Why is the Johannine corpus so easy to read?

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daveburt
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Why is the Johannine corpus so easy to read?

Post by daveburt » December 5th, 2017, 10:15 pm

John, 1 John, 2 John are very easy to read. Reading the elder's address in the letters to 'my children' I wonder whether they were intended to be understood by young people, or perhaps foreigners with Greek as a second language, or if there's some other reason underlying John's choice of simple words.

In order to quickly validate the extent to which they are easy to read, I came up with the following, using James Tauber's MorphGNT and my Duff's Graded GNT software.

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They're 95% readable by first-year students who have just finished the Duff textbook, significantly easier than the next easiest, 2 Thessalonians, which is below 90%. Even half-way through the book a student should be able to understand 75% of the words.

My question is, does anyone know why the Johannine corpus (except of course for the book actually bearing the name of John!) is so easy to read?
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Barry Hofstetter
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Re: Why is the Johannine corpus so easy to read?

Post by Barry Hofstetter » December 7th, 2017, 6:48 am

I've been hoping someone else would answer this. It's tempting to say "Who cares why? Don't look a gift horse in the mouth...(unless you happen to be a Trojan at the end of a long war with the Greeks)." By comparison, why do intermediate Latin students often read as their first author Caesar's De Bello Gallico? One reason is that it is written in a style which is more accessible to beginning students. It's perceived as easier to understand and so makes an excellent "real Latin author" early text to read (not that Caesar can't occasionally wax "really Latin" from time to time, but overall). Why? The fact that it's mostly narrative text has something to do with it, but also Caesar was writing it as an apologia for his actions in Gaul. He wants to state thing plainly and in such a way that people really get it. I would suggest that John is doing something similar in his epistles. He wants his audience to get it and so writes in a very simple paratactic style. But having said that, is John, despite the easy paratactic style and high frequency vocabulary for which intermediate NTG students have always been thankful, really that easy to understand? Nobody ever has trouble understanding John, right? Oh, wait, maybe... :?:
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S Walch
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Re: Why is the Johannine corpus so easy to read?

Post by S Walch » December 7th, 2017, 10:11 am

Well, yes, the Johannine smallish word range is probably what makes it seem 'easy' as opposed to say, Titus for instance.

But I think that's being grossly unfair to Titus.

Yes there's 300 distinct lemmas in the letter, but is it difficult to read? All that's against Titus is vocab - the rest of the letter is more than easily read.

I mean of the 300 words in the letter, 33 are Hapax legomenon (of which 3 are names), but the remaining 227 (giving it fewer distinct lemmas than 1 John (!), which only has 1 Hapax Legomenon) are encountered in the rest of the NT.

Needless to say, once someone's finished Duff's textbook, give them a vocab list for Titus and they'd have no trouble getting through the 659 words of Titus.

There's a question: of the amount of Greek words given in Duff, how many of the words in each book aren't covered?
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daveburt
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Re: Why is the Johannine corpus so easy to read?

Post by daveburt » December 7th, 2017, 7:14 pm

You're right in pinning this issue on vocabulary. There are only a couple of dozen words in the NT that use morphs Duff doesn't teach the parsing for (non-indicative verbs in tenses other than aorist and present from memory).

'He wants his audience to get it' sounds good to me. The 'easy paratactic style and high frequency vocabulary for which intermediate NTG students have always been thankful' I think is an understatement. The 95% figure means that a beginning student can comfortably read it (to the point of making sense of it and constructing a mental picture -- obviously there's a depth to it as well). This level of vocabulary is equivalent to an native 2-year-old! In comparison, for a native three-year-old or a foreigner with Greek as a second language, I'm sure Titus' less common vocabulary would make it more difficult to understand.

Note I'm not claiming any other books are especially difficult by any means, just that these Johannine books are unusually easy.

I'll make another list dividing the vocab between Duff words, hapax legomena, and others. That might tell us something more about difficulty for someone studying specifically to study the corpus.
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daveburt
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Re: Why is the Johannine corpus so easy to read?

Post by daveburt » December 15th, 2017, 9:35 am

Here are some more stats, which I think give a more sensitive view of the issue. For the second two tables, I've assumed proper nouns don't need to be learned. Duff provides the first 600 or so most-frequent words, down to 30 occurrences.

