that is the same as if it took place far away. There are no special words or forms of words for time considered by itself.

Yet there is nothing that goes on in the world on that you cannot talk about in Hopi, same as in English. It is a different way of looking at the world, but it works just as well.

Whorf says that our ideas of time and space are not “out there” for anyone to see. They come from our language and the model of the world that comes built into it.

Most agree that language has some effect on thought. The question is how and how much.

Noam Chomsky, for his part, has his doubts. He turns the tables on Whorf and points out that English does not have any idea of future time built into it. “I will eat” is, strictly speaking, no different in form from “I might eat” or “I would eat”. It is added to English, but it is not built in. So then the idea of future time does not come from English grammar, but from somewhere else.

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