Tag Archives: language

Is there such a thing as a neutral question?

In asking the above question, one is instantly drawn into thinking whether the answer is ‘yes’, ‘no’ or something else. In using the term ‘neutral’ rather than ‘leading’ (as I had in the first draft) the intention is not to look at questions whereby the answer is implied in the question, but rather where questions lead to thinking in certain ways, with a limit as to the range of possibilities (where a leading question is a sub-class of non-neutral question which has only one possible answer). Even my very asking of the question in the title is rather self-referential, for to ask it I will (hopefully) have made you think about the question. To some, it might be something new to consider, to others it may bring to the foreground ideas which have been at the back of your mind before, but which hardly kept you awake last night in worry.

The questions that we ask are a betrayal of what we are thinking about, as well as an admission of ignorance about things that we think we ought not to be ignorant about.

Another aspect of this is also the way questions are phrased often betray the assumptions that lie behind them. If one thinks carefully about any question that might be asked, one should be able to infer from it part of the intent behind the question as well as the background against which the question is set. In other words, queries don’t exist in a vacuum.

This was partly inspired by a book I recently finished, the review of which I intend to publish later this week. I just wanted to clear a little space so that that review may be better understood. Another source of my thinking has been my on/off series entitled ‘A Personal Catechism’. I admit that I am finding harder going than I thought to begin with, which is why my plan to do one a week has been pushed back to barely one a month. I am wondering if it might be better to write 10 out at once before publishing one. But the nature of the catechism questions push one into certain valleys of thought, when I might rather climb the valley walls and view the whole scene at once before choosing my own paths.

This isn’t unique to me. As I am nearly finished with Paul and the Faithfulness of God (I hope to publish the review next week) one of the consistent themes is that the questions often asked of Paul are anachronistic, reflecting the concerns of the last 500 years rather than those in the mind of the apostle in the 1st century.

In the occasional conversation with those who are more hostile to a christian worldview, I find many questions are phrased in triangular ways when the matter at hand is more pentagonal, so one may struggle to find an answer that suits the question or else one is accused of changing the terms. The irony is that some (not most, I hasten to add) have called me arrogant for trying to answer things in my own way, when they will not admit to any other way of looking at things apart from in the worldview which has shaped their questions.

I must admit that I am at a loss as to how to progress in such discussions which is why it is seems most prudent to duck out of any such conversations. That is not a concession of the points in hand, but a desire to avoid unnecessary conflict.

While non-neutral questions are easy to spot in others, particularly those worded in ways which have an inherent prejudice against one’s worldview, it is naturally harder to spot such questions being asked from our own lips. It is my view that the answer to the question posed in the title is ‘very rarely’. I’m sure it is easier for you to poke at me and note where non-neutral questions have been posed on this blog over the last few years. While one may try to guard against leading questions, non-neutrality seems to be a near inevitable consequence of asking any question.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What are yours?*

*Or is that a non-neutral question?**

**What about that one?+

+ad infinitum

The changing meanings of symbols & words – abandon or reclaim?

With my computer now dead, I am attempting to write this on my phone. I’ll try to get it drafted here and then edit it during my lunch break, but if I miss some autocorrect errors, please forgive me.

This afternoon (Sunday), after church, I found myself watching a documentary on the use of the swastika in Hinduism. In short, the programme looked at the symbols origins as a way to embody good fortune, and how that was then hijacked by the Nazis. The main focus was on the continued use of the symbol and how it is seen by modern Hindus and Jews.

It struck a chord with a thought I’ve had for some time, but which I don’t think I’ve explicitly blogged about before, though regular readers may recognise the thought in earlier allusions. Though the programme dealt with a symbol, my thought relates more to words. The thought relates to the question of how far meanings can be twisted from their original intention and still be of use.

The question implicit in the programme was whether the Nazis so damaged the symbol that it has become indelibly linked with evil and should be scrapped, or whether Hindus should ‘reclaim’ it and educate people into thinking of it primarily as a Hindu emblem.

