Final Lecture for Asia Center for Advanced Christian Studies

In which I take students through How to Think about Others’ Exegetical Fallacies and then talk through some portions of my dissertation that focused on ἀγάπη (agape) and what it “really” means. No, like, for real this time.

Review: John McWhorter’s Words on the Move

I’ve gone through two of John McWhorter’s Great Courses on language; I’ve read several of his books, and I’m a faithful listener to his podcast. When I picked up this book I suddenly realized, “I know just what he’s going to say. I get John McWhorter.” I put the book down after two chapters. But a testimony to his consummate skill as a popularizer and communicator is that I couldn’t help myself and I finished the book anyway. And then, particularly with regard to back-shifting, McWhorter managed to say something new to me that my own reading in linguistics hasn’t brought me to. I also collect many quotable quotes and fun illustrations from him that I can use in my own popularizing work.

McWhorter’s head is screwed on straight. He spends an entire book bemusedly observing the sometimes random changes in language (in both word meaning and pronunciation) and offering none of the moral judgments people expect about them But he knows readers want that judgment, and he gives it to them in a wise form. Listen to this:

For a linguist to hope that the public will give up the idea that some ways of speaking are more appropriate for formal settings than others would be futile—especially since all linguists agree with the public on this. Often we are asked, “If all these things considered bad grammar are really okay, then why don’t you use them in your writing and speeches?” However, none of us is pretending that a society of human beings could function in which all spoke or wrote however they wanted to and yet had equal chances at success in life. The linguist’s point is that there are no scientific grounds for considering any way of speaking erroneous in some structural or logical sense. To understand this is not to give up on learning to communicate appropriately to context. To understand this is, rather, to shed the contempt: the acrid disgust so many seem to harbor for people who use the forms we have been taught are “bad.” (220–221)

This is very practical wisdom. It would have saved me from asking a Singaporean friend what his first language was and (I’m so embarrassed by this) asking a Kenyan friend why he speaks English wrong. It would have saved me from mocking a teacher who had a Southern accent when I was eighteen. And even now, the implicit connection to class McWhorter makes (“equal chances at success in life”) is a good reason to be humble about whatever facility I’ve attained in the use of standard American English. The truth is that I’ve been schooled in it from infancy. I never, never had to labor to acquire it. (Thanks, English Major Dad.)

McWhorter also raises the question: “If the way so many people talk is okay, then what counts as a mistake?”

And he provides an answer:

When people are doing things on their own. I once knew someone who, for some reason, despite otherwise perfectly ordinary American English, used “nerfry” for nursery and “grofery” for grocery. That was, quite simply, off because no one else says the words that way; nor is there anything about their sounds that makes it likely that anyone ever will. (195)

Get it set in your mind that McWhorter isn’t giving the inmates permission to rule the asylum, only noting that they in fact do whether think they do or not, and you can quell your moral alarm at his sometimes nonjudgmental descriptions of language change.

And then there’s this, an idea I consider a significant advance in my own understanding:

The fury some harbor over language usage issues is incommensurate with the gravity of the issue. Does anyone genuinely fear that we are on our way to babbling incomprehensibly to one another when no such thing has ever happened among a single human group in the history of our species? One suspects more afoot than logic: rage over language usage may be the last permissible open classism, channeling a tribalist impulse roiling ever underneath.

The tribalist impulse has ever fewer officialized outlets in our society, in which open discrimination is increasingly barred from the public forum. The very pointedness of the rage behind so many comments about language usage suggests something exploding after a considerable buildup of pressure, denied regular venting. In this grand and tragic world of ours, it is rather unexpected, in itself, that anyone would experience anger in response to the construction of a sentence. A student can hand in their paper anytime after Thursday—this use of their is grounds for fulmination amid global warming, terrorism, grisly epidemics, and the prospect of a world without bees? (223–224)

I doubt this explanation will persuade anyone of (ahem) their guilt, but this is by far the best explanation I’ve seen for the furor people raise over language change—and the moral disapprobation I see on people’s faces when they find out I’m fine with particular language changes that have occurred. I have literally been told that I am a moral relativist, even after I have tried to explain with great care what I do and don’t mean. (It was during a Q&A in front of a large group of people; it was awkward.)

(And I’m not a moral relativist.)

Especially helpful for me was the fact that one theme in McWhorter’s book was identical to the major theme of my upcoming book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (in fact, I’m hoping to get my hero McWhorter to blurb the book for me!). The argument I apply to the King James he applies to Shakespeare. And the argument is this simple:

English has changed a lot more since Shakespeare than we think. (205)

The key there is “than we think.” People who don’t obsess over language change like McWhorter does just aren’t likely to notice all the subtle differences that make Shakespeare and the KJV bumpy sidewalks for modern readers. There are many words in each that McWhorter calls “false friends,” words that we still use today but that meant something different in Elizabethan times. McWhorter and I share the same value: we want people to understand what they read and hear. So he made precisely the call I’ve made: update the false friends. His words on this issue are exceptionally wise and deft—and I promptly added them to the manuscript of my own book.

