Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Greek isn’t that easy

Greg Lanier posted a couple of days ago an application of quantitative analysis to the acquisition of Greek vocabulary for New Testament reading. He runs through some statistics about the number of words in the GNT, the number of hapax legomena, the number of words one has to acquire to reach 80% of the word occurrences, etc. It is all very interesting and informative, and there are graphs. I love graphs! His point is to encourage students to focus on learning core vocabulary. His numbers and graphs help to make this task less daunting than it might appear at first. His summary is thus:

  • Investing significant time up front to acquire the 50+ words pays significant dividends.
  • There is a tremendously “long tail” whereby going from 90% to 100% of words by occurrence (that is, ability to read that percentage of the NT without relying on a dictionary) requires learning >80% of the total vocabulary! That’s a huge step!
  • Perhaps the best idea is to focus on the 882 words that get you to 90%.

882 words doesn’t seem like all that much . . . if that were all there was to it! I always think I am giving students too rosy an outlook when I tell them how few words they have to memorize to read a majority of the NT. Inflected languages actually require students to memorize a handful of words when they are learning “one” word. For instance, it feels dishonest to tell students they only have to learn one word in the definite article to have nearly 20K (19,867 to be exact) word occurrences under their belt. That one little word actually has 17 different forms, 17 different words to memorize, if we’re being honest. And some of those words pull double duty (or triple, in the case of plural genitive).


It sounds less daunting to think we only have to memorize 882 words to get to 90% of the GNT, but in reality it is much more than that. 

I’m by no means a statistician and I do not claim the same abilities in quantitative analysis as Greg. So you will not be getting any charts from me. But I want to explore my point a bit further. Using Greg’s post, the list provided by the Institute of Biblical Greek, a calculator, and a grammar to check my paradigms, I want to take a look at the 20 “unique” words that occur 900 times or more in the GNT.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at [Jan 29] 9.04

According to the traditional spiel about Greek vocabulary learning, one would only need to memorize 20 words to account for 64,486 (somebody check my calculator work!) word occurrences out of a total of only 138,150 total words in the GNT. That’s 20 words for over 46% of the GNT! Sounds pretty good doesn’t it? Of course, you would have 5400 more words to learn to acquire the nearly 54% outstanding, but let’s focus on the surmountable part for now. Here’s the rub, though. As I said earlier, there are actually 17 different, truly unique words that make up what most vocabulary lists put down as only one word in their listing of the definite article.  In fact, if I am counting right, there are only 9 words in this list of 20 that do not inflect, decline, morph, augment, presto-change-o somehow. Wait, strike that. There are a few of those prepositions that will end differently depending on the word they precede. When I set out on this blog post, I had in mind to try to count the actual number of words hidden away inside this list of 20, but the idea of trying to count all the verbal forms of a couple of the words overwhelmed me, and I have actual editing work to do today. So , I never did make use of the Greek grammar I had on my desk in order to count all the different forms/words. Still, the point I want to make explicitly now is that learning enough Greek vocabulary to account for 90% of the GNT is a good deal more than learning 882 words.

And before pedants start putting me in my place about what a “word” is or about what we mean by “learning” a vocabulary word or about how memorizing a few paradigms make it so that one need only memorize one word to have all 17+ forms (AKA unique words!) at hand, let me appeal to my Merriam-Webster dictionary for an example or two. You will find there an entry for the indefinite article ‘a’ on one page, and an entry for ‘an’ on another page.  One could argue that it is just one word with different forms, but there are two separate words for English-language learners to memorize! Yes, I understand that if English-language learners memorized a few rules (easier rules than Greek since English inflects only minimally), then they would only have to memorize ‘dog’ to get ‘dogs’ and ‘inflect’ to get ‘inflected’ and ‘inflecting’ and ‘inflects’ and ‘inflection’ and so on. I would say, however, that learning these rules only makes learning related words easier. It is not that they’ve memorized one word. It’s that they’ve memorized several related words with the assistance of standard rules. And it is a hard argument to make that English-language learners are memorizing only ONE word when they learn ‘go’ and ‘went’ or ‘goose’ and ‘geese’ or any number of irregular word sets. Greek is filled with irregular words of all sorts. It is a hard argument to make that Greek-language learners are memorizing ONE word when they learn all of the crazy forms of εἰμί.

I don’t mean to be discouraging of students learning Greek vocabulary. When I taught, I had a reputation for requiring more than the normal number of vocabulary words. And now in retrospect I see that I was actually assigning many more words than were listed. I don’t regret it. My students might. I don’t. I’m writing all of this as a way to think out loud, as it were, about how we “market” vocabulary learning to students. Is it fair to say only 882 words and you’ve got 90% of the GNT? Most students, I would guess, hear the word “words” and assume it is something like looking up an unfamiliar word in Merriam-Webster. They have no idea that Greek is just not that easy.

Being consumed by your meal

When we eat food we take something from outside out body and incorporate it into our body. What was once something distinct from our body becomes a part of it. However, the Eucharist meal does something very weird and backwards.

“Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Cor 10:17)

When Christians share in the Eucharist they eat bread and, of course, it becomes a part of their bodies. But in the process, the bread—the body of Christ—also consumes them. By partaking of the body of Christ they are united to that body and are constituted as part of it.

That is . . . very strange.

C. S. Lewis and Footnotes

Lately I’ve been thinking on writing another book. I’m toying with the idea of writing the book without any notes (footnotes or endnotes), in an essayistic fashion. I often think about how I want my books to find the broadest possible readership, and footnotes famously scare away more popularly-oriented readers. There’s also a kind of timelessness to books (done well) that forgo notes and rely on the author’s thorough digestion of the topic, as well a willingness to write in a fashion that goes deep and does not simply rely on the “latest scholarship.” But it’s not easy to do this well. For one thing, you have to forgo quotes of other writers, which is not easy to do if you’ve done extensive research and appreciated so much of what others have had to say and how they have said it. For another, great care must be taken to avoid plagiarism.

My musings took me back to the popular writings of C. S. Lewis, such as Mere Christianity. Lewis of course wrote without footnotes. He was able to do so, and do so well, because of his thorough mastery of the material setting in the wings of his work. Lewis vividly and compellingly drew on the church fathers. Mere Christianity, without many readers knowing it, is a master class in the patristics and its leading concepts. Lewis read, marked, and inwardly digested this material until it was his own. Then, to use an unappealing metaphor, he regurgitated it in his own unique and captivating form. We his readers are like baby birds gobbling predigested nutrition from the maw of a mother bird—in this case, an especially brilliant and eloquent mother bird.

Besides his deep mastery of the material, Lewis’s writing relies on at least two other factors for its appeal. First, Lewis wrote with great clarity. His syntax is always flawless. The antecedents in sentences and paragraphs are always obvious and never difficult to ascertain. Second, Lewis employed metaphors with flair. Metaphors juxtapose two unlike realities, pleasantly surprising us with something they hold in common. Lewis’s use of metaphors brings great pleasure to reading his work.

But to return to the issue of footnotes: the absence of footnotes in Lewis’s work means it is easy to read and follow. It means the prose flows smoothly and without interruption. However, it also means that readers aren’t clued in on thinkers and writers on which Lewis relies. We are deprived of the opportunity—and the joy—of following footnotes to other books we might want to read. Because there are no quotations, we are also deprived of the expression of figures in the wings of Lewis’s text—and that includes writers such as Augustine, who was a master of prose (and the metaphor) himself.

So where does this leave me? I’m still pondering seriously the writing of a book sans footnotes. But  I’m keenly aware that such writing is difficult to do well, and know that I must take serious account of my own abilities before proceeding. And I’m aware the writing without notes may be a gift to the reader in some ways, but in other ways (such as robbing  the reader of footnotes to chase other books he or she might want to read) is a deprivation. As so often in writing and publishing, there are tradeoffs.

The Difference Christ Makes

In November of 2013, I had the privilege of attending a one-day retirement conference, organized around the theme “The Difference Christ Makes,” to celebrate and honor the life and work of Stanley Hauerwas. It was a full day—Eucharistic celebration in the morning followed by papers and responses throughout the day with a concluding and celebratory dinner in the evening. Stanley has a lot of friends, and it was a testimony to those friendships and to his influence just how many made the journey to Durham for the event.

I’m happy to report that the conference papers have now been published. Anyone who has learned from Stanley over the years will want to check these essays out, but others familiar with Stanley’s work, yet perhaps less enthusiastic about it, should get a hold of a copy as well. All of the contributions are excellent, but the highlight of the volume for me is Jonathan Tran’s essay on the challenge of remembering the late Anne Hauerwas, as well as Peter Dula’s response to Tran’s paper. It’s an exchange that demonstrates how interesting Stanley’s work is just to the extent that it has attracted such interesting students. On a day that could have been filled entirely with generous encomiums and hilarious Hauerwas memories (and there were plenty of both), Tran and Dula took a riskier path—interrogating the limits of any theological ethic in light of Stanley’s failed first marriage and how it was narrated in his memoir, Hannah’s Child—in a way that honored Stanley all the more deeply by doing real work in the field that Stanley was formally retiring from.

I hope you’ll check it out!

Click on the marketing flyer below and you’ll be taken to the book’s page on our website.


The Monograph and the Journal

I have blogged in the past about the current state of publishing, and especially academic publishing: peer reviews (7/18/12), publishing models (7/25/12), book covers (11/7/12), big six publishers (12/12/12), lines of distribution (9/11/13), and Kindles and books (2/5/14). Continue reading

Worcester’s own saint

I live in Worcester, UK. So in solidarity with my fellow townsfolk I thought I’d share a short documentary about our own Saint—Wulfstan. (Now THAT is a good name for a saint!)

