God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Hebrew Grammar Quirks

Still following up on what Pete Enns said:

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.

More than once I have encountered this sort of surprise at the biblical text. So I’m curious, what sorts of quirks of Hebrew grammar have people encountered that seem to run contrary to what they learned about Hebrew?

October 8, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , | Comments Off on Hebrew Grammar Quirks

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 | , | 2 Comments

Luck, Omens, and Other Bipolar Words

“Luck” is an interesting word in English, because people can have “good luck” or “bad luck,” but if they are “lucky” it only means “good luck.” That is, the word “luck” can refer to positive or negative things, but in order to mean something negative, it has to be qualified, either explicitly or by context.

“Omen” works pretty much the same way, except in the opposite direction, at least in my dialect. An “omen” is ominous and foreboding by default, but there are “good omens” as well as “bad omens.”

We learn at least two lessons from these observations.

First, it’s not hard to imagine a language that has words for “luck” and “omen” but whose default meanings are reversed. For convenience, we can call such a language English-B, and call the words luck-B and omen-B. The English-B phrase “good luck-B” should (probably) be translated “good luck” into English, and the English-B phrase “bad luck-B” should (again, probably) be “bad luck,” but what should be done with “luck-B”? Remember, in English-B it means “bad luck,” but it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as “bad luck-B.”

Secondly, we see more generally that words can have default meanings that can be overridden overtly or covertly by context.

October 5, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Two Examples of Just How Tricky Gender Can Be

Gender, and in particular the gender implications of anthropos, have come up over and again recently (for example, my posts here and here, some great information from Suzanne here, and a response by Peter here). I hope to have time in a few days to prepare a fuller post with a little more background and information.

In the meantime, here are two examples — one from Russian and one from Spanish — that show how tricky gender and language can be.


moi doktor ne znala shto deleat
my (masc.) doctor (???) NEG knew (fem.) what to do
“My doctor didn’t know what to do.”


el azucar blanca
the (masc.) sugar (???) white (fem.)
“The white sugar….”

In (1), we see that the normally masculine word “doctor” gets a masculine adjective (moi) but a feminine verb (znala) because she is a woman. (This contrasts with how gender usually words, as in the example I gave here about the French personne, which gets feminine agreement even when it refers to a man.)

In (2), we see the noun azucar (properly with an accent that I can’t figure out how to type) with the masculine determiner el but the feminine adjective blanca. (La azucar blanca is also possible, and depending on dialect, so is el azucar blanco.)

These highlight the complex nature of gender in language.

More soon.

September 26, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 9 Comments

A Case of Gender Awkwardness

Still with the goal of providing a solid framework for understanding gender and translation, here’s another example from Modern Hebrew.

Modern Hebrew has two ways of expressing the generic “you” of English (as in, “you shouldn’t put your elbows on the dinner table,” which means “one shouldn’t….”). The first is a plural masculine verb with no subject, and the second is the masculine singular pronoun “you” (atah) with the corresponding verb.

So “when you see a zebra…” in the sense of “when one sees a zebra” in Hebrew is ka’asher atah ro’eh zebra… or ka’asher ro’im zebra…, literally, “when you(m,sng) see(m,sng) zebra” and “when see(m,pl) zebra.”

Every Hebrew speaker knows that these expressions apply to women and men equally, even though the grammar is masculine.

However, when only women are involved, the phrasing becomes awkward. For example, “when you’re pregnant [you need more sleep]” should be ka’asher ata b’hirayon, “when you(m,sng) are-pregnant.” But it sounds odd because men don’t (yet?) get pregnant. Unfortunately, the obvious solution of using the feminine pronoun also sounds odd: ka’asher at b’hirayon (“when you(f,sng)…”) most naturally refers to a specific person, not to “women in general.” So the sentence gets rephrased in Hebrew, along the lines of “when a women gets pregnant….”

I’ll have more to say later on the general phenomenon that I think is at work here, but for now I’ll note my suspicion that similar awkwardness might be at play in a some of the gender translation cases we’ve been discussing lately.

September 24, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , | 4 Comments

I Could Care Less About Translating Each Word

We have an expression in English: “I could care less.” And what’s funny about the saying is that it seems like it should be “I couldn’t care less.” The image is of something about which I care so little that there is no way I could care less.

I imagine two approaches to translating that English phrase into a foreign language. One approach translates word by word, not daring to add the “missing” negative. The other apporach translates phrase by phrase.

Three questions come to mind:

1. Which approach will yield a better translation?

2. What investigative techniques would let a translator recognize that this English phrase shouldn’t be taken literally?

3. What can we learn from this example to help us translate ancient Hebrew and Greek?

(While the English “I could care less” is extreme, it is not unique. Modern Hebrew has a pleonastic negative. In Hebrew, “Park wherever you don’t find a spot” means “park wherever you find a spot.” I think French has something similar, but I can’t remember the details.)

