God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translating the Bible into a Language Whose Values you Hate?

Kate asks a fascinating question about translating the Bible into the language of an cannibalistic tribe in the Amazon that grammatically classifies non-tribe members as “edible”:

Linguist/philosopher Steven Pinker and other researchers inform us that the language of one Amazonian tribe, the Wari, grammatically classifies nouns as either “edible objects” or “inedible objects” — with the category of “edible objects” including all non-Wari human beings, while the category of “inedible objects” includes the Wari themselves. […]

The Bible translation conundrum which this situation creates is, plainly, this: How does one translate the Bible into Wari? […]

How, then, should the Bible be translated into a language whose very grammar endorses cannibalism of outsiders?

There are really two potential issues here.

The first concerns the grammatical details of Wari: What kind of marking is this? In particular, is it pro-forma (like “feminine” and “masculine” in, say, Greek) or is it semantic? If it’s pro-forma, then there’s no problem. (One way to test — are there any Wari speakers reading this? — is with a sentence like, “We can’t eat this meat because…” If “meat” in that sentence still takes the edible marking, as I suspect it would, then the marking is simply a matter of grammar, not of meaning.)

However, if the marking really only applies to things that can eaten, and if, in addition, it must be applied to foreigners, then we have a second issue: What do we do if we don’t like the values expressed by a language?

Wari (if our information is correct) isn’t the only language that might present this dilemma. What about a language that classifies women as children, for example? What about cultures in which a father takes the name of his firstborn child, but only if that child is a boy? And so on.

With Wari, the obvious temptation is to create a translation in which, say, Paul is neither edible nor a member of the Wari tribe. But that, apparently, would be ungrammatical, and, I think, representative of a common but hugely misguided approach to Bible translation: trying to convey more than we can. (This is, again, assuming our information about Wari is right.)

By analogy, we can imagine a language that divides nouns into “human” and “inanimate,” the way English does with “who” versus “that”: “This is the person who changed my life” versus “this is the idea that changed my life.” Hebrew doesn’t differentiate in this way. The question is what to do with “God.” Is God a person or an inanimate object? Hebrew doesn’t force the choice, but English does. Most translators opt for “who” here, not even noticing the way their choice narrows the meaning of the Hebrew. We could go with “that.” We could not, however, make up a new work in this context to convey are disapproval about the dichotomy in English.

Similarly, I think the way to translate the Bible into a language like Wari is to bite the bullet and use the “edible” marking, as the native speakers do, for anyone who’s not part of the tribe. It’s not just that our job, as translators, is not to judge (though I understand that, in practice, most people doing this kind of work are doing it precisely to judge those people and to change their ways.) Even more, we have no choice.

Such an interesting question. Thanks.

April 24, 2017 Posted by | general linguistics, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Translation Challenge on Men, Women, and People: Who is an anthropos?

In light of my last post, I thought it might be helpful to move beyond theory to actual translation. How would you translate the Hebrew ish and the Greek anthropos in the following passages?

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: “Therefore an ish leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.”
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: “Therefore an anthropos will leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife.”
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: “You shall bring out the ish or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: “You shall bring out the anthropos or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: “…I have acquired an ish…”
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: “…I have acquired an anthropos…”
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: “The ish will be cleansed of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: “The anthropos will be clear of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: “The anthropos does not live by bread alone.”
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: “How much more valuable is an antrhopos than a sheep.”
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: “When a woman is a labor she is in pain … but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the pain because of the joy of having brought an anthropos into the world.”
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: “Every anthropos is a liar.”
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: “It is good for an anthropos not to touch a woman.”

My answers are as follows:

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: man
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: man
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: man
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: man
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: person*
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: person
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: man
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: man
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: people**
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: person
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: person
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: person
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: man

Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

(*) Rabbinic tradition actually understands the word ish here to mean “fully grown man,” as though Cain skipped over childhood and was born a malicious adult. In the context of that tradition, I might prefer “man” as a translation.