In my opinion, there are a great number of words which have been similarly tainted, though maybe not to such a violent extent. I then wonder whether we need to make an effort to wrestle them out of the modern vernacular usage and restore them to their original meaning or whether they should be allowed to change, leaving us searching for new words to enunciate old ideas.

Of course, the notion of “original meaning” is a tricky one that may be hard to pin down, given the changing nature of language, particularly English. Most I know who have formally studied linguistics speak of languages as ever-changing. From my layman’s perspective, I’ve never been convinced by the arguments presented to me. Though I freely admit I am amateur in the field and open to correction (as in any matter!), I think of the English language as a cooling lava. Yes, there have been great changes, but there must come a point at which the spelling and meaning of a word must become set. Determining such a point may be difficult, though I don’t think it’s absurd to think that such a point exists.

Take, for example, the word ‘meek’. Today, it’s common usage is a synonym for ‘weak’. It is most often heard in the phrase “meek and mild” which seems to be used as a tautology, since they are meant to connote similar ideas. Yet in it’s original usage, it meant something more akin to “power under control”. In other words, it is a word denoting strength, the very opposite of how it is understood. So ought we to use the word as it was originally meant and risk being understood or do we abandon it and “go with the flow”?

Here, I must admit that in this respect, I am something of a contrarian. I do not think that every word that has had it’s meaning undergo a metamorphosis ought to be restored back to an antiquarian definition. Neither would I propose that we give up all hope. Instead, it’s a question of effort and how that compares to the value we put in words.

From a mathematical point of view, one word I am quite passionate about is ‘complex’. To me, this denotes a large set of numbers, made up of real and imaginary parts. Then again, ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ mean very specific things to me that they probably don’t to most non-scientists. As a consequence of this, I am very careful to use the word ‘complicated’ to denote something that is tricky, intricate or entangled.

I would hope I’m not alone in having these thoughts. Maybe those words I am most passionate about are unique to me, but that’s ok.

  • Are there any words you think are regularly misused?
  • Have I used any words in a way you disapprove of?

The language of christians

Having looked at the language of Jesus a couple of weeks ago, there ensued an interesting conversation on Twitter. If I can find the all the tweets in my history, I’ll try and transcribe it for you sometime. The verdict seemed to line up with my post, though it did get embellished with the grand title of ‘the educated Rabbi theory.’

What I want to do here is try to apply the principles drawn out of that. Specifically, the issue that motivated me in writing this couple of posts is clear communication. Regular readers will be aware that I often make grammatical errors, changing my sentence structure half way through, so I am as much chiding myself as anyone else.

If Jesus spoke in the everyday vernacular using down-to-earth examples, why shouldn’t we? As Kenneth Bailey puts it in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes:

Both Judaism and Islam have a sacred language. Christianity does not. This fact is of enormous significance.

Although different churches have their nuances, something I notice across denominations is that there is often a failure to use straightforward English.

To give a few examples:

1) High churches will often use the transliteration ‘Eucharist’ to describe a communion meal. Of course, ‘communion’ is not the most common of words, and there is a proliferation of other words used to describe the same meal. The lack of a straightforward word, commonly understood, can act as a barrier. Other words such as “mass” then carry connotations that not everyone finds helpful.

2) Lower churches will often throw around words like ‘salvation’ and ‘redemption’ without properly defining what they mean. As these words are in more common use, but with different connotations, there is a risk of being misunderstood. This can be a greater risk than the obfuscation mentioned above.

3) Some churches I have been to insist on using some translation of the bible whose language is no longer the lingua franca of today. The most common of these is the King James, though I find the language to now be archaic. As for the 9 appearances of unicorns…….

This is something I can get quite passionate about, as I think the church ought to make as much effort as possible to communicate the gospel as clearly as possible. While I choose to accept the gospel, as I understand it, I don’t force it on anyone else, but I do think that if someone is going to exercise their free will to reject it, that christians should do a good job of educating the world; so if the gospel is to be rejected (or accepted) then it should be done so for the right reasons.

So if we preach sermons, write articles or chat to friends using obscure or antiquated words, then we are asking them to use a dictionary just to understand us. This is the antithesis of good communication. Surely it’s better for us to be the ones putting in the efforts so that others can be in possession of the facts and ideas in as clear a manner as possible, so they can choose to make up their minds based on the best information.