Thank you again, John McWhorter. I owe you a great debt, I really do.

Fantastic Deal on My Favorite Theology Books

John Frame is retiring, and now you can have all six of his best and most important books for $120. Hardbacks. This is killer. I paid much more.

Do not miss this deal: $20 a book for some of the best theology books you will ever buy.

The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, in particular, has been epochal for me. It shapes me in ways I see just about every day. The Doctrine of the Christian Life was also extremely helpful. When I’ve dipped into Frame’s Systematic Theology, I have also found what he always delivers: carefully biblical, straightforward, clear, even simple explanations of complex topics.

One of My Favorite Theologians Questions Me on My Decision Not to Capitalize Deity Pronouns

Posted by permission and with slight editing from both parties.

Hey Mark,

I just noted your upcoming column on deity pronouns. My only beef with it is that it seems to me to set up a straw man and completely ignores a stronger and more pertinent argument. I’m sure there are people who argue for capitalization on the grounds of tradition and respect; I just don’t know any (as far as I’m aware). My argument is clarity, pure and simple. That clarity extends not only to our writing about God, but also to the biblical text itself.

You gave an example in your column; so shall I: Beyond Suffering, ch. 10, endnote 45 (p. 315). Here it is in a nutshell as I should have written it:

Carson interprets [Job] 9:30–31 as a plural reference to Job’s friends. “No matter how pure he is, his friends would find him impure: their position demands it” (p. 164). But this reading is foreign to the immediate context and grammar; the pronoun is singular. Job has been talking about God since 9:2; he appears to be speaking to God in exactly the same vein, beginning at least in 9:27 (note 9:28). In 9:30–31, then, Job refers to God’s apparent determination to treat him like one of the guilty wicked. A survey of over a dozen commentators produced none that supported Carson’s interpretation. Rowley (p. 99) mentions but rejects the textual emendation of Duhm and Lagarde to produce the meaning “my friends.” Job uses the second person plural pronoun whenever he is speaking to the friends but seems to reserve the second person singular pronoun for his frequent and frank interchanges with God.“

Perhaps Carson was glancing at one of those non-capitalizing modern translations (ESV, NET, NIV) when he made his comment. Like most Bible readers, he probably wasn’t looking at the Hebrew, or even the KJV (which, though it does not capitalize, nevertheless employs the Elizabethan distinction between a sing. and pl. second-person pronoun). Nor, for that matter, was he probably looking at NKJV, NASB, or HCSB which do capitalize—not so the average reader may reverence the pronoun, but so that he is alerted to what’s actually going on in the text (which is sort of the point of a text in the first place…except for poets, postmodernists, and Barth =).

It’s similar (indeed, in my example, connected) to the sing. vs. pl. second-person pronoun issue; but then, I know we disagree about that, too. So my purpose in writing is not to try to convince you on the capitalization issue; but it is to perhaps persuade you to at least address the clarity argument the next time you bash us Deity Capitalizers. =)

For the love of words, affectionately,

LT

Layton Talbert, PhD Professor of Theology & Biblical Exposition


Dr. Talbert,

I finally got a chance to wrap my mind around this…

And here’s what I’d say: the benefits of my approach outweigh this admitted detriment. I’d prefer for translators to use options that don’t feel like weird, specialized English. So in this case, I’d recommend a footnote. If translators feel that the number of the pronoun (namely singular) should be called out, they could do it with a note.

Ever since I came to Logos and started writing about whatever interested me, I noticed that what interested me was often generated by my experiences ministering in the neighborhoods around Mount Calvary. I see specialized English like all caps LORD (which I’m not on a crusade against, but which I now realize violates the principle I’m enunciating) and capitalized deity pronouns and small-caps OT quotes (NASB) as unnecessary burdens on poor readers, like the people I taught for a decade in NBC.

More importantly, however, I’ve been trying for years to refine my sense of what feels natural to educated readers and writers of English, to strip out rules that are merely fussy and pedantic and not genuinely helpful for communication. And I think capitalized deity pronouns are fussy and not helpful. Contemporary evangelical books have mostly dropped the practice, and the editors at all those houses constitute a plebiscite of sorts supporting my position. It’s their sense, too, that the caps on deity pronouns feel like emphasis or shouting (or Emily Dickinson? =). If we’re going to take seriously both poles of the translation task, base language and target language, we need to be just as wary of messing with the latter as we are with messing with the former.

However, I’ll backtrack one important step: we have multiple translations and multiple kinds of editions (study editions and readers editions being the main two categories in my mind, with many subcategories, especially among study editions). Why not let the NASB go all Bible-code and give us all those specialized pieces of typographical interpretive shorthand, but let the NIV and ESV and CSB be written in more natural English? I already use the NASB that way for those NT quotations of the OT (even though that, too, requires interpretation and isn’t always clear).