Image

I came across a similar observation in David Bentley Hart's preface to his new translation; he makes a similar observation, attributing it to the John's own limited command of Greek:
Even the Gospel of John, perhaps the most structurally and symbolically sophisticated religious text to have come down to us from late antiquity, is written in a Greek that is grammatically correct but syntactically almost childish (or perhaps I should say, "remarkably limpid"), and -- unless its author was some late first-century precursor of Gertrude Stein -- its stylistic limitations suggest an author whose command of the language did not exceed mere functional competence.
I'm no authority in any of this, but I'm skeptical of Hart's hypothesis. In my experience, language skill adequate to produce a grammatically correct 15,000 word narrative tends to come with a vocabulary beyond that of a native two-year-old.

On Titus, the figure I got was 144 new words to learn, in the 659 word letter. It seems much harder to me (beginner-intermediate) than Matthew or Luke. Even though there are far fewer words to learn, they're concentrated in a small text, so that instead of 6-7% of words being new, it's 22%. A 15-word sentence has 3 unknown words instead of 1. I think the 95% rule is a helpful one.
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S Walch
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Re: Why is the Johannine corpus so easy to read?

Post by S Walch » December 15th, 2017, 2:26 pm

daveburt wrote:
December 15th, 2017, 9:35 am
On Titus, the figure I got was 144 new words to learn, in the 659 word letter. It seems much harder to me (beginner-intermediate) than Matthew or Luke. Even though there are far fewer words to learn, they're concentrated in a small text, so that instead of 6-7% of words being new, it's 22%. A 15-word sentence has 3 unknown words instead of 1. I think the 95% rule is a helpful one.
Really? 144 words to learn from Titus after Duff's Elements?

Is that including the 30 Hapax Legomena? That still leaves 114 words to learn. Seems somewhat higher than anticipated. Perhaps Duff's Elements needs to increase the amount of words it introduces to the reader. Possibly an extra supplement of 'Greek words handy to know for the NT'.

Interestingly, the 48% to learn for Titus is the exact same as needed to learn for GoJ. Doesn't surprise me at all that Hebrews, Luke and Acts are above the 60% mark.
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Stirling Bartholomew
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Re: Why is the Johannine corpus so easy to read?

Post by Stirling Bartholomew » December 15th, 2017, 2:48 pm

daveburt wrote:
December 15th, 2017, 9:35 am

I came across a similar observation in David Bentley Hart's preface to his new translation; he makes a similar observation, attributing it to the John's own limited command of Greek:
Even the Gospel of John, perhaps the most structurally and symbolically sophisticated religious text to have come down to us from late antiquity, is written in a Greek that is grammatically correct but syntactically almost childish (or perhaps I should say, "remarkably limpid"), and -- unless its author was some late first-century precursor of Gertrude Stein -- its stylistic limitations suggest an author whose command of the language did not exceed mere functional competence.
I'm no authority in any of this, but I'm skeptical of Hart's hypothesis.
Hart is spewing flamboyant "literary" nonsense in a desperate attempt to promote sales. Ignore him. The simplicity of the Johannine books makes them a work of art. Comparing them to classical texts is a category error. Communicating profound truth in language understandable by everyone is a difficult accomplishment.
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C. Stirling Bartholomew

Barry Hofstetter
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Re: Why is the Johannine corpus so easy to read?

Post by Barry Hofstetter » December 15th, 2017, 4:06 pm

Stirling Bartholomew wrote:
December 15th, 2017, 2:48 pm

Hart is spewing flamboyant "literary" nonsense in a desperate attempt to promote sales. Ignore him. The simplicity of the Johannine books makes them a work of art. Comparing them to classical texts is a category error. Communicating profound truth in language understandable by everyone is a difficult accomplishment.
I don't often do "amen" posts, but this is very well stated.
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Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy
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Jonathan Robie
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Re: Why is the Johannine corpus so easy to read?

Post by Jonathan Robie » December 15th, 2017, 5:33 pm

Barry Hofstetter wrote:
December 15th, 2017, 4:06 pm
Stirling Bartholomew wrote:
December 15th, 2017, 2:48 pm

Hart is spewing flamboyant "literary" nonsense in a desperate attempt to promote sales. Ignore him. The simplicity of the Johannine books makes them a work of art. Comparing them to classical texts is a category error. Communicating profound truth in language understandable by everyone is a difficult accomplishment.
I don't often do "amen" posts, but this is very well stated.
Amen.
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