(**) A quirk of English grammar — at least in my dialect — doesn’t allow the general definite singular with the word “person.” Even though “the wolf is a mighty animal,” e.g., refers to all wolves, “the person” cannot refer to all people. So we’re forced into “people” here.

September 24, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

More on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Suzanne McCarthy brings up the issue, again, of whether the Greek word anthropos is exclusively masculine (“man”) or gender neutral (“person”).

The short answer is that it is both.

We’ve been through this before, but the Greek framework of gender really is difficult for speakers of languages like English to grasp in the abstract, so here are some English examples that will help make things clearer.

The first example is the English word “day,” which has two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “24-hour period.” There are seven days in a week, 365 days in a year, stores are open for 24 hours a day, etc. The second is “part of a day.” Some pharmacies are open day and night, night follows day, days get shorter in winter, etc.

The second example is “luck,” which again was two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “good fortune.” The phrase “with any luck” means “with good fortune.” The second meaning is more general, “fortune of any sort.” That’s why people can have good luck or bad luck, and why “I can’t believe his luck” applies equally to lucky people and unlucky people.

The third example is “child,” which yet again has two meanings: “young human” and “any human with a parent.” So we have the phrase, “men, women, and children,” but also “adult children of aging parents.”

This final case is particularly interesting, because every person has a parent (even if the parents are dead: “children continue to mourn their parents’ death for years”). Just looking at the two definitions, it would seem that “child” in the sense of “someone’s offspring of any age” is a pretty silly word to have. How would it be different than “person”?

The answer is that “child” in this broader sense is only used in connection with parents. “Here comes a child” almost always refers only to a juvenile. But “parents and children” is ambiguous.

The case of “day” shows us a pattern that is similar in some ways, different in others. It’s different in that “day” is completely ambiguous. In my dialect, at least, if a store is “open all day,” I don’t know if it’s open at night or not. But it’s similar in that the phrase “day and night” is entirely clear.

One important lesson we learn from all of this is that words often have one meaning when they are used alone, and a separate meaning when they are used in distinction to something else. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, the various meanings can seem confusing, inconsistent, or even contradictory. Nonetheless, native speakers usually find the words entirely clear.

Not surprisingly, the Greek anthropos works just like these words.

By itself, it usually means “person.” John 16:21 is a pretty clear example: “a woman in labor suffers pain, but when her child is born she doesn’t remember her pain on account of her joy at having brought a person [anthropos] into the world.” To the best of my knowledge, no one thinks that this only refers to male children.

On the other hand, anthropos also contrasts with female-gender words like thugater (“daughter”), e.g. in Matthew 10:35; gune (“woman”), e.g., in Matthew 19:3; etc. Looking at the second instance, it’s clear that “an anthropos leaves his father and mother and joins his wife” refers only to men taking wives, not women. I don’t think anyone believes otherwise.

These examples point in a very clear linguistic direction. The Greek word anthropos — like many gendered words in gendered languages and like many other words in other languages — has more than one meaning.

In this context — and I think this was Suzanne’s point in her posting — it’s common to observe (as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood does here) that “in the New Testament, when this term [anthropos] is used for specific individuals, it always refers to males” (their emphasis).

Maybe. But it does not follow from this (potential) fact that anthropos cannot refer to a specific woman. And they even provide the evidence, in their next paragraph: “The list of specific men of which anthropos is used is quite long […] as distinct from the three times Christ refers to a woman (gune) in a parable.”

The lopsided nature of the text here — that is, the very fact that our data set includes a long list of men and only three women — warns us not to draw general conclusions about the word. If we enlarge the data set, to include, for instance, Suzanne’s example from Herodotus’ Histories (1.60), we do find anthropos used in regard to a specific woman.

Two additional points seem in order:

First, I gather from the CBMW piece that some people are trying to use the linguistic qualities of the word anthropos to determine Jesus’ gender. This doesn’t seem like the right approach to me. Again from the CBMW piece: “That Jesus is an anthropos means first of all that he is a human being; but it also means that he is a male human being.” I don’t think so.