Anything which separates people from God is a bad thing. I’m opposed to turning christianity into a religion, where ritual (which may have originated as trying to get close to God) is now a major turn-off or else the ritual is mistaken for being the entirety of the faith, rather than a symbol pointing to something greater.

One word that has crept into the vocabulary which describes the alienating words used by christians is “christianese.” Kristin Tennant has written a few really good pieces on this at her Half Way To Normal blog (Should all Christian jargon be taboo? & Trimming back the Christianese) and at the end I’ve included a video which tackles the issue in a very tongue-in-cheek way.

This is not a new issue. When Jerome produced the Latin Vulgate his aim was to make the bible understandable in the common tongue. Long after it became outdated, its continued use became more a tool of social and political control, since the ordinary person could no longer understand it and relied on their local priest to tell them what it meant.  William Tyndale translated into a more modern vernacular and was murdered for doing so.

I’d like to think that no one these days would kill one another for democratising faith, though use of ecclesiastic and religious terminology, which may have been useful in another era, now serves to distance people from God, rather than help bring the two together.

The idea of God coming to earth in human form (incarnational theology) has a strong emphasis of God meeting us where we are, which transformed the Jewish paradigm of ritual purity before approaching God.

So my proposition is that christians should extend this courtesy likewise. We need to be aware of the language that we use, recognise where definitions commonly interpreted by modern folk differ from the interpretation we have and also to refrain from using turns of phrase. The gospel may be hard to accept, but it shouldn’t be difficult to understand. Let’s not put any obstacles in another’s way by our use of language.

The language of Jesus

Of late, I have been slowly working my way through Kenneth Bailey’s work  ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ which I so far am enjoying almost as much as I find it challenging. I have a lot of respect for Bailey & his work, but something in the introduction has been nagging at me, as it seems to contradict another biblical scholar for whom I have a lot of respect: Tom Wright. The question concerns what language Jesus spoke and therefore what is the ‘original’ language of the gospels. Bailey summaries thus:

“We are obliged to consider four stages through which our canonical Gospels have passed. These are:

  1. The life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth in Aramaic
  2. The Aramaic eyewitness testimony to that life and teaching
  3. The translation of that testimony into Greek
  4. The selection, arrangement and editing of the Greek texts into the Gospels”

So here Bailey seems to be assuming that all of the content of the gospels we have are translations from the Aramaic.

Wright presents a subtly different picture in the preface to his New Testament For Everyone (NTFE) where he writes:

“Much of the time, Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, an updated dialect of Hebrew, but the gospels are written in Greek. Greek was everybody’s second language at the time, a bit like English in many parts of our world today.”

At a talk I was at when he expanded on this recently he gave an example of a young boy who approached him in the streets of Jerusalem to try to sell him something. The boy tried several languages before finding out that Wright was English.

Simply because most of us who have English as our first language don’t have a second language, it is presumptuous and condescending to assume that others are monolingual.

One place in the gospels this be highlighted (though I failed entirely to notice until it was pointed out to me) is when Jesus is conversation with Pontius Pilate. In what language was the conversation conducted? Aramaic, Greek or did they have a translator present?

Of course, one may reasonably ask who was the eyewitness present who preserved the conversation for later use by the gospel writers, but I’ll leave that for you to consider.

One potential problem this leaves for the modern day reader is what happens if you try to reconstruct the Aramaic from the Greek. I am informed, though I lack the expertise to check, that some words used in the Greek have no Aramaic equivalent, or that if there is an appropriate match, that it would be more likely that a different Greek word may be used. How much this changes the theology, I don’t know, but I think it’s an interesting point.

There is an intriguing hint of the possibility of the existence of a new lost Aramaic gospel. In Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History he quotes an earlier writer name Papias, whose works now are only known to survive in fragments, usually quoted by others. The following is taken from Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham. In one passage, he makes this intriguing statement:

“Matthew put the logia in an ordered arrangement [sunetaxato] in the Hebrew language [hebraidi dialecto], but each person [heskastos] interpreted [hermeneusen] them as best he could.”

