Language is mind-bogglingly complex – as illustrated, in a small way, by the strange word “mind-bogglingly”! The Bible is written in human language. If we care about interpreting the Bible, it pays off to think about how language works. This month, therefore, I made an excursion into linguistics, the science that studies language. What I came away with is a sense of wonder: that we understand anything at all is close to a miracle.
The Complexity of Language
Language is complex. I am using speech recognition software to write this text. This software takes up more resources on my computer than any other application I use. Its maker, a company called Nuance, has been developing and improving the software for decades. It is nevertheless the program on my computer most likely to crash. It does an okay job turning my speech into writing, but I still need to check, because mistakes are common.
The program has no understanding of what I am writing. All it does is capture the sounds and turn them into words on the screen. This is one of the hardest things for a computer to do.
I realize we are moving to more advanced speech recognition, in which a computer does indeed “understand” what we are saying. But we are not very far yet. It is one thing for a computer to recognize a short command out of a relatively small pool of possible commands or to “understand” a simple question and follow this up with an Internet search. It is quite another thing to understand the content of even a simple conversation or text, let alone the allusions and undertones in a more sophisticated and subtle one.
In case you haven’t noticed yet, Siri doesn’t have a sense of humour.
This is the miracle of language or rather, of the human mind: we process language nearly continuously, and most of the time we do this with little effort. When engaged in a conversation or reading a text my mind processes the sounds and word symbols quite accurately and understands, with exceptions, quite well what the message of the speaker or text is. The complexity of what is going on as we listen or read is – well, mind-boggling. And we do it without thinking about it.
Mnay plopee eevn utsnandred stceneens wehn the ltertes of wdros are sbarmelcd. Try that with a computer. One misspelling and you are lost…
Of course, the ease starts breaking down once we turn to more difficult subjects and texts, especially when these are older, come from different cultures, and were originally written in a different language. Such as, for instance, the Bible.
So how does language work? The complexity comes in layers.
Disclaimer: I am merely scratching the surface here. One helpful book on the subject, even though it is far from new, is Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation by Peter Cotterell and Max Turner (1989).
Language is based on words, the smallest unit. Most words have multiple meanings. Many of these are related, some are not. Think of the word foot; how many different senses come to mind? Obviously, foot as a measurement has something to do with the body part called foot, but they are two separate senses of the word. And what about the foot of a mountain or of a statue? Usually, the context helps us to decide: foot and hurt don’t go together in measurements, but they do in speaking of body parts. And if something is six foot long, we know we may ask how much that is in meters, but not whose foot we are talking about.
Another example: Grace is a beautiful word. But it can also be a personal name. Again, the context helps us to decide: “Grace is undeserved” – this does not go with Grace, the girl. “Grace came to see me the other day,” on the other hand… Well, I think you get the point.
When struggling with word sense and meaning, it is crucial to keep in mind the difference between word and concept. Not everything Jesus said about love, not even when he used the Greek word agape, can be read back into the word love. The Greek word agape does NOT mean selfless, sacrificial (or even divine) love, even though this is often claimed. Selfless, sacrificial love certainly is the kind of love Jesus seeks and lived, but this is HIS CONCEPT of love, not the meaning of the word.
This becomes clear when we realize that the word agape is also used in:
- The Greek translation of Isaiah 1:23 for the love of a bribe
- The Greek translation of 2 Samuel 13 for Amnon’s “love” for Tamar
- Luke 11:43 for the Pharisees loving “the best seat in the synagogues”
Not exactly examples of selfless, sacrificial love.
Confusing word and concept is a common mistake in word studies. Paul argues extensively about such concepts as baptism and justification, going far beyond the mere sense of the words. The word justification or baptism or salvation does not mean everything Paul says about the respective concept.
A different way to make this distinction is to speak of lexical sense (the definition of a word we expect to find in a dictionary) and context sense (the special and expanded meaning that this word as a subject acquires in a particular text or conversation).
One fascinating development in the science of linguistics is the concept of semantic fields or domains. A semantic field is a group of words that are related in meaning (semantics studies the meaning of words; therefore this is called a semantic field).
