Well, I thought I understood και and δε... but someone popped my bubble


I recently decided it's time to beef up my Greek again – where other should I turn, then, but to Runge's friendly introduction to the Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament. Originally, I skipped ahead – after reading the intro – to the part I was really interested in: information structure! But after digging there, I got sidetracked with my reading. Can't remember why now, but that's irrelevant. So here I am, deciding to give a read through the parts I glossed over – assuming I wouldn't learn much about και and δε... HA! Needless to say, here I am writing about some things I've learned so far.

If you're like me, you've always associated και and δε with the translations of "and" and "but". If that's the case, then like me, you've probably misunderstood what these two little popular lexemes are always doing in the Greek New Testament (GNT). Unfortunately for us,

Grammarians have worked diligently to make και correspond to "and," and δε to "but," which has led to great confusion regarding the unique grammatical role that each plays. (Runge 2011:28)

In short, the error which arises from these associations is that we intertwine a semantic aspect of the English conjunctions to the Greek connectors that is actually not present in the latter forms. For instance, we easily associate a certain negative value to the word "but" (as in I swung the bat but missed the ball); however, this negative value is not intrinsic to the semantic capacity of either δε or και – though they both, rightfully, be translated as "but" at times in the NT. This negative or neutral semantic component is really a feature that is brought on by the immediate context in which δε or και is used. In other words, these Greek connectors have got a blank slate when it comes to the "inherent" semantic nuances associated with English and or but – however, through association they are imbued with such hues.

Guilt by Association

So, if δε doesn't mean but and και doesn't mean andthen what do they mean?! 

According to Runge (2011), it's really not that difficult. So let me explain. I'll keep it simple. In fact, let's take a look at section of the prodigal son parable and see how και and δε are used there. As a sneak peak, let me just inform you that what you'll see is that

1) δε is used to mark new stages in the outflow of a story/argument (i.e. + development)

2) και is used to connect two activities/thoughts that are of equal status (i.e. - development)

Luke 15.21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ εἶπεν δὲ ὁ υἱὸς αὐτῷ· πάτερ, ἥμαρτον εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ ἐνώπιόν σου, οὐκέτι εἰμὶ ἄξιος κληθῆναι υἱός σου.
Luke 15.22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. εἶπεν δὲ ὁ πατὴρ πρὸς τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ· ταχὺ ἐξενέγκατε στολὴν τὴν πρώτην καὶ ἐνδύσατε αὐτόν, καὶ δότε δακτύλιον εἰς τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ καὶ ὑποδήματα εἰς τοὺς πόδας,
Luke 15.23 And bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us celebrate as we eat. καὶ φέρετε τὸν μόσχον τὸν σιτευτόν, θύσατε, καὶ φαγόντες εὐφρανθῶμεν,
Luke 15.24 For he, my son, was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. ὅτι οὗτος ὁ υἱός μου νεκρὸς ἦν καὶ ἀνέζησεν, ἦν ἀπολωλὼς καὶ εὑρέθη. καὶ ἤρξαντο εὐφραίνεσθαι.

popping-soap-bubbleFirst off, you'll notice that and as well as but are used to translate δε and, furthermore, that and and so are used to represent και. So let's keep that δε=but and και=and bubble popped. But as we've said already, much more is going on here than what we see in the English rendering of these Greek forms! So let's get to it.

As I said before, δε is used to signal new developments in the story. The first time we see it in this section it functions to transition from the father's response concerning his son's return (vs. 20) to the son's response to his father's surprising dash to meet him (vs. 21).

The second time (in the very next verse, vs. 22), δε marks a new development in which the father completely disregards his son's "I'm-a-worm" speech in which it is rightfully translated as but – not because δε carries this semantic force by itself, but because the context of contrast demands it (remember: the first instance of δε is correctly translated as and).

So, with the father's response recently introduced by δε, our other little lexeme – και – takes over and paints a picture of movement and speed as the father rattles off commands and instructions that are instantly carried out by his staff. Get the robe, the ring, the shoes, the calf! We're having a party!! This string of commands, riddled with και connects the unfolding events as part of one long episode; and does so in such a way that constrains the information to amount to a crescendo effect – all of which is peaked by the οτι clause in vs. 24: do all of these things because my son is back!   

Does that make sense? I hope. So next time you encounter και or δε don't think and or but! There is much more going on here than what we make sense of in English. Remember: και connects items of equal status, while δε similarly connects items but does so in a way that signals some sort of new development in the story or line of thought.