This is the translation used in Bauckham’s work. This raises the possibility that Matthew’s Greek gospel is a translation from an earlier version composed in either Hebrew or Aramaic. I ought to add that another view in this is that ‘hebraidi dialecto’ means ‘in a Hebrew style’ rather than strictly referring to the language of composition. I don’t know enough to be able to have a strong opinion on this, so I will let you consider which is more likely.

Aramaic was the language of the ‘common’ people that Jesus would have interacted with most days. Not only that, but in his use of parables he displays a very down-to-earth approach. His use of metaphor is always done in terms that would have been readily interpreted to the first century audience in that geographical area. This is something has a great eye for, having lived and worked in the Middle East for several decades.

At this juncture, I probably ought to point out that later in ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ Bailey does correct himself a little, though it is more of a sidenote to the effect that Jesus probably could speak Greek as well as Aramaic.

If we accept that Jesus primarily used Aramaic, rather than Greek or Hebrew, what then? Well, my word limit is up for this post, so I’ll carry this on later.

The Bible: what version do you use?

It always strikes me as a little odd when different people profess to “prefer” different translations of the Bible. I’m sure it has been going on for many years, though it is something I have only recently become more sensitive to. I completed most of this blog post prior to a posting from RevdLesley on a very similar theme. Some of that post has been assimilated into this (with permission) and you can read the original post here.

A phrase (or something like it) that epitomises the idea which makes me uneasy is when someone says “I really like the way this version phrases [this particular passage]…” When I hear that, I can’t help but think what they really mean is “I prefer this version because it best backs up my pre-existing view.”

I am not a biblical scholar, and have no adequate training to be able to determine what is a “good” translation. For the sake of honesty, I have included at the bottom of this post a list of the versions I use in my bible studies. My purpose is not to endorse any particular version, nor to condemn any. I will merely question some and, in particular, the cherry-picked use of them to justify a point.

There seems to be something inherently dodgy when someone picks a version to use, on the stated basis that it words a particular passage particularly well, when a different wording in a different version would make the basis for that assertion less certain. What it implies, to me, is that the conclusion has been reached in advance of reading the text and that the speaker is going in support of their opinion. I don’t like this approach, as it can lead to a skewed view of scripture. Instead, is it not better to examine one version first (I would say it doesn’t matter which) and stick with that as your first port of call? If you need to check the translation, you can use a Hebrew/Greek bible with a dictionary; you don’t even need to be an expert in ancient languages.

There are myriad issues that have to be dealt with in biblical translation, due to the greatly differing nature of the languages the books were written in, and those which we use today (in my case, English).While we have plenty of translations available, this allows us to get on with examining what the message meant to the original readers and what relevance it still has for us today. As my old headteacher always said: a text, taken out of context, is a pretext.

Although I think it is a bit of a shorthand, I often hear people use the phrase “Jesus said” and then quote an English translation. Maybe I’m being too pernickety, but it does annoy me a little, since Jesus didn’t speak English. So he never said “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that everyone believing into Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

In all likelihood, he spoke Aramaic, rather than Greek, so even what we have recorded in the bible is a translation; a point, I think, missed by many Christians. So he didn’t even say: “Houtos gar agapao ho theos tou kosmos ho stetou huios autou tou monogenes didomi hina pas ho pisteuo eisau tou me apollymi alla echo zoe aionios.”

I have long been a believer in the idea that the Bible should be accessible to all, written in a way easily understandable, but which retains as close a faithfulness as possible to what we understand to be the original texts. Of course, this entails a great balancing act, and is, I think, impossible to get right all of the time. Of those versions (I would reservations about calling them translations) that try to go down the more “vulgar” route, in the true sense of the word, the most notable examples are the Good News Bible and, more recently, The Message. I always used the Good News when I was growing up in the Baptist church my parents went to; and it was seen as a children’s Bible, replete with line drawings that will be familiar to most of those who have grown up in churches over the past 30 years or so. I’m not sure when the Message first came out, though it garnered a lot of popularity when I was my late teens, and it seemed to directed at that age group. Though I would regard them as excellent introductions, from which to get the ‘gist’ of a passage, I would be extremely cautious about using them for anything else, given that much of the fine detail has been lost, and is much more subject to the individual interpretation of the writers who, I am led to understand, were not scholars of the original languages.