Now, do we disagree about distinguishing the number of second person pronouns? You think we ought to retain something like thou vs. you?

mlwj


Mark,

“Thou” and “you,” no; manifestly not. Nor would I even suggest “you” vs. “y’all” (though I’m reasonably certain Southerners didn’t create or perpetuate that distinction because it’s cute). If, however, (a) the difference between “you [sing.]” and “you [pl]” was instantly apparent to the original readers from the very grammar of the original text, and (b) that distinction is not infrequently significant for accurate interpretation and understanding, especially in texts where the context simply does not otherwise clarify the intended referent, then it seems to me that accurate translation (that is concerned with the target’s accurate understanding) into a language that does not readily have such distinctions could/should devise some unobtrusive means of preserving that distinction that is, in fact, part of the original text—at least in places where that distinction is not otherwise signaled by the context. Whether that’s an asterisk on the plural forms of the pronoun, or (as you suggest) a footnote—the precise demarcation may be debated. The argument that the modern translations are good specifically because they rescue the Bible from the archaic “thee’s and thou’s” is, imo, short-sighted, and demonstrates an ignorance of the significance of those very “thee’s and thou’s” for sometimes being the key to accurate understanding of the text. (My favorite example of this is Luke 22:31-32.)

So, no, I wouldn’t argue for preserving outmoded or unnatural language; but I would argue for using very common tools at our disposal in order to perpetuate a more accurately understood translation—just on the textual level. (If even a D. A. Carson misconstrues a text because of this very thing, where does that leave the rest of us! =) Especially when the difference on the linguistic level makes a palpable difference on the interpretational, theological, and applicational levels.

LT


Dr. Talbert,

I don’t dispute (a), but I do dispute an idea I think is implicit in your reasoning: that we should never remain satisfied with a situation in which base and target languages differ structurally to such a degree that some linguistic information just doesn’t get transferred. Gender, rhymes and other word-plays (like the alliteration of alpha privatives in one vice list I can think of), and other things can’t be transferred, or only clumsily and in special cases (“faithless, heartless, ruthless,” for example, nicely picks up those privatives by making them suffixes instead of prefixes). But if you’re right (b) that the number distinction in second-person pronouns is not infrequently significant for interpretation, especially in contexts which don’t provide enough information to make a right interpretation, then it’s worth looking at ways to solve that problem. I think, however, that this calls for a doctoral student somewhere to go through the Bible and tell us how often this occurs. My impression is that it is not frequent, that mandating an asterisk (or some other universal code, like LORD for YHWH) would distract much more often than it would help. (My impression is strengthened by the fact that English gets along just fine without a you vs. y’all distinction—in most regions. =) I still think the best way forward would be to let translators and interpreters work together with that (BJU?) doctoral student to discover the places in the Bible where a footnote is needed to clarify that a given second person pronoun is plural or singular. Your example from Job 9 is a good one.

So the question is: how palpable, how frequent is the need for pronoun clarification that the context doesn’t already provide?

And I’m still liking my idea of relegating all those special codes to the NASB…

mlwj


Mark,

Good points, and a philosophy more consistently thought-through and applied than mine—though I think you overstate (or overextend) the idea implicit in my reasoning. Though they may add a level of interest and edge to one’s understanding, I suspect rhymes and wordplays are rarely if ever crucial to accurate interpretation (though I could be wrong; clearly you’ve thought about this way more than I have). However, I also suspect I need to drop the “not” on “not infrequently.” The impact of pronoun-number on interpretation is certainly hermeneutically significant, but considering the occasions when the context is ambiguous and pronoun-number alone is determinative for accurate meaning, “frequent” is probably not a justifiable modifier.

LT


Dr. Talbert,

Looks like we both overstated our cases… I really do wonder if a PhD student at BJU could help us state them correctly. Title: Translational Trade-Offs. Thesis: The best set of trade-offs for a literal translation is this list; the best set of trade-offs for a dynamic translation is this one. A whole chapter could be dedicated to listing out (and briefly arguing for) the passages in the Bible in which a footnote is likely to be needed to clarify the number of the second-person pronouns. This could be a help to translators, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. (A little research with translation consultants could also surface similar characteristic problems that occur when translating into non-Indo-European languages.)

And I’ve got a radical idea I’ve never heard anyone else float, certainly not among conservatives: might it be possible for Wycliffe and Bibles International to serve complementary purposes? That is, couldn’t a maturing Christian church use two translations, each pushing toward a diffferent end of the literal-to-dynamic continuum? If a Bible translation is both the Word of God (in one sense) and (in another) a tool for understanding the words of God, why have only one? I proposed this to a Bible translator friend and he isn’t yet convinced. But I’ll work on him.

mlwj