A quiz: why can’t you read this?

Yes, I know you can read this, namely this blog post. The question is why can’t you read the passage below this paragraph. OK, OK, so it’s not in English, but that’s not the point. It’s from the Greek Old Testament, the Book of Esdras in particular—so pretend you can read ancient Greek even if you can’t. The question still remains: why is it so hard to read it? Come up with at least three reasons if you can.

Maybe a compare-and-contrast exercise would be in order before we discuss your reasons. Here is a typical page from ancient Greek as it is printed today:

That, of course, is the first page of The Odyssey, more than 1000 years older than the Biblical text above! So why is it so much more readable? (Again, pretend that you can read ancient Greek.) As stated in the second paragraph above: without knowing Greek, list at least three different ways in which it is more readable than the first passage for the reader who does know Greek.

We’ll reprint both texts here so that you won’t inadvertently see any answers until you’re ready to scroll down and see it.

And now the reveal:

I suspect that the most common answer is that words are separated by spaces in the second passage. Indeed doing so makes texts so much more readable. But that is a (relatively) newfangled idea: ancient Greek, Latin, and Egyptian (to name three) were written without signifying word breaks with spaces.

Perhaps your second answer is that the first sample is written entirely in upper-case letters. That style always reduces readability, as we know today when the occasional internet user has caps lock stuck on or is just shouting. Again, lower-case letters are relatively new. (Note in the second example that proper names begin with upper-case letters but sentences do not. Even without knowing Greek you can deduce that fact with a bit of detective work because of the letterforms.)

A third answer could be punctuation. You can detect modern punctuation in the second excerpt but not in the first. In the words of a Wikipedia author describing the first example, “Punctuation is rare (accents and breathings have been added by a later hand) except for some blank spaces, diaeresis on initial iotas and upsilons, abbreviations of the nomina sacra and markings of OT citations.”

Finally, let me remind you that I introduced the second example by describing it as “ancient Greek as it is printed today,” not as it was printed at the time! The first one is a photo of an actual old text, the Codex Vaticanus, handwritten in the 4th Century CE. Though it may be interesting—at least to people like me—I am so glad that in my six years of studying ancient Greek we were always given modernized texts, such as the Odyssey segment above.

Categories: Books, Linguistics