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Koine Greek as a Mother Tongue
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Is Koine Greek still understood or used by those in Greece?  I have a New Testament Word study dictionary by Spiros Zodhiates. The biographical summary states his mother language is Koine.  - A Military Chaplain

My most extensive recent experience is in Cyprus.  Locals there tell me they cannot easily understand the New Testament in the original.

I was told by well-educated Cypriot friends that they could not understand the Greek of the New Testament (even in written form).  Their testimony was that no one actually can understand it or use it on the street.

Modern Cypriot dialects (linguists describe five distinct dialects on Cyprus) are more conservative and retain older forms than continental Greek.  Thus Cypriot speech would be closer than the Greek speech forms in the country of Greece (where Zodhiates comes from).

I am familiar with Dr. Zodhiates.  I have one of his scripture meditations.  I also noted that same comment in the cover comments of that book, and wondered what that could mean.

I never heard any other reference to anyone in modern times speaking a form of Greek called "Koine" Greek.

It is possible this is an honest misunderstanding of what the term "Koine" normally means in English scholarship.  The term might be intended to refer to any common (colloquial) speech form of the Greek language.  This is not what is intended in the references to the Biblical language as "Koine Greek."

In the modern Greek world I experienced, New Testament Greek is not used orally, except for some liturgical readings.  No one speaks the old form.

Parts of the New Testament are actually classical in form and style, with some updated vocabulary, according to experts on the history of Greek.  The New Testament in the original is sold, usually in bilingual editions with Modern Greek.

Historical Changes
New Testament (Koine) is taught in schools, as well as classical, so the best educated can read it.  It is not used, and even forms read in church are medieval Byzantine editions from liturgical documents, not the actual original Byzantine Koine texts.

By that time, the language was basically modern Greek.  Most vowel changes that had not yet occurred in the first century AD had finalized in the third century, according to historical-comparative scholars of Greek I have studied.  Experts differ on when some of the later consonant changes took place, but surely by the early Ottoman period (late 1400s).

Over-Stated Claims
The Greek national personality includes a high hubris, and I have seen some greatly over-stretched claims for the status of Greek.  This also occurs sometimes in Western Christian comments on the use of Greek in the writing of the New Testament.

The claim that a modern Greek scholar speaks the ancient form of the language as a mother tongue may be some overstatement of that sort, or a simple misunderstanding of the publisher who wrote the liner notes.

Koine – A Period in Language History
Linguists and historians use the term "Koine" as a working term for a general period and style of language which was very fluid.  It was never a word for a specific dialect or form of the language at the time we refer to.

The name comes from the same sort of usage as we have in the Latin "Vulgate," meaning the "common" (colloquial) tongue.

There have always been many native dialects of Greek, and at the time of the Roman Empire, many times today's number of native speakers spoke Greek as the primary (most-used but not mother tongue) language daily.

Saying someone spoke "Koine Greek" seems to me equivalent to saying someone today has Chaucerian, or even Elizabethan, English as a mother tongue.

The intermediate form of Greek, from the Middle Ages, is called Byzantine, for the language of the Byzantine Empire (Western Name for what the Greeks, Turks and Easterners continued to call the Roman Empire).  So that is the name used by scholars for medieval Greek.

This medieval form of Greek, as I understand, is the form of language commonly used in the liturgies of the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Church.  Readings may be from an edition of the Koine (original) Greek New Testament.

Commentary and sermons are in the modern language, which may be the more formal school or conservative ecclesiastical forms, or the common oral language.

Related Articles:
[TXT] Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
[TXT] How Words Develop Multiple Meanings: How Word Meanings are Negotiated
[TXT] The Language Jesus Used
[TXT] Meaning in Language - Word, Speech and the Role of Literature
[TXT] Time or Character – The Ages or A Time Sequence in aionios: How Words "Mean" in Greek and English
[TXT] What Was Koine Greek?

Related on the Internet:
Alexander and the Language of the Southern Greeks


Based on an email exchange in September 2005
Article finalized and posted 5 January 2006
Last edited 7 June 2014

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 2006
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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