God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Is Greek Different Than All Other Languages?

Also from the about page:

Is it true that in Greek they didn’t have multiple words that meant the same thing or one word that meant multiple things? More clearly — that every word had only one meaning and each thing/idea had only one word for it. Thanks!

Thanks for the question, which I think is important for two reasons, not just because of the details of the question but also for the more general implication.

The short answer is no. There is no truth to the idea that there was a one-to-one match between Greek words and meanings/things/ideas.

More generally, I think it’s a common error to view Greek as fundamentally different than other languages. Ancient Greek is a human language like any other, and what’s true of languages in general is also true of Greek in particular. This is one reason that the linguistics revolution of the last century is so exciting for Bible scholarship and translation in particular. Even without looking at Greek, we know a lot about the language. Of course, this is not to say that Greek doesn’t have to be studied in detail, but linguistics guides what we look for, because we already have a sense of what’s possible and what’s not.

In this case, no language has the one-to-one mapping you mention, so in particular Greek does not.

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November 29, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics, Q&A, translation theory | , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. I think part of this misconception is born of the flavorful vocabulary of Greek, and part perhaps is the use of compound words such as ποταμοφόρητος in Revelation 12:15. Even that word could refer to several things, though. It can convey the idea of literally being carried by a stream/river, or perhaps one could stretch it with a metaphorical meaning in some way.

    When it comes to language, human creativity allows precision to be stretched for the sake of variety and beauty.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 30, 2009 | Reply

  2. Thank you for the answer! I suspected that the answer was as you stated, but am happy to be more sure of it.

    Comment by Jim | November 30, 2009 | Reply


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