Lily King’s “Euphoria”

I’m a sucker for novels that cross cultures and show their characters in an unusual setting. I enjoy historical novels for this purpose, as well as the occasional novel that is less set in the past than in a contemporary culture quite unlike my own. Lily King’s Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press), then, is a perfect story for me.

It’s set in the Papua New Guinea of the 1930s. The central characters are three anthropologists, the British Andrew Bankson, and the Australian Fen and his American wife Nell Stone. We’re given an intimate and vivid portrait of anthropologists at work. The book captures the isolation and loneliness of these cultural detectives; it depicts the tribal people they are studying with immediacy and detail. As the book opens, Bankson is frustrated by the paucity of results from his research and haunted by the ghosts of his distant family. Like Virginia Woolf, he puts stones in his pockets and walks into water, attempting suicide by drowning. The indigenous people save him, and not long after he meets Nell and Fen.

We see Fen’s and especially Nell’s working methods. We watch as Bankson and Nell gradually fall in love and the fragile marriage of Nell and Fen is threatened. Thus Euphoria becomes, in addition to everything else it is, something of a tortured love story. This fraught love story reminds us that all cultures, and not just the ones anthropologists study at a remove, are complicated and tricky to negotiate.

Loosely based on the experiences of the famous Margaret Mead, Euphoria is a remarkable glimpse into strange worlds. I don’t know how accurate anthropologists will find its depiction of the work, but it rings true on the human level and offers up a powerful story.

Starred Up

For the last several years, I’ve taken to renting movies and watching them whenever I travel to conferences. My wife and I have two boys under the age of 10, so if we get to watch movies, they tend not to be movies for grown ups.

Now I’m a huge fan of movies for children. I suspect not a few adults are missing out on some of the best movies being made because they don’t have kids and they don’t think these movies are for them. That’s a shame, because there are a bunch of truly wonderful kid flicks—the Toy Story series, the Madagascar movies, Cars, Up, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, the LEGO MovieFrozen, and, my all-time favorite, How to Train Your Dragon. Continue reading

Spam a lot, a whole lot!

In recognition of having surpassed 2 million spam comments caught by our blog’s spam filter, I highlight some of the more recent ones below. I’ve extracted the good bits, removing links and gibberish. You can see earlier responses to spam comments here and here and here.


From True Religion Jeans Sale Online:

These crops (ingrown toenail, tomatoes, grains, and other veggies) are no area for honey bees.

Is the jeans brand called “True Religion” or are they jeans somehow associated with a true religion? And why shouldn’t honey bees be around ingrown toenail crops?

From tree stump removal:

Hey! Someone in my Myspace group shared this website with us so I came to look it over. I’m definitely enjoying the information. I’m book-marking and will be tweeting this to my followers! Fantastic blog and wonderful style and design.

First off, thanks! Secondly, seriously “tree stump removal” is on Myspace? Is anybody on Myspace these days? Thirdly, I can‘t help but tell you bookmarking is not supposed to be hyphenated. Finally, you actually have followers on Twitter? Who follows “tree stump removal” on Twitter?

From tree removal service:

Hi, I log on to your new stuff on a regular basis. Your story-telling style is awesome, keep up the good work!

Come on tree stump removal, I know this is you! Did you expand your business to removing the whole tree and not just the stump? Good for you! Thanks for another nice comment, but once again you’ve hyphenated something unnecessarily. It’s storytelling, one word, no hyphen.

From best skis 2015:

Do you have a spam problem on this site; I also am a blogger, and I was curious about
your situation; we have developed some nice procedures and we are looking to trade techniques with other folks, why not shoot me an e-mail if interested.

YES! Yes, we do have a spam problem. How did you know? By “blogger” do you actually mean “spammer”? I’m not sure how trading techniques is going to help with our spam problem. Although, I am curious about your nice procedures. By the way, your punctuation is atrocious!

From Doudoune Moncler Authentique Pas Cher:

Whether we know it or not each decision we make is based off of intelligence support that we gather. When choosing what to wear we will likely check the weather. You wouldn’t wear a sweater and jeans on a hot, humid afternoon.

True dat!

From true religions jeans hot sale:

(We tend to) just (need) steadiness in a lot of areas. Girls were dressed up, in a major way. Their dresses ended up being fly

This is almost as confusing as your ingrown toenail crop comment earlier. By the way, dropping the caps and making it a “hot” sale fools no one. We still know its you!

From junk removal business:

May I just say what a comfort to discover a person that truly knows what they’re talking about online. You certainly understand how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people have to look at this and understand this side of your story. I was surprised that you’re not more popular since you most certainly possess the gift.

Tree stump removal? Is that you again? Your business seems to keep growing. You’re into junk now? Thanks again for your kind words and for avoiding poorly placed hyphens. I’m not sure why you are so surprised that I’m not more popular. I blog about the spam our blog has received! I appreciate you calling that a gift, but it is not going to drive much blog traffic.

The Difference between a Verb and an Adjective

One of my favorite cartoonists is Wiley Miller. This one from 1/13/2015 captures his humor perfectly.

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