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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"An ancient Greek aficionado," or ambiguous English noun modifiers

My friend Greg Wertime gave me a good chuckle when he described me as, "an ancient Greek aficionado," in a recent article on his blog (f.y.i.: that one article takes a serious chunk of time to read).

When he works on writing about interpreting the New Testament, he occasionally asks me about the language of ancient Greek texts (including the NT) and issues in translating those texts into present-day English. I agree with him that it often isn't necessary to look at the Greek text when studying New Testament passages, and that the Greek by itself often doesn't solve a difficulty. He also examines wider contexts, and most standard English translations work perfectly well for that, preferably a few of them next to each other. Still, I have fun reading NT passages in Greek.

I have forbidden Greg from calling me an "expert" or "scholar" because I haven't earned the right kind of title in front of my name or letters after it. Therefore, he chooses amusing labels such as, "an ancient Greek aficionado."

Am I
(1) an ancient, Greek person who is an aficionado?
(2) an aficionado of Ancient Greek language and literature?
(3) an ancient person who is an aficionado of Greek language and literature?

Greg's keyboarding made it even funnier because he capitalized "Greek" but not "ancient."
This is an example of how the competing patterns in English can give smiles.

English allows adjectives ("ancient") and nouns/names ("Greek") before the head noun ("aficionado") of a noun phrase, to describe the head noun. One of the technical terms for the way Greg used the name "Greek" in that phrase is noun modifier.

English also allows compound nouns, Adj + N or N + N, which become distinct words, such as "White House" (each part of a compound proper name must be capitalized) or "gas tank." We spell some as two words: trap door, egg white, Ancient Greek. A few compounds have been allowed to lose the space: schoolhouse, chairperson, windmill.

in (1) both "ancient" and Greek" modify the head noun "aficionado" equally,
in (2) "ancient" modifies the head noun "Greek aficionado,"
and in (3) "Ancient Greek" is a compound noun that modifies the head noun "aficionado."

Spelling rules in some languages (Dutch and German, among several others) prevent this kind of ambiguity by requiring compound nouns to be written with no spaces inside, but that gives another type of fun: Oosterscheldtstormvloedkering (a very impressive engineering site to visit if the Dutch authorities still show the barriers in the southern estuaries to tourists).

In truth, though, meaning number (1) is not possible, because the word "aficionado" by itself needs a topic area to be mentioned.

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Passions: learning & teaching languages; rhetoric. Jobs: non-religious jobs. Church: active. Attitude: I push religious matters mostly on my own kind. You are welcome to push back in comments, whatever your religion is or isn't. Languages spoken: Mandarin Chinese, French, and some Spanish. Languages read: ancient Greek (more than just the New Testament!) and some Biblical Hebrew.