Secondly, I frequently read claims like, “Jewish women [in Jesus’ day] were kept in subjection and sometimes even in seclusion” (from Scanzoni and Hardesty’s All We’re Meant To Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, quoted in the CBMW piece). Again, I don’t think so. Salome Alexandra ruled Judaea as queen for about a decade shortly before Jesus’ time. This was a hardly a culture that universally denied power to women.

At any rate, and in summary, lots of words have a variety of interrelated, sometimes contradictory meanings that are determined in part by context. The Greek anthropos is no different. Sometimes its meaning most closely overlaps with “man,” sometimes with “person,” sometimes with “human.” But picking and choosing examples without taking into account how language works will almost always lead to a conclusion that is as convincing as it is wrong.

September 20, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 59 Comments

On Biblical Masculinity and Femininity

Gender roles are a hot topic, so it should come as no surprise that people are looking to the Bible for guidance.

Biblical-Masculinity-FemininityOver the summer, Larry Crabb published his Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes. Explaining it to Christianity Today, he says:

Neqebah (female) means one who is open to receive, has an invitational style of relating. And zakar (male) means one who remembers something important and then does it.

Unfortunately, Dr. Crabb makes fundamental factual and methodological errors here.

Factually, the Hebrew neqebah (“female”) comes from the root for “pierce,” not “open to receive.” Though the common translation of neqebah as “pierced” is probably not as accurate as “hollow,” the point is the same: the Hebrew neqebah describes the female sex organ.

More importantly, zakar (“male”) comes from a multifaceted root that does not simply mean “remember.” Rather, the root is connected more broadly to referring to something that is not physically present. One way of doing this is to remember something from the past, but there are many others. In Exodus 3:15, for instance, the root gives us zeker as a synonym for “name,” because a name is one way of referring to something that is not physically present. Another way is to point, and it may be this meaning that gives us the Hebrew zakar.

If so, the Hebrew word for “male” comes from the pointing organ and the word for “female” from the hollow organ.

But whatever the case, the methodological errors make the factual evidence irrelevant, because words do not get their meaning from their etymology. As I explain in And God Said, this is one of the most basic tenets of language, and also one of the most common Bible translation traps.

Just for example, a “building” in English comes from the verb to “build,” but that doesn’t mean that we primarily think of buildings in terms of how they are built, just as the word’s etymology doesn’t preclude the possibility of a building being something we occupy. Another English example is the pair of words “grammar” and “glamour,” which share an etymology even though most people don’t think of grammar as glamorous.

Similarly, the etymologies of the Hebrew words for “male” and “female” — memory and reception, or piercing and pierced, or pointing and hollow — are irrelevant to their meaning. So they do nothing to help answer Dr. Crabb’s question of “what God had in mind when he made a woman feminine and when he made a man masculine.”

It seems to me that what Dr. Crabb has done is take his own notions of what men and women should be and, through flawed linguistics, put them in the mouth of God.

September 17, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

In Christ, In Love, In Translation

Being “in Christ” (en christo) is one of Paul’s central themes. Romans 8:1 is a good example: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). But it’s a tricky phrase.

The Greek work en, like its English translation “in,” is what linguists call a “light” preposition, that is, one that usually has little or no meaning on its own. Prepositions (“in,” “on,” “about,” “with” etc.) are notoriously idiosyncratic, and so are light words, so it’s not surprising that the light preposition en is difficult to translate correctly.

Some examples in English help demonstrate the range of issues with light prepositions. There’s air “in an airplane,” but the people breathing that air are “on the plane,” not in it. English speakers disagree about whether one stands “in” or “on” line. Prepositions like “in,” “for,” etc. are sometimes optional: “He’s lived (in) more places than I know,” “I’ve been working here (for) three years,” etc. Books are written “on” a computer but “with” pencil and paper. Friends can talk “to” each other or “with” each other, but they can’t chat “to” each other, only “with.”

