Fairbairn Simplifies Greek and Latin Grammar

Donald Fairbairn Understanding LanguageDonald Fairbairn.[1] 2011. Understanding Language: A Guide for Beginning Students of Greek and Latin. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I realized my call to ministry, I began studying Greek, the language of the New Testament. This was years before finding a seminary to attend because I feared not being able to keep up with younger students in learning the language. When I eventually entered seminary, I tested out of the first semester of Greek. The complex usage questions that come up in the second semester of Greek proved too hard for me to master on my own. I always wanted also to study Latin, but I never got beyond reading individual verses and using the Vulgate in translating Greek passages for seminary assignments.


In his text Understanding Language: A Guide for Beginning Students of Greek and Latin Donald Fairbairn describes his objectives as:

“This book begins not with English grammar, but with the big-picture idea that different languages can express the same concepts in different ways. Then it turns to the functional question of what languages have to accomplish to enable speakers and writers to communicate well. What do nouns have to do? What do verbs have to do? How can words and phrases be combined to express complex ideas?” (xv)

This last question is intriguing because this was exactly the reason that I failed to test out of my second semester of Greek. I got confused with why I needed to understand so many verb, noun, and participle forms because I did not understand their basic functions, which went much further than my prior experience with a declined language—German.

Fairbairn’s Background

Fairbairn’s interest in linguistics reflects his background. While he is currently the academic dean of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC, he is also the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity with degrees from Princeton University (AB), Denver Seminary (MDiv), and University of Cambridge (PhD)—church history requires more than a passing knowledge of Greek and Latin. His books include: Eastern Orthodoxy through Western Eyes, Grace and Christology in the Early ChurchLife in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (review: Fairbairn: The Trinity Models Relationship in Community, Part 1), and Fulgentius of Ruspe and the Scythian Monks: Correspondence on Christology and Grace. 


Fairbairn writes his book in four parts and ten chapters. The four parts and chapters are:

Part 1: Getting Started

1.Learning a Foreign Language

2. Study a Dead Language: Why Bother?

3. The Building Blocks of Language

Part 2: Nouns and the Words that Go with Them

4. Expressing the Relations between Noun

5.Adjectives, Articles, and Pronouns

Part 3: Verbs: The Heart of Communication

6. What Do Verbs Do?

7. Finite Verb Forms: A Closer Look at Tense and Mood

8. Special (Non-Finite) Verbal Forms: Infinitives and Participles

Part 4: Looking into Sentences as a Whole.

9. Words, Phrases, Clauses: Putting them Together

10. Reading a Greek or Latin Sentence: Some Suggestions.” (vii-viii)

 Anyone who has studied Greek will recognize that getting into the weeds starts when you reach participles. From that point forward (chapter 8) in Fairbairn’s book the advice becomes especially critical.


Some of the most interesting things that I learned reading Fairbairn’s book could be described as background information. He gives three reasons to study Greek and Latin: to pick up nuances in the languages lost in previous translations, to understand better the world that birthed Western civilization, and to understand English better (16-23). I did not know, for example, that English has more prepositions than Greek or Latin because it does not decline its nouns—declensions perform a similar function in the language (43). Declension also frees a language to use word order to focus on emphasis rather word function (42).

Some of the most useful details that Fairbairn offers come in discussing the word function of relations among nouns, known as cases. He cites eight: nominative (subject), vocative (command), accusative (direct object), dative (indirect object), instrumental (causive), locative (place), genitive (ownership), and ablative (separation) (58-63). Knowing the function of cases helps a student understand especially the different uses of prepositions and, of course, the uses of the declensions. Not being familiar with the functions leaves one confused when confronted with the many forms that these cases and prepositions can take.

Fairbairn provides a particularly helpful table 4-1 (66) that displays how Greek and Latin handle these basic functions differently. The Greek dative case, for example, handles the dative, ablative, and locative functions found in Latin, making it a kind of kitchen-sink case in Greek. Meanwhile, in Latin the dative case handles only two of the four functions handled by the Greek dative.


Donald Fairbairn’s Understanding Language is an interesting and helpful text for beginning students of Greek and Latin. The book reads well and normally substitutes accessible descriptions for the more technical terms that linguists typically employ.


[1] http://www.gordonconwell.edu/academics/view-faculty-member.cfm?faculty_id=57841&grp_id=8947.


Fairbairn Simplifies Greek and Latin Grammar

Also see:

Fairbairn: The Trinity Models Relationship in Community, Part 1 

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Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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