One of the trickiest parts of learning Greek is learning how to deal with word order. Indeed, as English speakers, one of the most often made mistakes, one of the biggest barriers to not getting Greek, comes in the way of word order. English readers and speakers are trained to analyze sentences by word order. In Greek, however, there is a bit more flexibility when it comes to this topic. Furthermore, it is the affixes in Greek—the prefixes, infixes and suffixes—that readers must first pay attention to. Failure to take hold of this point will result in failure of being able to successfully navigate Greek.
Having said that, we need not go to the extreme as many have done, in suggesting that word order in Greek is completely flexible and unimportant. This is simply not true. In Part 3 of his Discourse Grammar, Runge seeks to show why and how this is true. He deals firstly with the concept of Information Structure (ch. 9), which I want to review in this post.
Basically, “Information Structure” (IS) carries the same meaning as “Word Order Analysis”. One of the biggest challenge that Runge’s work poses for much of the work that has been done on word order analyses within NT studies is that it offers an answer that is different from the answer scholars typically default to, which is “stylistic variation”. To put it differently, when most scholars cannot make sense of why some authors order words differently than others, they chalk it up to style; this author has a different style than that one. For example, when authors deviate from the standard Verb-Subject-Object (VSO) word ordering pattern, many suggest that it is just some sort of stylistic variation. Others even go as far as saying that there is NO word order in Greek. Runge says that this bias comes from forcing English understandings back on to the Greek (182) because English contains a very rigid word order pattern. So, Runge offers another solution here.
To begin, Runge suggests that the “attested variations” of authors/speakers “can be correlated to the content and objectives present in the discourse context” (186). In other words, the variations are not just stylistic, across the board they can be shown to make points and distribute data. He goes on to offer several ideas about how understanding IS assists us in making sense of this. He begins with Mental Representations (MR). A MR is like a filing cabinet in one’s head that stores data in specific folders. When we need it, we’ll access it again. We don’t just memorize every single word of something we read or hear, we simply store related concepts in these folders which will help us recall what we’ve previously read or heard. A “writer’s goal is to make sure that readers build their mental representation of the discourse in a way that accords with the writer’s intended message” (186). In short, writers structure content with the objective of helping you store it in your mind. This is why bad writing is so easy to forget!
Next, Runge visits the topic of Natural Information Flow (NIF). NIF operates on the presupposition that a discourse begins first with what is most knowable to a hearer/reader and then moves on to what is lesser known. If you simply started with things that people had no idea about disorientation and confusion would set it. So, if I said “The white house down the street from me” you would have no clue as to what house I was talking about. This is because I have not told you where I’m presently located. However, if I said, “I’m on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington D.C. The white house down the street from me…” this would make sense; you would know that I am talking about the White House, where the president lives. See, the NIF must begin with what is knowable first and then move to things lesser known.
Here’s an example of NIF at work: So far in this discussion of ISs we have reviewed Runge’s discussions of MRs and NIFs. Now, if I were to walk up on the street and say that to someone they wouldn’t have a clue what I was talking about. However, since you have been reading this article, the sentence makes sense to you. If I wanted to walk up to a stranger and tell them these things, to be able to have a successful conversation, I would need to give them the preceding contents of this article. The difference here is between “established information” and “non-established information”. The established information always precedes the non-established in a discourse that makes sense; again, it MUST, otherwise, stories, paragraphs, sentences, clauses, etc. will not make sense! Runge says, “Understanding the distinction between established and non-established information is critical to understanding information structure” (188). This is the case because in the NT (and any discourse in general), “each clause will contain a mix of established and newly asserted information” (189). This is the default strategy for understanding Greek word order!
However (you knew that was coming didn’t you?!?), there are cases when the default strategy gets interrupted or violated. Recall the previous chapters of Runge where breaking from the norm allows for emphasis and prominence! Runge builds on that concept here with a discussion of “two different preverbal positions that may or may not be filled in any given clause” (189). He refers to these two preverbal positions and Position 1 (P1) and Position 2 (P2). Easy enough! P1 elements serve to establish a “new frame of reference” while P2 elements serve to bring into focus new information, which is typically the “most important” information (190). It is the most important in a grammatical sense, not a meaning sense; it is most important because it is new, not because it has a greater meaning. Remember, what is common comes first so that the new information, which comes second or last, has a context/setting that it makes sense in. Thus, P1 is really a “frame of reference” while P2 refers to emphasis!
A great example that Runge gives for understanding P1 and P2 has to do with question and answer pairs. This just makes sense doesn’t it? When you ask a question, you are setting up a frame of reference, a context, that is P1. When an answer is given, it is expected that it will contain new information or data that is emphasized. I know that for many of us, this type of discussion about language can be difficult to grasp. Yet, the fact is, we are really only putting descriptors on what you and I do all the time when we speak and write! Here are some of my own examples, based off of Runge’s work:
Question: How many people went? (P1) – This is the context or the frame of reference and it presupposes that I and some others went somewhere together.
Default Answer: Two people went. (P2) – This would be a general or expected answer, but if we wanted to “mark” it or make it more specific, that is, to add emphasis, we use the next choice instead.
Marked Answer: Yesterday, only ß (P2) two people went à(P2) to the basketball game. –
Notice here that we have emphasized information which is forward positioned (placed at the front of the sentence) and also emphasized information which is right indented (placed at the end of a sentence. Both of these serve the purpose of bringing emphasis to the “default answer”. They do this by “marking” it and in this case, marking it on both sides!
You can see how it works in question/answer pairs. What about a regular sentence? I think about Mk 5.1-2, which can be laid out this way: “They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes (P1). When Jesus got out of the boat (P2)…” Notice in the first sentence that it is a group, including Jesus that is traveling in the boat; our context is set (P1). However, in the second sentence, emphasis is added to Jesus when Mark says, “When Jesus got out of the boat” (P2). Mark could have said that they all got out of the boat but he does not. He singles Jesus out. Best of all, so that we can understand this new information, he has previously given us the context to do so. Even more emphasis may be added in the following statement of 5.2: “When Jesus got out of the boat (P2), a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him (P2).” We can see the overall emphasis here. The man with the evil spirit did not come to meet everyone in the boat, he came to meet Jesus! This is exegetically important! This is emphasis (p2) at work at its finest!
So, how does this all relate to the word order issue? Well, for one, it tells us that the way information is ordered is dependent upon context! At least one aspect of word order is that it must be arranged in a knowable manner for it to make sense to readers and hearers. Certainly, when talking about word order, I think this is the best place Runge could have started. It is very eye-opening to me to think in these terms when engaging the biblical text. So, kudos to Runge for that! Be on the lookout for the next installment of this review series. Also, go on over to Logos and pick up your copy. Finally, if you haven’t already, check out the reviews 1-10.