In some of those examples, we see a single meaning that requires different prepositions in different contexts. The reverse is also common: a single preposition can express different meanings. The “in” of “in love” doesn’t have anything to do with the “in” of “in translation,” for instance.

Obviously, the details are different in other languages. In Modern Hebrew, unlike in English, books are written “in” a computer and also “in” paper and pencil.

Equally obviously, for speakers of Modern Hebrew and English, it’s a mistake to translate the “in” of “in a computer” literally from Hebrew into English. Rather than “in a computer,” English demands “on a computer.”

More generally, the way to translate prepositions (like everything, really) is to determine what the preposition means in one language, and then find a way of expressing the same thing in another.

And this is the crux of the problem with Romans 8:1, and all of the other places we find “in Christ,” because that phrase in English doesn’t mean anything. (Some people might think it means something, but only because they already have a sense of what Paul meant.) We might compare, for instance, “citizens of the U.S. should be in the President.” It’s impossible to agree or disagree, because it doesn’t mean anything.

Translators already know that the Greek en doesn’t have to be “in” in English. In I Cor 4:21, we find, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with [en]a stick, or with [en] love…?” (NRSV, my emphasis). English demands “with a stick” instead of the nonsensical “in a stick.” The translation “in love” is more tempting for en agape, because it does mean something in English, but it doesn’t mean the right thing. Almost all translations get this line right. Translators do their job and find the right preposition in English.

But when it comes to “in Christ,” translations mimic the Greek instead of translating it.

Sometimes no obvious choice for en presents itself, but often English simply demands “with.”

Knowing what you do about the overall meaning of the text, how would you translate Romans 8:1?

February 26, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , , | 6 Comments

Words that Mean More than One Thing

I think it can helpful to look at familiar English words as a way of understanding ancient words and how best to translate them.

In this case, we’ll look at one way words can mean more than one thing.

“Cash” in English

One meaning of the English word “cash” is actual physical money — dollar bills, 5’s, 10’s, etc.

As credit cards became more widespread, “cash” was used in opposition to “credit.” Two ways to pay for something were by credit card or with actual bills. The second one was called “cash.”

Because there was something more immediate about “cash,” it came to represent anything that wasn’t credit. So paying by check was one way of paying cash (even though “cash” could also be the opposite of “check”). Paying with a debit card is also different than credit, so that’s also “cash.” In this sense, too, “cash” (debit card) is the opposite of “cash” (physical money).

“Cash on delivery” (“C.O.D.”) now just means payment on delivery, and is the opposite of pre-paid. You can sometimes use a credit card to pay for something C.O.D.

Most English speakers don’t have any difficulty understanding “cash” in these various contexts.

Sarx in Greek

The same sort of thing happened with the Greek word sarx, variously translated “flesh,” “human nature,” “sinful nature,” “humanity,” etc.

The trick is that the word means more than one thing.

In this regard, it’s like “cash” in English, because sarx does mean “flesh,” but also one particular aspect of “flesh,” and also “flesh” in contrast to various other things.

Even though the English word “flesh” also means more than one thing — think of “human flesh,” “the flesh trade,” “flesh and bones,” etc. — we don’t have anything that migrated in meaning the way sarx did. That’s why it’s difficult to translate.

I think that understanding this basic fact about words is essential to formulating a plan to translate them accurately.

What other polysemantic (“having more than one meaning”) words can you think of?

November 3, 2010 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , | 12 Comments

First Things First: Stress, Focus, and Biblical Hebrew Word Order

The importance of word order in Biblical Hebrew recently came up regarding Genesis 1:1, and in particular how we know that that verse answers the question “when?”

Here’s some more information and some additional examples.

An English Diversion

In English, stressing different words changes the implications of a sentence.

For example:

Example 1.

  1. This is my friend.
  2. This is my friend.
  3. This is my friend.

Sentence 1.1 is neutral, and might be used simply to introduce someone.