September 23, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , | 5 Comments

On Anthropos: Men, Women, and People



Following up on the brouhaha I seem to have started, here are some more thoughts on anthropos. Everyone agrees that, in various forms and contexts, anthropos is sometimes gender neutral (meaning something like “person”) and sometimes specifically masculine (meaning something like “man”). Can we tell when the word is used which way?

I think the answer is yes.

What Are We Looking At?


To get started, we note that words that are gender-specific in the singular are frequently gender-neutral in the plural. Examples from modern languages are very common, and two from Modern Hebrew will illustrate the point. (I pick Hebrew just because I know it so well. We could just as effectively use many other languages.)

The Hebrew words student and studentit both mean “[university-level] student.” The former is for men and the latter for women. Native speakers never say “he is a studentit” or “she is a student.” The plurals for these two words are studentim and studentiot. The former is gender-neutral, while the latter is limited to women. So the following are grammatical: “Those two men are studentim.” “Those two women are studentiot.” “The man and the woman are studentim.” In other words, even though a student must be a man, studentim need not just be men.

Furthermore, in some contexts studentim can be used for women only. That’s because it’s gender-neutral, and that neutrality encompasses “men,” “women,” or any combination. (Another time I’ll talk about the difference between studentim for all women and studentiot for all women.)

The Hebrew words yeled and yalda, “boy” and “girl,” work essentially the same way. The plural y’ladim can include girls, even though a girl cannot be a yeled.

From this we learn that we cannot use anthropoi (the plural of anthropos) to figure out what anthropos means, or, at least, it is a methodological mistake to start with the obvious fact that anthropoi is used for women and conclude that anthropos can be used for a woman.

Generalities and Instances

Just as a word can have different gender roles depending on whether it is plural or singular, a word can behave differently when it’s used to express a generality versus a specific instance. We see this in Hebrew and also in some dialects of English.

Many speakers use “man” to mean “someone,” as, for example, “man is the highest form of intelligence.” (You don’t have to agree with the statement to understand the grammar in it.)

Yet even the people who use “man” for men and women alike do not use it for a specific woman. They only use it for a specific man. So even speakers who use “man” generically do not say, “there’s a man I’d like you to meet” when they have in mind a woman. They certainly do not say, “Sarah is an interesting man” if she’s a women.

So we see that “man” (in some dialects) refers to people in general but only to a male adult specifically.

Accordingly, when we look at anthropos we have to distinguish between its general use (Aristotle’s “anthropos kai probaton,” for example) and its specific use (“I saw an anthropos yesterday.”)


In short, what we are looking for as we try to figure out what anthropos means is only the singular, specific use of the word.

Before actually doing that, a few thoughts about one way languages can differ are in order, and I turn to them next.

Be Specific

Languages differ in the degree of specificity they require in different contexts. For example, in English we conveniently have a word “person” that includes males and females of any age. (“Human” does the same. As the cliched exercise for the reader: what’s the difference in English between the two?) But it’s not hard to imagine a language that didn’t have such a general word. In such a language, speakers might have to indicate the approximate age of the people they were talking about

An Example: Students

To help understand the issue, we can look at English and Hebrew. In English we have a word “student” that conveniently encompasses elementary school students, high-school students, college students, graduate students, etc. In Hebrew, by contrast, there’s one word (talmid) for grade-school students, and a whole other word (student) for college onward. (It’s a common mistake for English speakers to think that student means any “student.”)

So it is impossible in Hebrew to use one word to refer to a “student of any age” the way we think of the concept in English. So what if I have a “student” in mind, generally, of no particular age, maybe in grade school, maybe in college? I have to spell the notion out in Hebrew, perhaps with the phrase “talmid or student.

Similarly, an Israeli will almost never tell a story about a student without specifying whether the student is in grade school or higher education because it’s so hard to do linguistically.

Another Example: Travel

It’s such as important point that another example seems in order. In English, we have a nice general word “go.” It includes walking, running, biking, driving, flying, boating, etc. When I say “I went to New York City,” I don’t specify at all how I got there. In Hebrew, there are two verbs: halach and nasa. The former excludes travel by vehicle, while the latter excludes travel by foot. So in Hebrew, a speaker almost never mentions going to a place without at least giving some indication of the means of getting there because it’s so hard to do. (Russian is even more complex. It has different verbs for various modes of travel and also for mono-directional travel versus bidirectional travel. In Russian, going to New York and not coming back is not the same verb as going to New York for the day and then returning.)

Once again, for us the important point is that it’s impossible in Hebrew to say “go” without specifying whether or not a vehicle was involved.

How Is Anthropos Used?

With all of this in mind, we can look at how anthropos is used.

To the best of my knowledge, when it is specific and singular, it always refers to a specific man, never to a specific woman. In other words, anything of the sort “an anthropos was….” refers to a man. If the person is a women, we instead find the word gune. (My search is limited to the OT LXX and the NT, so there may be examples I don’t know about. What we’re looking for is something like “I saw an anthropos and she said….”)

