First Impressions of John Lee’s Accents Book

John Lee’s Basics of Greek Accents was released today. Here are some first impressions.

Like D. A. Carson’s 1985 book Greek Accents: A Student’s Manual, Lee’s new book (based on notes from a class he taught at Macquarie University) is designed to backfill knowledge of Greek accents for those students whose beginning Greek skipped over them.

At least since Wenham’s Elements of New Testament Greek, there has been a trend in beginning New Testament Greek (and perhaps Classical Greek) textbooks to do away with instruction about accentuation. I haven’t investigated, but I suspect this correlates with a reduction in English-to-Greek exercises in textbooks too.

Lee, like Carson before him, considers an understanding of accents to be vital to learning Greek. The book, published by Zondervan, is clearly (in name and cover design) intended by them to fill the gap left by Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek.

Lee’s book is small—110 pages and about the size of a 5 x 7 photograph. It’s compact but lucid nevertheless. The modern typography makes for more pleasant reading that both Carson book and Probert’s 2003 New Short Guide to the Accentuation of Ancient Greek.

It’s a gentler introduction than either Carson or Probert. There are eight chapters or “lessons” and each has two sets of exercises (marked as “In Class” and “Homework”). All exercises involve adding accents to unaccented text. Examples and exercises are NT focused but not exclusively and the book would be more than suitable for Classical Greek students as well.

As is understandable given its goals, there are no theoretical underpinnings given and little historical explanation.

I’ve found a few places where, given it’s for beginners (albeit those who know some Greek), I wish Lee had been a little more explicit. For example he says that “Aorist active infinitives in -σαι accent on second last” but never explains when one might expect an acute versus a circumflex. A one line rule with several examples is typical. But it is rare that all the edge cases are covered.

After saying that the verb is generally recessive, he gives various forms of λύω including the subjunctive λυθῶ. He gives contraction as the reason for this one deviant form, but that is the last thing he says about subjunctives other than a remark a couple of pages later about ἀποδῷ being the pattern for compound -μι verbs.

While Lee is a gentler introduction, one thing I like about Carson’s book on accents is he’ll often be a little more exploratory, considering a new form and whether previous rules are adequate to cover the evidence, and only once motivated, introduce a new rule. In doing this, students are encouraged to think a little more about how the rules interact. In a way, Carson’s approach is more like what I’ve been trying to do with my morphology blog posts.

While there’s much to commend it as a first introduction to accents, I do find Lee often misses the forest and instead just catalogs the trees. There’s little view of the whole as a system, how the parts interact. I understand why you don’t start with that, but I feel you need to get to it eventually.

As an example, I recently summarised the first and second declension noun accents as follows:

  • by default the accent is persistent
  • however, if the ending is a different length than in the base form (nominative singular), the law of limitation may require an accent change (e.g. X́XS -> XX́L, L̃S -> ĹL, ĹL -> L̃S)
  • if the base form is oxytone, it becomes perispomenon (X́->L̃) in oblique cases (genitive and dative)
  • in the 1st declension, the genitive plural is always perispomenon -ῶν (even if the base is not oxytone)

I gave examples of contrasting pairs for every accentuation and syllable length combination in both the first and second declension, and highlighted various things like the importance of building an intuition for the L̃S ~ ĹL alternation (the σωτῆρα rule). I also pointed out that the oblique case perispomenon (XL̃) is only possible because all oblique case endings are long.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this is sufficient—it needs a certain amount of unpacking and is jargon heavy. But this, or something similar, makes a nice summary that ties multiple things together in explaining the first and second declension. It covers the fact that persistence and the law of limitation might be in conflict and how that gets resolved. It explains what happens to oxytones in the oblique cases, and gives the exception of 1st declension genitive plural, pointing out this is not limited just to the oxytones like the previous rule.

In contrast, Lee covers the relevant rules but never brings them together in the context of a single paradigm (other than θεός which hardly demonstrates most of the points). The statement about the genitive plural is 28 pages later than the statement about circumflexes in the oblique when the base form is oxytone. His examples of the law of limitation do cover a couple of direct~oblique alternations but that is isolated from the chapter on noun accentuation and is never explained in the context of vowel length patterns in the noun endings.

All in all, however, I think Lee’s book is a good first introduction to Greek accentuation and its presentation is undoubtedly cleaner than that of previous books. My main criticism is that it is incomplete and students would benefit from some consolidation of the principles taught. Some of that criticism may be mitigated in a classroom situation, for which it was originally intended. Students working alone might have more questions than the book answers. I would recommend something like Probert as a follow on (it will also make a better reference). That said, I think Lee achieves his aim in providing the “basics” and (to quote the back cover blurb) “a foundation [students] will use as they continue their studies”.

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