This opens an alternative way to think about the meaning of words, different from the common approach of defining words. It is quite difficult to accurately and fully define the sense of a word so that the definition covers every possible instance. Think about it: what makes a vase a vase or a shirt a shirt? Must a shirt have sleeves? A collar? Buttons (how many?)? Can it be made of plastic?
It is easier to place a word alongside related words: words that are similar and partially overlap in meaning, words that are opposites or mutually exclusive, words that are larger categories and include the word we are interested in.
To make this concrete: a vase is not normally a cup but it can be a jug. All three nouns in the preceding sentence are containers of sorts. As related words, they form a semantic field. A shirt is an item of clothing, as are trousers, t-shirts, and skirts. Other examples of semantic fields would be different kinds of food or colours, or different verbs for motion (walk, run, drive, sail, fly).
This is how we learned the meaning of words as children: not by hearing a definition, but by picking up the differences between related words in every-day use. We know a colour is neither green nor blue but turquois precisely because it is neither of these two yet close to them, not because we can “define” turquois.
In every language, these semantic fields form a hierarchical web of words in relation to other words. This way of looking at word meaning is helpful in translation work: it enables the translator to compare options that are available to translate a term. The application to Bible translation is obvious. The concept is widely used by Wycliffe and the United Bible Societies.
This approach has produced a special dictionary of NT Greek very different from the familiar ones that work with word definitions: the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, edited by Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida (United Bible Societies, 1999). If you have access to one, it is interesting to take a look and see how the fields of meaning are organized hierarchically and relationally.
Words are combined into sentences. We apply the rules of grammar, usually intuitively, to make sense, that is, to construct sentences someone else will – hopefully – understand. “Yesterday, a green tiredness will eat, so that he were right” is double non-sense: the words don’t match and the grammar is bad. Normally, however, we can assume that there is a sense, even if it is not immediately clear. In this case, we wrestle with the meaning of words and with the grammar in an attempt to “get” the sentence.
This is where a Bible commentary can be useful. These first two levels of language, words and sentences, are the focus of most commentaries: they wrestle with word meaning (which sense, exactly, does the word have in this context?) and with grammar (what is the sense of the sentence, how do its parts connect and build meaning?).
There is an unfortunate side to this because it leaves so much out. It neglects the levels above sentence: paragraphs, larger units of thoughts, the text as a whole. Newer commentaries tend to do better at this point, but not all; there is still room for improvement. After all, if we understand the words and the sentences, we have by no means fully understood the message or the argument; we may not have understood it at all.
There is a need, then, to move beyond the sentence level. We must consider the higher levels of any text: how do sentences combine into paragraphs or units of thoughts, how do these combine into larger units?
This is the subject of a relatively new approach in biblical studies: discourse analysis (probably worth an issue of Create a Learning Site of its own). Discourse in this technical sense does not necessarily mean a verbal utterance; any unit of communication, including a text, is a discourse. Discourse analysis seeks to understand how the sentences and larger units combine in order to comprehend the meaning of the discourse in a larger sense (that is, its message).
This requires a higher level of grammar: discourse grammar, which describes how sentences may combine and an argument can be built. It also considers structure, principles of organization, and structural indicators or markers in the text (for instance summary statements, conclusions, rhetorical questions).
If you have done the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) or the Bible Core Course (BCC), this will begin to sound familiar, even if the term discourse analysis is new to you. The SBS and BCC have always trained students to look for the Big Picture of a book and to pay attention to “connectives” (because, but, if, so that etc.). We have learned to ask why often: why does the author write this?, because it leads us to the purpose of the author or a point he seeks to make. We have struggled to follow Paul’s train of thought in a letter or to find the overall message of a historical narrative such as Acts or Judges.
In other words, we have engaged in discourse analysis, probably without knowing it. Only when we see how all the parts connect and fit together, what the point or purpose of each sentence and paragraph is, and how all of this relates to the situation in which the author was writing, do we begin to fully grasp the meaning of a discourse, that is, a book of the Bible.
It is a life-changing experience. But it can only happen if we give language its due and wrestle with its (here comes that word again) mind-boggling complexities.
Peter Cotterell and Max Turner (1989), Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation (London: SPCK)
Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida (eds, 1999), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (United Bible Societies)