But 1.2 has addition implications, and it doesn’t make sense as a neutral introduction. But it does make sense in more narrow contexts. For example, it could answer the question, “whose friend is this?” And it makes sense if, because of context, there is already a sense that this is someone else’s friend. In both scenarios — specifically answering a question and clarifying an unasked question — it’s convenient to say that 1.2 “answers the question: whose friend this is?”

Example 1.3 cannot be used to answer the question “whose friend is this?” (Try it: -“Whose friend is this?” -“This is my friend.”) But it can be used if it’s already clear that this person has a relationship to me, but the nature of that relationship is not yet established. And, again, this could be in response to a specific question (e.g, “and how do you know each other?”), an implication, or some other context that causes the speaker to highlight the nature of the relationship.

One particularly interesting consequence of this is that stressing a word sets up alternative scenarios in the mind of the hearer. When I say, “this is my friend,” an English speaker automatically considers other possibilities: this is my enemy; this is my lover; etc.

Example 2.
1. We have landed in LGA. (This is the safe statement.)
2. We have landed in LGA. (This is risky.)

This is why “airplanese” stresses the words that are normally unstressed in English. For example, “we have landed in LaGuardia airport.” This phrasing only sets up one other possibility in the mind of English speakers who hear the sentence: “we have not landed in LaGuardia airport.” But the more usual sentence, “we have landed in LaGuardia airport” makes people consider other undesirable possibilities, like “we have crashed into LaGuardia airport.”

Example 3.
1. I killed Mary with a knife. (This is the safe answer.)
2. I killed Mary with a knife. (This is incriminating.)

Similarly, a witness at a murder trial might be asked, “how did you kill Mary?” The safe answer is “I killed Mary with a knife.” The dangerous answer is, “I killed Mary with a knife,” because that response assumes other pairs of people and weapons to which “I killed” might apply. Just changing the sentential stress is tantamount to admitting to additional murders.


Biblical Hebrew uses the pre-verbal sentence-initial position much the way we use sentential stress in English. This is how we know that Genesis 1:1 answers the question “when?” not “what?” or “who?” — the first word is breishit, “in the beginning.” A spoken-English translation of Genesis 1:1 might be “God created heaven and Earth in the beginning.”

Further Examples

Another example comes from Genesis 3:16-17. The first words of Genesis 3:16 are el ha-isha amar, “to the-woman [God] said.” This deviation from normal word order, like Example 3, has the effect of focusing “the woman,” as if to say, “this is what God told the woman.” The Hebrew reader naturally wonders, “okay. And what did God tell the man?” Genesis 3:17 answers that question, using the word order ul’adam amar…, “and-to-Adam [God] said…” — that is, “and God told Adam…”

We see the same thing in Genesis 45:22. The verse has two parts. The first begins, “to all [of the brothers] [Joseph] gave….” and the second one, “to Benjamin [Joseph] gave…” The point is to contrast Benjamin with the other brothers.

Hosea 5:7 reads badonai bagadu ki vanim zarim yaldu, “God they-betrayed when/for children alien they-bore.” Again, the point is expressed in English with stress: “they betrayed God by fathering illegitimate children.” Hosea is emphasizing the connection between human action and the divine.

All of these nuances come to light when we take Hebrew word order into account.

May 5, 2010 Posted by | general linguistics, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Q&A: How do you work, O vocative?

From the About page:

As a grammar lesson, I tried parsing Psalm 117. There is a possible usage of a ‘he’ marking the use of the vocative (BDB 1.i) but the article is missing on the first colon kol goyim and present on the second shavxuhu col ha’umim. It seems to me that ‘praise the Lord all ye nations’ is different from ‘praise the Lord, all nations’. While both may be vocative, English vocative would be ‘praise the Lord O nations all’, and English suggests preaching rather than invitation if the you or ye is added. What do you think about the use of ‘he’ as signaling the vocative and then the problem of expressing this in English?

As you identify with your two-part question at the end, there are two parts to translating the vocative (as there are with most matters of translation): (1) understanding how it works in Hebrew; and (2) figuring out how to do the same thing in English.

