God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How Many Women is One Woman in 1 Timothy 2:12?

Peter Kirk drew my attention to a post by Bill Heroman about I Timothy 2:

If anyone wants us to be perfectly literal about 1 Tim 2:12, we should note, at least as a beginning, that Paul is primarily speaking against one-on-one mentoring, female to male. “I do not allow a woman to teach or to direct a man.” Everything in this statement is entirely singular. [Emphasis in original.]

Bill then asks whether “[t]he male/female intimacy of a one-on-one discipling relationship may be all Paul is really afraid of.”

In other words, Bill suggests that Paul may not be talking about women in general, but rather about one woman teaching one man, in private (and perhaps even the specific instance of that).

It’s a lovely suggestion — and I laud the effort — but I don’t think the grammar supports it.

It’s common to use singular nouns generically, both in English (which is why I might equally write that “it’s common for a singular noun to be used generically”) and in Greek. Furthermore, the tendancy in Greek is to use eis (“one”) to refer specifically to one of something.

For example, in John 11:50 we find, “it is better for eis anthropos to die…,” that is “one person.” Without eis the text would more naturally mean that it is better for people to die. I think that John 11:50 is particualy instructive because the context could make it clear that anthropos means just one person, because “it is better for people to die than for the whole nation to perish” doesn’t make any sense. But the grammar still has to support the context.

So it seems that the way to say, “I do not allow one woman to teach one man” would be to use the word eis twice.

Even so, I have to agree with Peter, who “love[s] the way that blogger Bill Heroman is prepared to think outside the box.”

December 10, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

On Contractions

The issue of contractions in English translations has come up again recently, so I thought a look at how contractions work in English might be a good idea.

Spoken English

Spoken languages tend to obey a general rule that less is more, or, more specifically, the shortest form possible is generally the only grammatical form. So if there are two forms, one short and one long, a speaker needs a reason to use the longer one.

For example:

– Where’s Bill?

– I saw him yesterday.

In my dialect, there are two ways to pronounce “him,” namely, him and im. The only natural way to say “I saw him yesterday” is to contract “saw him” into “saw’im.” The “less is more” rule is why “saw him” sounds unnatural.

However the shorter form can’t be used when it’s conjoined. (I’ll explain why below.) So:

– Where are Bill and Mary?

– I saw him and her yesterday.

There’s no way to change “saw him and her” into *”saw’im and’er.” It’s just not Enlgish.

Similarly, “I am” can only be pronounced “I’m” in most circumstances in English, but, again, there are cases where “I’m” is impossible. (For example, *”he’s taller than I’m.”)


The shorter words “‘im,” “‘er,” “‘m,” etc. are clitics, a term more familiar to students of Romance languages than of English. But English has them too. And, in fact, like all clitics, they obey three general rules:

1. They can’t be conjoined (combined with “and,” “or,” etc.).

2. They can’t be emphasized or contrasted.

3. They need something to latch on to.

Rule (1) is what goes wrong with *”I saw’im and’er.” Rule (3) is why *”He’s taller than I’m” is so terrible in English. And Rule (2) prevents “Oh, Bill? I saw him sneaking into the cookie jar” from becoming *”…I saw‘im…”

(Some dialects of British English have a full word “im” which isn’t a clitic but rather the word “him” with a silent “h.” That’s different from (to) the clitic.)

Other impossible examples in English include *”he’s and always will be king” (Rule 1), *”he wasn’t known back then but he’s now” (Rule 2), and *”I know what you’re.”

Written English

Native speakers are often unaware of their own speech patterns, which may be why, for a long time, contracted spoken forms were written out in full. About 500 years ago, though, English printers starting using the apostrophe to indicate “missing letters,” which is to say, letters which might be written in a word but which are not pronounced (including, perhaps, the missing “e” in the now-defunct genitive ending “-es,” which may be why the “‘s” is used for possession today).

With some exceptions (“‘s” of possession, “o’clock,” etc.) the apostrophe came to be associated with speech, and then informality. For this reason it was frowned upon in early 20th century writing.

But English writing — at least in America — has seen a general trend toward informality. The word “whom” is practically dead. (Though even Fowler, many years ago, advised rewriting a sentence that called for “whom.”) The informal “preposition at the end of a sentence” used to be a sign of poor written English; now it’s common (e.g., “to whom are you speaking?” vs. “who are you talking to?”) And so forth.

