Noun Entries in a Future Lexicon: ἔλεος

Our current lexica for Hellenistic Greek fall into two categories on the basis of their approach. The more traditional ones offer suggested translations (not real definitions) and examples of usage. The UBS lexicon classifies words on the basis of perceived semantic domains, grouping words with overlapping meaning into sense categories.

What I envision for a future lexicon is one that does not fit comfortably into either of these categories. It would provide examples of usage, of course, but it would provide a definition along the lines of modern dictionaries such as http://www.merriam-webster.com, and the discussion of examples should be different from what we currently find. Entries for nouns, for example, would also include information on the types of predicates for which the noun may function as an argument.

Let’s look at ἔλεος as an example. As something to be thought of (desired, neglected, remembered), ἔλεος functions as an argument of verbs like θέλω, ἀφίημι, and μιμνῄσκομαι:

1. ἔλεος θέλω καὶ οὐ θυσίαν· (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7)
2. ἀφήκατε τὰ βαρύτερα τοῦ νόμου, τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὸ ἔλεος καὶ τὴν πίστιν· (Matthew 23:23)
3. μνησθῆναι ἐλέους (Luke 1:54)

When used to speak specifically of something that transpires between two people (where an English translation might speak of showing mercy), though, ἔλεος may serve as an argument of ποιέω. It is not an attitude to be shown or demonstrated, but an action to be  done.

4. ποιῆσαι ἔλεος μετὰ τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν (Luke 1:72)
5. ὁ ποιήσας τὸ ἔλεος μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ. (Luke 10:37)

Notice the usage of a prepositional phrase μετά + genitive to modify ἔλεος in this sense.

In the catholic epistles we find ἔλεος used as an argument of δίδωμι and λαμβάνω in  contexts where it involves an interaction between two parties. Ἔλεος is presented as being transferred from a giver to a recipient:

6. δῴη ἔλεος ὁ κύριος τῷ Ὀνησιφόρου οἴκῳ (2 Timothy 1:16)

Two verses later what is given (δίδωμι) is not ἔλεος, but the ability to find (εὐρίσκω) ἔλεος.

7. δῴη αὐτῷ ὁ κύριος εὑρεῖν ἔλεος (2 Timothy 1:18)

Here, ἔλεος functions directly as an argument of εὑρεῖν.

8. ἵνα λάβωμεν ἔλεος (Hebrews 4:16)

Here the focus is on the receiver rather than the giver, but ἔλεος remains a thing to be transferred from an actor to a recipient.

Still, in James 2:13 we find ἔλεος again as an argument of ποιέω:

9. ἡ γὰρ κρίσις ἀνέλεος τῷ μὴ ποιήσαντι ἔλεος·

A lexical entry that takes these examples seriously might define ἔλεος as an action to be done for the benefit of another, despite that other’s lack of merit—an action that can be viewed as a gift in appropriate contexts. But the entry would also need to specify that ἔλεος is never presented as a quality to be demonstrated. In this sense, it is unlike the English word mercy.

This does not mean of course, that we should avoid translating ποιεῖν ἔλεος as show mercy, but it does mean that commentators and even casual readers of the Greek text should recognize that such a translation, while necessary, is required because of the peculiar demands of English, and the image that would come to mind for a speaker of Ancient Greek at hearing ἔλεος was different in important ways from the one that comes to mind for English speakers who hear mercy.

7 Comments on “Noun Entries in a Future Lexicon: ἔλεος”

  1. What a wonderful idea. i cannot describe the frustrations beginning students have with lexicons. Over and over again I have to hammer away at the difference between the meaning of a word and the English translation of a word. I also labor with them as well to see the difference between ideas and linguistic expressions, and the difference between the the worldview-and-linguistic world of the originating communication and the worldview-and-linguistic world of the target language.

    What you propose seems to me to be a logical step forward. It would require a great deal of work and could get rather encyclopedic, technical and dense. How could we begin with something more modest for beginners which is only as thick as something like the UBS Greek Lexicon? It is at this time of being a beginner that so many wrong habits and wrong concepts form.

    • You’re certainly right, Wray, that this would be a monumental undertaking. There is no quick way to do it, because it requires reading thousands of texts looking for specific semantic and syntactic information.

      Unfortunately, it is at this point only a dream for what might be in the future, but is not currently found in any of our tools. Perhaps some smaller volumes could be produced along the way to the larger goal. That would certainly be helpful for students learning the language.

  2. So my brother, “without a vision the people perish.” You have received the vision, how are you going to precede? picking 5 significant nouns and 5 significant nouns to do a very preliminary study? do a preliminary reconfiguring and amplification on an exisiting lexicon to open other eyes to the possibilities of the enhanced format? If you begin to build it, they will come

  3. This sort of lexicon would have saved me innumerable hours as I was “vetting” my use of words in communicating Koine in class. Being able to quickly see how a word is used, what verbs are used with a noun, and such, would be wonderful.

    Here’s my short wish list for the first version of the Palmer Lexicon! (250 words)
    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Av5w2DAlkJt1dE55WF83dEhpNzBnYTAtZzdrQnR4OVE&usp=sharing

    This was a list I drew up when a few of us were thinking to write very simple stories with limited vocabulary for a sort of “First Greek Reader.” The typical Greek readers that are out there (most written in early 1900’s) are far too difficult because of their wide vocabularies.

    This “short” list was culled from my Core Communicative vocabulary of about 600 words.
    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/98867968/CORE%20COMMUNICATIVE%20GREEK.xlsx
    That list was in turn created from looking at Major’s 80% list of 1000 words, trimming it down, and adding some high frequency Biblical words.

    • Thank you, Paul. Those are great lists. I’ve downloaded the shorter one and highlighted the nouns (77 of them!). I’ll set that as a goal to get started on, but to do a decent job of it, it’s going to take a very long time!

  4. θαυμαστόν!! That would be wonderful. I’m thrilled your considering it.

    The sort of thing I’d be looking for is how to use this noun. For example, what do we USUALLY do with ειρηνη? δεχεσθαι ποιησαι δουναι ? We give it τινι, but is it common to wish it επι?

    Some of these things are easy to questions are easy to answer, some not so easy. But all take loads of time for a guy like me. Then if you consider that a teacher might be using several new words in a single lesson, it becomes a real challenge to try to use idiomatic Greek. A list of even these 77 nouns would be a valuable gift for any Ancient Greek teacher trying to use communicative methods. χαριν εχω!

What do you think? Other readers and I would love to hear from you.

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