Part 1 is comparatively easy. Part 2 is harder.

First, for those who don’t know, “vocative” technically refers to a specific noun form that is used in addressing someone (or something). For example, in Russian, bog means “God,” but if you’re talking to God, you use the word boge instead. That’s the vocative. We don’t have a true vocative in English, but when we really need it, we can use the prefix “O,” as in, “O God….” (The Russian case is complicated. Poke around in various grammars and you’ll learn two things: Russian has a vocative case and Russian doesn’t have a vocative case. But it does. Really.)

To the best of my knowlege, Hebrew also doesn’t have a vocative. And the heh does not serve this fucntion.

Rather, nominative nouns in Hebrew are used for address. So elohim is “God” both as a form of reference and as a form of address. Conveniently, the verb form in Hebrew (usually) makes it clear when someone is being addressed rather than talked about. In Psalm 117, the verbs hal’lu and shabchuhu are both plural imperative, indicating that a group is being addressed. In other languages, the addressees might be in the vocative case.

In addition, both definite and indefinite nouns can be addressed. We see both in Psalm 117. First “all nations” are addressed, then “all the peoples.” It’s not clear why one should be definite and the other not, but this doesn’t affect the vocative nature of the phrases. (As a guess, the heh was omitted from the first half of the line to make it sound better in ways that we no longer understand.)

Expressing the vocative is tricky in English. Sometimes we can make do without any marking. For example, “God, save me!” is clear and grammatical in English.

Other times — for reasons that are not clear — the vocative interpretation is unavailable in English. For example, Psalm 103 begins with a command to “my soul” to praise the Lord. But “Praise the Lord, my soul” doesn’t quite sound right. It’s unclear. (Also, nefesh doesn’t mean “soul,” but that’s for another time.)

Two partial solutions present themselves in English.

The first is the archaic “O.” For example, “Praise the Lord, O my soul” for Psalm 103 is clearer. But it sounds archaic, because we don’t use “O” in normal speech in English. (“O police officer, please don’t give me a ticket…”)

The other solution in English is to use the pronoun “you.” This, too, is stilted, and only works sometimes. “Praise the Lord, you my soul” sounds ridiculous in English.

On the other hand, this second solution works marginally well in Psalm 117. “Praise the Lord, all you nations” is a little bit clearer (to my ear) than “Praise the Lord, all nations.”

Still, both “O” and “you” turn what should be a simple sentence into an overly formal or archaic one. But to leave them both out sometimes leaves an unclear sentence.

The problem isn’t just the lack of a vocative in English, by the way. It’s the combined lack of a vocative and clear imperative.

So Psalm 103, Psalm 117, and many of the other imperatives cause problems for the translator.

I think that these vocatives/imperatives — so simple in Hebrew and so convoluted in English — also serve to remind us how complex translation can be.

January 12, 2010 Posted by | general linguistics, Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Allah and the Type-Token Distinction

As has been widely reported recently, Malaysians are grappling with how to say “god.”

The issue is that the word most Malay speakers use, allah, refers not only to “god” in general but in particular to what we call “Allah” in English, that is, the Muslim god of that name. (For the blow-by-blow, start here for background, then see here for a recent court ruling reversing an original decision and allowing anyone to use the word allah. And see here for a report of massive violence against churches for using the word allah in Christian contexts. See also here for the court’s suspension of its reversal of its original ban.)

The problem essentially stems from type-token conflation, and not for the first time.

Essentially, there is a category (“type”) that in English we usually spell with the lower-case-g word “god,” and for which we can equally use the word “deity.”

In addition to the category, there is what the category contains (“tokens”). One example of such a token is what we usually write with the upper-case-G word “God” in English.

The distinction is usually pretty clear. For example, the type “Greek god” contains the tokens “Zeus” and “Athena,” among others.

But monotheism involves a type that has exactly one token, so it’s pretty easy to use the type and token interchangeably. We do this in English when we talk about “praying to God.” Translations even stumble sometimes, prefering the upper-case-G “God” where the lower-case version makes more sense, as in “our God” for “our god.”