This contrasts with the latest version to hit the book stores: Tom Wright’s New Testament for Everyone. Readers of this blog will be aware that I admire the work of Wright and have the highest regard for him as a scholar of the New Testament. For several years now, he has been writing a series of books entitled “[x] for everyone” where [x] is usually the title of a New Testament book. These are meant as accessible guides to each book of the Bible. In each of these, Tom has provided his own translation of the texts, and this new translation is a compilation of all of these excerpts. On the post from RevLesley linked to above, there is a quote from Tom on why he felt dissatisfied with the NIV, and seems, in part, to explain his motivation for doing his own translation of the New Testament. I’ve not decided whether to buy Tom’s new translation, though through talking to his publisher on twitter, I may be going to see him at a talk and book signing later this month, which could make for an interesting lunch break.

The versions I use:

I tend to start with the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). This is largely because I have been informed by a pastor at a previous church, who was a reader in New Testament theology, that its New Testament translation is very good. Sometimes, the overtly gender neutrality of it annoys me, as it seems to be a rather politically correct. One of the reasons that I like to use this is that it’s the only bible I have which has a column of cross-references. So when I peruse a passage, I will follow up all the cross references, in order to try and get as complete a picture as possible.

If I’m out and about, needing to travel light, I have a small New International Version (NIV). It fits into my back pocket, so is great for portability, and tends to be a favourite amongst many churches.

My first choice for an “alternative version” will be the Amplified Bible. I like the idea of including connotations to the text, given that the original Greek and Hebrew would have carried many more overtones than a simple word-for-word translation. Although it takes a while to read through any passage, and the layout of the text is not as “reader-friendly” as some others, I find it a useful follow-up resource.

When I want to really get to grips with a text, I have an Interlinear Bible. This contains the text in Hebrew and Greek (depending on Old/New Testament) with a near-literal word-for-word translation below the line. In the margins is the equivalent English translation with good grammar. That’s because the Hebrew and Greek word ordering doesn’t always make sense in English. This version also contains the Strong’s Numbers which I look up in a concordance, and gives a fuller translation of each word, as well as the correct pronunciation.

My current church is very keen on the New Living Translation. I have never been able to find a bookshop that has this in print, so the only access I have to this is via an application on my phone. I don’t know much about the background of it, so if any of you know more about this than I, then I am willing to be informed.

Book Review: Begat by David Crystal

Having never read any of other Crystal’s works, I came to this with a fairly fresh pair of eyes. As other reviewers have noted, the book is broken down into tiny, bitesize chapters, making it a great coffee table book that can be dipped into. There is no running narrative, so it doesn’t matter where you choose to start from (so long as you’ve read the introduction first).

Now I must confess to reading this from a certain angle; I’m a Christian, and have always been interested in the accuracy of translations of the Bible, as well as the history of how the collection of books (because it is not very accurate to refer to the compendium as a single book) was compiled. Now Crystal is not a theologian, so there is no real analysis comparing the KJV to such sources and the Masoretic Scripts or the Septuagint or any particular comment on what is a ‘good’ translation. Instead, what we have are numerous examples of how phrases found in the KJV have found their way into the English vernacular, as well as possible reasons for why they have stuck.

Crystal’s hypothesis is that the dominant factor is rhythm, and this is noted by looking at some earlier English translations of the Bible (which were banned by the catholic church) such as Wycliffe where the wording differed slightly and seeing which version caught on. The style of the book is quite repetitive, which could make for a dull reading if going through it cover to cover. Rather, I preferred to dip into it and just do a couple of chapters a day, intermittent with other reading.

That said, I did enjoy it a lot and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the English language. Crystal’s sources are very broad and include numerous references to online blogs. It may be questioned whether some of the modern cultural references will stand the test of time as well as the idioms discussed are, and I got the distinct impression that this was meant to be read at this time (the 400th anniversary of the publication of KJV).