Along with this trend, apostrophes and contractions have returned to written English.

So the use of the apostrophe is really a matter of spelling. When the words are read aloud, most people will pronounce “I will” as “I’ll” no matter how it’s spelled, just like they will pronounce “donut” (“doughnut”) the same way regardless of the spelling.

But because of it’s association with informality, the apostrophe is also a subtle yet powerful clue about the general nature of the text.

November 6, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 7 Comments

Q&A: The Hebrew Suffix -ki

Again from the about page:

What’s going on with the pronominal suffixes in Psalm 103 3-8? I can’t find -ki as a pronominal suffix in any of my grammar books — neither singular nor plural!

Good question.

The suffix -ki (also spelled -chi) is a variant form of -k, and it means “your (sng, f).” We see it in Psalm 103, as you note, and also, e.g., in Psalm 116:19 (b’tocheichi, “within you [Jerusalem]”).

It may have been formed by analogy with the feminine singular future tense, or may be part of a broader pattern in which matres lectionis get added to words for reasons we no longer know (poetic affect, maybe). Other examples include the final heh that is added to some verbs, and, perhaps, the alternation between al and alei.

October 28, 2009 Posted by | grammar, Q&A | , , , | 1 Comment

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

Q&A: Should We Translate the Hebrew Word ‘Et’?

Bob MacDonald asks on the About page:

Here’s a question — what about that word et?

Here it is as preposition (Genesis 4:1): kaniti ish et YHWH, (“I acquired a man with the LORD”).

While I would not normally translate it when it is an object marker (it seems unnecessary most of the time it is used), I have read (Rabbi Steven Greenberg) that it is sometimes a word that is “read into.” As in (Exodus 20:12) kabed et avicha v’et imecha (“Honor your father and your mother”) or even the very first verse of the Bible.

What do you think? Is it OK to include grandparents, step-parents, adoptive parents in the father and mother — as if it were implied in the aleph-taf? Or as if the heavens and the earth included more than the whole visible universe.

There are two Hebrew words et. One means “with” (as in Genesis 4:1) and the other is a preposition that we don’t have in English. It (usually) marks a direct object that’s definite. So the Hebrew equivalent of “I saw Bill” would be “I saw et Bill.”

Bob’s is an interesting and important question because it highlights the inherent conflict in religious translation.

From a scientific point of view, the word et should not be translated. It’s a purely gramamtical word, and, as such, it should be used to understand the original Hebrew but it does not get represented directly in English. In this way, it’s similar to case endings in Greek. No one tries to mark nominative or accusative on the English translations of Greek nouns, for example.

From a religious point of view — and, in particular, from a Jewish religious point of view — every word has meaning. Indeed (traditionally in Judaism) every letter has meaning, as do the spaces between the letters. In this case, Rabbi Steven Greenberg notes that the word et starts with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph) and ends with the last (Tav). Therefore, he opines, the word brings connotations of “A to Z” (or Alpha to Omega, we might say) with it.

So in this context, “Honor et your father and et your mother” includes more than just your “father” and “mother,” because of the implied inclusiveness of the word et.

The translator has to choose which path to follow, the scientific one or the religious one.

My opinion is twofold.

First, I think translators should be clear about which route they are taking. I’ve seen a lot of confusion stemming from religious translations that are mistaken for scientific ones, and considerable disappointment from the reverse situation.

Secondly, my general preference is for a scientific translation that as accurately as possible conveys the original text. I think that’s the job of a translation, and — again, just my opinion — the proper starting point for Bible study.

So in this case, I wouldn’t try to translate et, because it’s not the job of a translation to make every possible exegetical word-play (and letter-play) possible in translation. In this particular case, I don’t see how it could be done, because the “translation” would require a two-letter word that starts with “A” and ends with “Z.” So even if translating et were desirable, I think it would still be impossible.

That you, Bob, for this clear example of the differences between scientific understanding and (one kind of) religious understanding of a text.

September 24, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Why Both Kings and Queens Can Be Parents

Grammatical and Real-World Gender, Part II

Earlier, I wrote about the difference between grammatical gender and real-world (or semantic) gender. I noted that the former doesn’t always indicate the latter. For example, personne in French is grammatically feminine but semantically inclusive.

As promised, here’s a little bit about how to tease the two kinds of gender apart.