We see the same interchangeability in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. The word elohim is used both for the God of the Hebrews and for any other god. And the Greek theos, represents variously “God” or “god” (or “goddess”).

Similarly, the word allah (before Islam merely one Arabian god of many) is now the Muslim name for “God” as well as the type “god.”

If nothing else, I think we see here that a solid theoretical framework, while essential for translation, is only part of the story. (I don’t think the end to the crisis in Malaysia is a campaign explaining the nature of type-token conflation.)

And I wonder if the authors of the Bible similarly debated the words elohim and theos.

January 11, 2010 Posted by | general linguistics | , , | 3 Comments

Too Much Emphasis

It seems that the default explanation for an unknown grammatical feature is to assume, often wrongly, that it is “emphatic.” Here are four examples, three from Hebrew (skip to them: one, two, three) and one from Greek (skip to it here).

The Examples

The Infix Nun

From time to time, a nun will appear between a verb and its pronominal objective ending. For example, in Psalm 72:15, we find y’varachenhu. Breaking down the verb form, we find the prefix y’- representing third-person singular future; the verb varach, “bless”; and the suffix -hu for “him.” So far, the verb means “he will bless him.” But there’s also an added -en- in the middle. That’s the infixed nun, commonly called the “nun emphatic.”

Because nuns are frequently replaced by a dagesh in Biblical Hebrew, it is more common to find the “nun emphatic” represented by nothing more than a dagesh. Probably the best known example is in the Priestly Benediction from Numbers 6:24-26. The last verb of Numbers 6:25 is vichuneka, with a dagesh in the final kaf representing the “nun empahtic” that dropped out.

But there is no evidence anywhere to suggest that this nun has emphatic force.

The Infinitive Absolute

A much more common Hebrew construction is the “infinitive absolute” in conjunction with a conjugated verb form. For example, in Genesis 2:17 we find mot tamut, which the KJV notes in a footnote is literally “dying thou shalt die.” Based on the (wrong) assumption that this doubling of verb forms is emphatic, the KJV translates “thou shalt surely die” here. (As it happens, this Hebraism is preserved in the LXX thanatu apothaneisthe, “by death die.”)

But not only is there no evidence that this construction is emphatic, there is evidence that it is not. In Genesis 3:4 the snake tries to convince the women to eat from the forbidden tree; he (it?) reassures her that lo mot t’mutun. Obviously this doesn’t mean “you will not surely die.” It just means “you will not die.”

The Lengthened Imperative

Frequently a verb form will have two imperatives: a shorter one, essentially the future without the prefix, and a longer one with an additional heh at the end. For example, from titen (“you will give”) we have both ten in Genesis 14:21 and t’nah in Genesis 30:26. Some grammars, such a Gesenius (wrongly, in my opinion), suggest that the latter is “give!” Again, there’s no evidence for an emphatic reading in these verb forms. (The forms are also not limited to the imperative, as we see in the continuation of Genesis 30:26, with elecha for elech.)

The Greek Emphatic Pronouns

The forth example comes from Greek, which has two sets of 1st- and 2nd-person pronouns. For example, “my” is either mou or emou. The latter form is called “emphatic” because it is widely assumed to convey particular emphasis. Once again, though, there is nothing to suggest that the longer forms are necessarily more emphatic than the shorter ones. (Bill Mounce has a post — also available here — where he similarly notes that sometimes the “emphatic forms […] are significant, but when they are objects of prepositions, evidently not.” In other words, he notes a case where the “emphatic” forms are not emphatic.)


What all four of these cases have in common is that the supposedly emphatic forms are longer than the ordinary ones. I think there has been a general if misguided assumption that longer words are more emphatic that shorter ones. At one level, it seems reasonable. And there are even times when it’s true (I give some examples here). But it’s not a general principal.

I think we have to rethink all of these “emphatic” forms with an eye toward figuring out what they really represent.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments