Not *that* that

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Not *that* that

Did you know that English has 2 that’s? Do you care?!

Or, “No, ὁτι is not a demonstrative”

Greek alert!

This should make sense even if you haven’t a clue what ὁτι means. Modern Greeks would say it like ‘otty’ and some ancients would start it with an h, ‘hotty’.

Extra Greek

It’s been a privilege to come alongside some students learning NT Greek in Nigeria and try to help them on their way. There’s always something for me to learn. A surprising one was when I asked one student what kind of word Greek ὁτι is. Straight away he replied ‘demonstrative’. It took me a while to figure out how on earth he could have got that. A demonstrative is a pointing word — identifying something that we already know about, whether near or far — which either acts with a noun or replaces it, as a demonstrative pronoun ‘that thing’. But ὁτι is usually called a complementiser — introducing the content of speech, or thought or a reason behind something. It operates on whole clauses, not nouns or noun phrases.

After a while the penny dropped and I smiled (a little wryly). Quite likely this fairly sharp student had been introduced to ὁτι through a gloss: ‘that’, as in “He said that we went.” (perhaps something like εἰπεν ὁτι ἐρχομην). Then when asked what part of speech or what kind of word ὁτι was, the student reached into his knowledge of English grammar drummed into him at school. The English word ‘that’ is a demonstrative (adjective). So of course it’s simple.

Greek ὁτι → English that → demonstrative

Over two semesters I did my best to explain that this ‘that’ that we were talking about was not the same as that ‘that’ that was indeed a demonstrative. I’m not sure I succeeded. It was 2 semesters against 4. Sadly the student (who shall remain nameless) had simply attached one part of speech to one English word when in actual fact there are two different words ‘that’ in English, each with its own stress pattern.

Perhaps part of the problem comes from grammar being taught as an annoying set of facts and rules to memorise and with no practical use beyond getting a qualification or showing off. Similarly I got the distinct impression that word endings in Greek were regarded as an annoying complication. But grammatical rules are our friend and ignoring word endings ends up complicating everything unnecessarily because we lose track of the clear connections between words that Greek exposes through these endings.

A missed opportunity

What was particularly annoying was that he actually would have been much better served not thinking of Greek ὁτι as ‘that’ because half the time it can’t be translated as ‘that’ anyway. Greek is actually like Ishɛ and quite likely several other Nigerian languages in having a word that introduces speech, whether direct or indirect. In Greek it’s ὁτι and in Ishɛ it’s ɛti. In English we first have to figure out whether the speech is direct or indirect and we only use the ‘that‘ if it’s indirect. So if students could grasp Greek in its own terms (not just through the filter of English) then they might just spot ways to make translation a lot more straightforward that it otherwise is.

How many theological students in Africa dutifully labour through the Biblical languages without ever connecting them to their home languages? We might optimistically hope that teaching delivered through English will be automatically translated by students into their own languages, but that seems to be rare. Aren’t these missed opportunities a colossal waste of time and effort?

Comments: 1

  1. Colette Harding says:

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