One good way is to use ellipsis, such as “and so did…” or “and so is….” because ellipsis requires meanings to match up (semantic identity) but not the grammar.

For example:

(1) John went to the party and so did Mary.

It’s clear that the second half of the sentence is short for “Mary went to the party,” even though “and so did Mary went to the party” isn’t grammatical in English. In other words, ellipsis here copies the meaning of “went” but not the grammar of “went.”

Another example comes from:

(2) John loves his mother and so does Mary.

This is ambiguous. Either Mary loves John’s mother, or Mary loves her own mother. This second meaning is particularly interesting for us, because it shows us again that the “and so” ellipsis construction copies meaning and not form. (We also learn that “his” and “her” in English mean the same thing.)

Ellipsis In English

With this in mind, we can compare four sentences:

(3) John is an actor and so is Mary.

(4) John is a parent and so is Mary.

(5) *John is a father and so is Mary.

(6) *John is a king and so is Mary.

The asterisks indicate the ungrammatical sentences.

The examples in (3) and (4) are fine because “actor” and “parent” in English are gender-neutral in the real world. That is, men and women can both be actors and parents, even in the dialects that use the word “actress” for a woman actor.

By contrast, in English, only men can be fathers and kings.

Ellipsis In Other Languages

The reason this is so important is that the pattern in (3)-(6) is the same even in languages that have grammatical gender. For example, in Modern Hebrew:

(3′) John sachkan v’gam Mary [lit.: John actor and-also Mary]

(4′) John horeh v’gam Mary [lit.: John parent and-also Mary]

(5′) *John aba v’gam Mary [lit.: John father and-also Mary]

(6′) *John melech v’gam Mary [lit.: John king and-also Mary]

Just to be clear, (3′) is grammatical in Hebrew even though *Mary sachkan [“Mary actor”] is not, because Hebrew requires Mary sachkanit [“Mary actress”]. In other words, Hebrew has masculine and feminine words for “actor” (sachkan and sachkanit, respectively). Generally, the masculine word is used for men, and the feminine for women. But we see from ellipses that this difference is purely a matter of grammar, not of meaning.

Toward Two Kinds of Gender

The pattern in (3)-(6) and (3′)-(6′) works the same way in modern languages across diverse language groups: German, French, Russian, Arabic, and more. In other words, kings and queens seem to be different in ways that actors and actresses are not, and the difference doesn’t depend on which language is used to express it.

Some languages have masculine and feminine forms for “actor” and “actress,” but even so, ellipsis shows us that the words mean the same thing.

Further investigation shows us that the following kinds of words are the same for men and women: nouns in general, including jobs, positions, functions, roles, etc. By contrast, the following are generally not: royalty (king, queen, and sometimes lower ranks), family roles (father, mother, and sometimes son, daughter, brother, sister), and gender roles (man, women).

A Note on Parenthood

We stop to note that this answers an important question: In languages that have grammatical gender, what’s the difference between “father” and “[male] parent,” or between “mother” and “[female] parent”? The answer is that, like in English, “parent” is the non-gendered word, while “mother” and “father” are the gendered words. In other words, both men and women can be parents, but only men can be fathers, and only women mothers. This fact doesn’t depend on the grammatical gender of any of the words involved. (As chance would have it, “parent” in Modern Hebrew is horeh, and the word is masculine. There is no feminine word “parent.”)

Some Results

Because all languages seem to work the same way in the core cases, we can use the data about modern languages to understand ancient ones. What we expect, and what we find, is that ancient Greek and Hebrew have grammatical gender that only sometimes matches up with real-world gender.

In particular, basileus and melech are specifically a man (“king”), while basilissa and malka are specifically a woman (“queen”). They do not mean “ruler.” Similarly, patros and av are masculine in the real word (semantically) as well as grammatically, and meter and em are feminine. They do not mean “parent.”


It is tempting to extrapolate the pattern we have seen with singular nouns and apply it to plural ones, too, but it’s a mistake — a topic I’ll turn to soon.

September 8, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 6 Comments

You Have to Choose

Recents discussions (on Dr. Jim West’s blog, ScriptureZealot, etc.) have focused on what to do with Greek pronouns in English.

But the discussion seem to gloss over the fact that subject pronouns are generally missing in Greek. So instead of “he said,” Greek offers us just eipen “said.” It can be “he said,” “she said,” or “it said.” A translator has to supply a pronoun in English. So the question for the translator is not whether to add an English word to the Greek, it’s which English word to add to the Greek.

