Looking it up [Greek Lexicons]


Struggling to learn the vocabulary seems like facing the invading Persian army at Thermopylae and I often have the same attitude as the Spartan solider in the video – ‘I don’t think I want too, what exactly are our chances here’. But I haven’t given up even if it is a daunting task. The tools we have to do battle with are as Greek students are not shields and cloaks, but the lexicon – an alphabetical listing of the words with their meanings. If you are thinking to yourself that this sounds a lot like a dictionary then you would be right and that is essentially what it is. The word lexicon actually comes from the Greek word – λεξικος – which means “of or for words”.

There are multiple Greek Lexicons that are available for use. This post from Biblical Studies and Technical tools lists several including the three most common:

  • A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [BDAG] – a very popular and comprehensive lexicon used in seminaries focusing on ancient Greek words used in Christian literature.
  • Liddell, Scott, & Jones [LSJ] – a comprehensive lexicon containing entries for ancient Greek words covering a larger range of time period (1200 BC – 600 AD)  and a larger range of literature types than just Christian literature. It is available on line at Perseus Digital Library.
  • Louw-Nida – a lexicon focused on the NT Greek. Its grouping of Greek words allows the reader to find synonyms for words similar to a thesaurus.

What is interesting is that the entries for Greek words in these lexicons are not what we might expect if we were to compare that to looking up an English word in an English dictionary.

For example the word “compassion” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary online is listed as:

compassion – noun

sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it

However when we look up an equivalent word in a Greek Lexicon (like BDAG) the entry is listed as:

σπλάγχνον, -ου, τό

1) the inward parts of the body

2) the seat of emotions, heart

3) the feeling itself of love, affection

We will quickly notice that the entry does not list the part of speech. We have to figure out that this is a noun. It also does not tell us the declension of the noun. At least not explicitly, we have to be able to figure that out too. Knowing the declension of the noun is an important part of understanding how to parse the word when it appears in a sentence.

As a side note we also see that this word in Greek can take on a much more diverse set of meanings than its English counterpart. The context is going to drive the meaning in any particular text. For example Acts 1:18 uses the word with the first meaning (guts), Philemon 1:7 uses the word with the second meaning (heart), while Philippians 2:1 uses the word with the third meaning (mercy, compassion).

Lexical Entry for a Noun
This entry in the lexicon is for a noun and it provides numerous pieces of information besides the English meaning(s):

σπλάγχνον the Greek word in its nominative singular form.
-ου the genitive singular ending.
τό the nominative singular definite article.

It is important to understand that Greek words in lexicons are listed in the nominative singular form not their stem. That means we have to learn our vocabulary words in that case form.

The definite article τό, let’s us know (if we have memorized the definite articles) that the gender of this noun is neuter.

Reviewing the nominative and genitive case endings provided in the lexical entry we can derive the stem by dropping the letters after the last vowel giving us:

σπλάγχνο

The stem ends in an omicron so this is a 2nd declension noun.

Using the information from the lexicon we can decline the word as a 2nd declension neuter noun as follows:

nominative singular σπλάγχνον
genitive singular σπλάγχνου
dative singular σπλάγχνῳ
accusative singular σπλάγχνον
nominative plural σπλάγχνα
genitive plural σπλάγχνων
dative plural σπλάγχνοις
accusative plural σπλάγχνα

We may also recognize that this is a second declension noun based on the endings ον and ου being the neuter case endings for the nominative and genitive singular forms.

Lexical Entry for an Adjective
An entry for a Greek adjective – say for the word “bad” would be listed as:

κακός, -ή, όν

The entry is still listed in the nominative singular form of the word. However since an adjective must agree with the noun it describes in case, number, and gender the entry in the lexicon has a different form. The entry provides the following information instead of the definite article or the genitive singular:

κακός the masculine nominative singular form.
the feminine nominative singular form.
-όν the neuter nominative singular form.

Adjectives are inflected the same way as the noun.

Lexical Entry for a Preposition or Conjunction
An entry for a Greek preposition also has a different form. Since the preposition in Greek is not inflected it has a simple entry, similar to an entry for an English word in a dictionary. It looks like this:

μετά
1) with genitive: with
2) with accusative: after

The meaning of the preposition will vary based on the case ending of the noun it is associated with.

Other words that have a simple lexical entry are conjunctions. An example is “and”:

και

Hopefully this post will help understand the Greek vocabulary that appears in the lexicon. This was a concept I found confusing as I struggle to memorize Greek vocabulary and work with the words in translation exercises.

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