God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Grammar Can’t Be Wrong

In an interview with Karyn Traphagen, Pete Enns says:

Second, I would be prepared at how Hebrew does not “behave itself,” i.e., how grammars necessarily abstract the language almost to the point where a fair amount of what you’ve been learning doesn’t correspond to the actual biblical text.

While a printed grammar of a language can be (and frequently is) wrong, the underlying grammar of the language is always right. That is, there are rules by which all languages operate, and one task of the linguist is to discover those rules. In this regard modern linguistics, beginning last century, has been particularly helpful. (Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct is a great introduction.)

So if people are working from books that don’t match up with the language they’re studying, I think it’s time to stop blaming the language and start blaming the books.

October 8, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics | ,


  1. I think what bugs me the most is when someone suggests emending the text based on their understanding of the correct grammar. This same complaint applies to poetic rhyme, meter, & parallelism.

    Comment by Ryan | October 8, 2009 | Reply

  2. You’re both right and wrong here I think. Certainly part of Enns’ point is that you can’t trust that what you read in the HB/OT will always conform to Waltke-O’Connor or Jouon-Muraoka or whatever grammar you’re using. And as you say, this isn’t because the language system of BH is “wrong” per se, but because we’re still figuring out how it works and abstracting priciples from our research.

    But to suggest that “the underlying grammar of a language is always right” skates right over Saussure’s classic distinction between langue and parole. The very idea of “a language” is a fairly massive abstraction. Language changes from person to person, and even if we abstract into a larger set of people and call that a dialect or language, the line between dialects and languages, and between any given set of dialects or given set of languages can be pretty fuzzy. Add to that diachronic evolution in language (which is a pretty serious problem when we’re talking BH since we can’t fix firm dates for so much of the corpus) and the “underlying grammar” of a language really is a moving target. Right and wrong are just the wrong categories here.

    Comment by Colin Toffelmire | October 8, 2009 | Reply

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