You have to choose.

September 3, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | Comments Off on You Have to Choose

Why Girls Are Neuter In German

Grammatical and Real-World Gender

It seems to me that a lot of the confusion about gender and translation stems from a misunderstanding of the two ways that gender works, as I’ll describe here.

Two Kinds of Gender

On one hand, men are different than women, and we can use the words “gender,” “masculine,” and “feminine” to indicate that difference. We can call this real-world gender, and it has very little to do with language but everything to do with how we live our lives.

On the other hand, gender can be a purely grammatical term, similar to “nominative” or “accusative.” So “feminine” nouns — say, arxe (“beginning”) or ge (“earth”) in Greek — are simply in a different grammatical category than “masculine” nouns like ouranos (“sky”). To say that some nouns are masculine and some are feminine (and for that matter some neuter, like fos [“light”]) is essentially no different than saying that words are “type I,” “type II,” or “type III.” We can call this grammatical gender, and it has everything to do with language and very little to do with how live our lives.

A Diversion: Number

We might compare gender to number. Nouns come in “singular” and “plural.”

As with gender, number can be real-world, as for example the difference between having one of something and having lots of them.

Or the number can be grammatical, as for example the difference between the word “cat” and the word “cats.”

We can see the difference between real-world and grammatical number by noting that verbs in English also come in singular and plural (“meow” and “meows,” for example), and that the difference is purely a grammatical one. “Meow” means the same thing at “meows.”

Usually we use grammatically singular words (“cat”) for real-world singular things (a cat), and grammatically plural words (“cats”) for real-world plural things (a whole lot of cats).

But sometimes we use grammatically plural words for real-world singular things. The word “scissors” is an example, as in “the scissors are on the table.” We use a grammatically plural noun (“scissors”) and a grammatically plural verb (“are”) even though there’s only one thing there (singular in the real world).

And sometimes we use grammatically singular words for real-world plural things. The word “swarm” is an example. (We know it’s real-world plural because a swarm can do things that only a group can do: “The garden was teaming with the swarm” makes sense, while “the garden was teaming with the insect” does not.)

Gender Again

Unlike number, the difference between grammatical and real-world gender is hard for many English speakers to keep track of. That’s because English does not have grammatical gender. In ancient Greek and Hebrew (and many modern languages) words have to match each other in various ways, including both number and gender. So regarding the pure table in Leviticus 24:6, the Greek word for “pure” is feminine, to match the grammatically feminine Greek word “table.” The Hebrew word for “pure” is masculine, to match the grammatically masculine Hebrew word “table.” In English, the word is just “pure,” neither masculine nor feminine. And in the real world it’s just a table. (Well, it’s not “just” a table. It’s part of the Tabernacle, but….)

Gender Mismatches

As with number, there is no reason why grammatical gender has to match real-word gender. However, because the two kinds of gender often coincide, some people have mistakenly concluded that the two always coincide. That is, because some grammatically masculine nouns are used for real-world masculine people, and vice-versa, some people have concluded that it always works that way.

And I think this is the source of the confusion, and the cause of a lot of the disagreements.

For example, the grammatically masculine Greek word pateres may refer to real-world masculine things, real-world feminine things, or any combination. We have to be careful not to assume that the grammatical gender of the word tells us what real-world gender it refers to.

A Modern Example

An example from Modern French will help. The French word for “person” is personne, and it’s grammatically feminine. (So it matches grammatically feminine adjectives.) But it can be a male person, female person, or whatever. The French for “he’s a good person” is il est une bonne personne. The words for “a,” “good,” and “person” are all grammatically feminine, but they refer to a real-word masculine person.

We don’t have gender mistmatches like this in English, because we don’t have anything to mistmatch — we don’t have grammatical gender.

It seems to me that it’s simply a translation mistake to assume that grammatical gender in Hebrew or Greek has to match up with similar real-world grammatical terms in English.

As a final example, we might note that the German word for “girl” is mädchen, and it’s neuter. Surely this doesn’t mean anything about German children. It’s just a grammatical curiosity, like the feminine French word personne and the masculine Greek word pateres.

The obvious question, then, is when grammatical gender matches real-world gender. We’re lucky that we have a pretty reliable way to find out, as I’ll describe in a future post.

September 3, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , | 4 Comments