Unfortunately, we may not have a fair sampling of how anthropos might apply to women, because the overwhelming majority of people in the Bible are men, and of the women, many are mentioned in the context of their specific role as women, either as mothers or wives. For example, in Genesis 24:5, Abraham’s servant is concerned that the “gune might not be willing to follow me back.” If anthropos were entirely neutral, used when gender is irrelevant, we might expect to see anthropos here, rather than gune. But on the other hand, even though Rebeka is just a person here, she is also the person Isaac is going to marry. So Gen 24:5 is suggestive but not convincing.

Still, we have a few clearer examples. Some of the ones I’ve found are these:

  • Joshua 2:4. The woman who hides the Israelite spies is just a person, really, and she doesn’t have any particularly feminine role, yet she is a gune, not an anthropos.

  • Matthew 15:28. Jesus calls the Canaanite woman, gune, not anthropos, even though she isn’t doing anything that only women can do.

  • Matthew 26:7 and 26:10. The woman with the alabaster jar (side note: someone has to remind me what alabaster is) is referred to as gune, not anthropos.

To me, two facts are important:

1. We see gune for a specific person when the person is female, even when her gender doesn’t seem germane.

2. We never see anthropos for a specific woman.

These two facts, combined with the theory above that tells us where we should look, point me to a very clear answer.


I don’t think anthropos means “person.” Rather, it is one masculine form of gune (the other being aner — a topic for another time). When the word is used to refer to an individual person, that person is a man. When the word is used to refer to a person in general (“one” in English, or the French on), it can be a man or a woman. And when the word refers to “people,” it again can be men or women.

In fact, Greek had no way of referring to a specific person without specifying gender. In other words, Greek didn’t have a word “person.” (This is parallel to Modern Hebrew, which doesn’t have a general word for “student” or for “go.”)

So even though anthropos in its various forms and contexts means different things, I think we can usually know when it is gender specific and when it is not.

The next question, what to do with that knowledge when we translate, will have to wait.

September 16, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , , | 19 Comments

The Funny Thing About What Words Mean

The funny thing about what words mean is how hard it is to notice when they mean more than one thing, as, for example, “funny.” The way I’m using it here the word doesn’t mean “humorous” but, rather, “odd.”

Two thousand years hence, will scholars be arguing over whether “funny” should be translated into the then-equivalent of “humorous” or the then-equivalent of “odd”? Will they even know enough to ask the question?

September 14, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , | 3 Comments

Another Gender Example from Modern Hebrew

I’m following up on my last post about gender and Modern Hebrew. And again, the point is not that ancient Hebrew and Greek are the same as Modern Hebrew (they’re not), but rather that we can learn about how gender works in human language by looking at examples.

The Hebrew word ish is one word for “man,” and in some contexts it is used to distinguish “man” and “woman.” One would never call a woman an ish but rather an isha.

Yet even so, in constructions like ish lo nifga, literally, “ish not was-injured,” the word ish is inclusive, and the phrase means, “no one was hurt.” It does not mean “no man was hurt.”

Again we see that the same word can be exclusive in one context, yet inclusive in another.

I think we have to take this very widespread linguistic phenomenon into account when we translate.

September 14, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , | Comments Off on Another Gender Example from Modern Hebrew

More Thoughts About Gender

Last week, I presented some theory about gender (first here and then here). Recent posts (from Damian Caruana on the lack of feminine language for Jesus, for example) show the issue is still on people’s minds.

To complement my theory-oriented introduction last week, here are three examples to think about:

  • Lord. Most modern English speakers think of “lord,” and, therefore, “Lord” (and “LORD”) as masculine. The term comes from British society, and though most lords were and are men, the word is actually gender neutral. So when Dame Mary Donaldson became mayor of London, her title was “The Right Honourable Lord Mayor.” Similarly, a woman who owned a manor was the “lord of the manor.” (The English word “Lord” was used to translate the Greek kurios, that Greek word being the most common representation in the LXX of the Hebrew tetragrammaton [yud-heh-vav-heh].)

    Which is more important: the common (masculine) understanding of the word or the (gender-neutral) technical definition?

  • President. There is no inherent gender in the English word “president,” and, as the word relates to positions in companies, both men and women are called “president.” Yet in the United States, we have yet to have a woman serve as president, so the term “President of the United States” has so far applied only to men.

    Which is more important: the de facto (masculine) use of the word, or the potential (gender netural) use?

  • Almighty. This is a fascinating one. The Hebrew, El Shaddai is one of those phrases that no one can agree on. The first word clearly means “God.” The second one is anyone’s guess. (The LXX tends not to translate it at all.) Curiously, the word sounds like it could be connected to “breasts.” (It also sounds like it could come from “plunder” or “demon.”)

    What are we to make of this vague connection?

September 13, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 4 Comments