Some Further Thoughts on Language: in which i use language

he thought that you cannot in principle separate your theory of language from the users and uses of language. Every other theoretician … thought that such a separation was not only possible, but necessary. Pike’s articulation of tagmemic theory lacked the mathematical precision

Kurk, I ask again wanting to hear your answer, … wordplay is actually the meat … how do we turn that into a “better bible”?

Often we forget how much of Shakespeare was, in its time, quite low-brow…. I think the Bible … all over the place, from the magnificent poetry of the psalms and tight literary prose of Genesis, through the less than literary instruction book of Leviticus, and much of the Old Testament is just history. It’s hard to see it as high prose.

… translations? They should give as much insight as possible into the … originals … literary masterpieces, and so I think the best translations are literary masterpieces…. Let’s take a translation like the Common English Bible … well-meaning … but it has some terribly awkward sentences, … wild inconsistencies, and even omits … arbitrarily.

I think God is perfectly capable of speaking for Himself, if we would just get out of His way. Figure out, to the best of our abilities — no holds barred, no pre-conditions, no pre-conceptions — what the text sounded like (meant) to its original audience, and let the chips fall where they may. God will do with it what He wants.

I think it is reasonable for Jews to translate the Bible so that it aligns with their beliefs. This is actually unremarkable, since the Bible was first revealed to them and they were the first to translate it, such as the LXX.

Dannii, Rich, Theophrastus, and Wayne,
Thanks for taking time to comment on a blogpost and with me and one another! Above are excerpts I’d like to respond to in one place since over the past several hours I’ve been entirely unable to do anything but follow along, reading what you’ve said.

Pike’s most valuable contribution was insisting on viewing language as being deeply more human, more dimensional than logic, than formalism, than mathematics. He liked to paraphrase Goodman speaking, in Ways of Worldmaking, of “radical relativism within rigid restraints.” Fastforward: a philosopher visited the campus where I work now arguing against “relativism” (precisely and technically defined) and, in a private conversation with me, insisted that Goodman didn’t (couldn’t) mean “relativism” at all but was so enamored with the r,r,r,r alliteration that he forced “pluralism” (properly) into the wrong category entirely. The philosopher was so exercised by Goodman’s “misuse” of “relativism” that he wrote, published, and sent me an article on it.

Hope you see the problem.

Language isn’t so precise, not like this philosopher talking with me wants it to be. So, whether JEPD or Robert Alter’s translation of the J and E or P and D differences, so hypothesized, or whether David Rosenberg’s, there really is their “human” decision to call things “documented” or the same or different. Same? Different? Who decides? Mathematics?

I quoted Thomas Christensen (in the earlier blogpost) to illustrate. He says, “The notion of ‘equivalence’ in translation is imprecise and falls upon the translator to determine as a personal judgment.” Then he goes on to equate Chomsky with Pinker! He does; and he might even appeal to “logic” to do so. But, Christensen’s also just equated “Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf” (in a statement I excised when quoting him in my post above). And Christensen has likewise, rather imprecisely, determined as his personal judgment that Sapir like Wharf is not equal to Chomsky like Pinker.

When it comes to wordplay, per se, then, I’d like to equate the Greek sophist Gorgias with Jesus. In my personal judgment, I can say that “The Encomium of Helen” is equivalent to “Matt. 13:3b-9.”

Watch this:

Both Helen’s Gorgias and Matthew’s Jesus use “prose” without wordplay per se. They do, that is, until the very last word.  (Note my equivalences here:  Jesus and Gorgias are doing the same thing with language.  Matthew and Gorgias are doing the same thing with Greek language in writing.  Gorgias is Helen’s defense lawyer; Matthew is Jesus’s translator.  The last word is equal to the whole of what comes before it, turning it so differently.)

This is some the sort of thing that Sir Philip Sidney does by playing with prose “In Defense of Posey” and that G. K. Chesterton does in Orthodoxy by writing prosaicly to put poetry over prose. Their arguments have the appearance of, dare we admit the force of formalism? But their argument is, ironically, that poetry undercuts this all, turns it around, spins it upsidedown, where there’s radical relativism. It’s the humans not their a priori categories that “determine.”

Now, mind your language, fellas: “low brow,” “literary masterpieces”

Rich, you speak up to say: “God is perfectly capable of speaking for Himself”

Wayne, you reason your beliefs: “I think it is reasonable for Jews to translate the Bible so that it aligns with their beliefs.”

Who has the linguistic upper hand here? Helen or Gorgias? Jesus or Matthew? Sidney’s and Chesterton’s prose or poetry? God or Rich’s God? Wayne or Wayne’s reasonable Jews with beliefs?

So, when you start talking about the LXX as a rather imprecise, won’t you mind your language? Maybe, on the other hand, the Talmud is right. Or is that Naomi Seidman’s Talmud? Who’s equating what here? Precise Logic? (You know, she’s “equivalent” to Alter in some imprecise ways: i.e., They are the very same faculty together, co-lleagues). Seidman says the Talmudic writers say the LXX translators say the Hebrew says something. This isn’t just the “telephone game” in which one message eventually gets lost. It’s a human being or two or more saying things are equivalent (albeit imprecisely). Now consider with me how personally, how human, Seidman opens her book on the “difference,” the “non-equivalence” between Jews and Christians. I’m talking about her Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation (Afterlives of the Bible). She opens her book with the story of her own father, translating. I’m not equal to telling it here and now myself. (My own father’s taken a turn for the worse, and I’m quite sure I won’t be blogging much, not if I wanted to, and I think I don’t now). But her father in her true story of him translating makes the point of her book: that translation, that even the LXX perhaps, can be imprecise and might be imperfectly faithful for some purpose, some relatively precise and nearly perfect purpose, on purpose. What’s revealed is only equivalent to what’s hidden. This sort of human language plays the way Gorgias and Matthew and Sidney and Chesterton play it.

This is how I’m trying to answer Dannii’s question.

A “better Bible” translation lets the translator play with language the way Dante did when writing his masterpiece that he said could not be translated. A “better Bible” translation. I’d say it really is equivalent to a “comedy,” perhaps “La Divina” Commedia as Boccaccio put it, but that’s just me speaking. I’d like the translator to decide, with ears to hear, when the prose of Jesus turns as poetry. (And I’m saying Matthew already did that, once upon a time).


8 responses to “Some Further Thoughts on Language: in which i use language

  1. I have two quick comments.

    Who is my God? If you contrast God and Rich’s God (doing one of those binary things you give me trouble for doing), what makes for my God? I would get it if you said the God of my translation. To the best of my knowledge the only thing I’ve said about my view of God is that He can speak for Himself. That’s a pretty thin picture of God.

    I also have trouble thinking of what the writers of the Gospels did as translating Jesus’ words. They are recounting history in a language in which much of it didn’t happen. The two are quite different. Memory intervenes in re-telling and there’s plenty of evidence that memory is largely pre-linguistic. So in some important sense I think the Gospels are genuinely Greek, rather than a distorted image of a more genuine Aramaic text, although I will allow that maybe John is somewhat that way.

    • Rich, I have only a few quick moments to reflect on your comments. Thank you, first, for making them!

      You see, I hope, I’m playing with language. “God or Rich’s God” isn’t a disagreement with anything you’ve asked or declared in your initial comment. Rather, I’m using “upperhand” (a metaphor in a bit of Socratic dialectic, if you’ll continue along, as you have) to suggest differences that get made (as Aristotle makes them). As soon as separational language is employed, then it seems very difficult to keep the resultant classes equal, doesn’t it? However “absolute” anyone’s God is (say, Francis Schaeffer’s who insisted on A vs. not A as an epistemological essence), someone can come along to say, “That’s a pretty thin picture of God.” To let God speak for himself? If we’re talking about “the Bible” now, then what’s said is transposed, and translated, humanly speaking, isn’t it? Now, to answer that, aren’t you going to have to speak, and to speak theologically?

      I really like what you said in your second comment. I don’t agree with it, but it’s made me think a lot since I first read it a few hours ago. Probably, I’ll continue to chew on this a good bit, for a good while; so thanks. I can see how the gospel writers could imagine only ever really writing in Greek (saying, how else could or would we write our accounts as first century Mediterranean men)? I know the Romans had a hard time making even themselves speak Latin, much less write it all the time, at that time; and it seems they were trying to erase Greek as much as possible. Maybe all but John actually thought “literally” (for literary purposes) in Greek? But, even so, there’s the Hebrew (Aramaic) profundity that Willis Barnstone is trying to restore; and he’s right to do so, I believe. And, the voice of Jesus, in (Hebrew) Aramaic? I don’t at all like now Mel Gibson’s imagination, his Jesus so a-Semitic, speaking so pathetically. Maybe Jesus did speak Greek (perhaps once to a Greek woman, likely sharply in very a-Greek ways that used hyperbole, nonetheless, to speak about the banquet for the sons of Israel and nothing for the dogs of the goyim); if he normally spoke otherwise, then what’s the effect of the gospel writers quoting him with Greek?

      • Yeah, I got the first part — that you were using a dialectic. I was trying to get at the fact that when I want to use oppositional thinking to get to a pragmatic objectivism, you balk, but when you use oppositional thinking to reveal problems in conceiving of God, then it’s OK.

        I know there are layers upon layers in the matter of who speaks for God. I think God can speak most clearly for Himself when we do our level best to recover Scripture as it fell on the ears of the original audience. I’ve always wondered over the fact that Christianity is the one religion that thrives on translation. The Scripture of every other religion has to be studied in the original. (Compare the importance of Hebrew schools to the Jewish community to the complete absence of Greek schools for young Christians. Similarly Arabic for the Qur’an, and Sanskrit for the Hindu.) Only in Christianity could there be a KJV only movement. If translations — even mediocre ones — serve as well as the original, it must be about the meaning and not about the words.

        As for the second part about the role of memory. I have lived for periods where I was speaking equal parts German and English, Vietnamese and English, Spanish and English. I have stories from those times which I re-tell from time to time, and among those stories are ones which I only know I experienced in the other language by external evidence; my memory of them does not include a salient linguistic component. I couldn’t tell you what the wording was in the original language, except by reconstructing it from the meaning. (Of course there are other stories in which the wording in the original language is crucial and I remember the words as well as the meaning.)

        Jesus also spoke Greek to Pilate and the other Romans at the time he was under arrest. (That’s one of my arguments for widespread bilingualism in that area. A minor rabbi from a small backwater spoke enough Greek to argue philosophy with the Roman governor while he was on trial for his life.) Of course, second language speakers show substrate influences, but I think the claims of how Aramaic the language of the NT is are overblown. (That’s one of Ann Nyland’s observations as well. And she’s read a lot more papyri than I have.)

      • I was speaking equal parts German and English, Vietnamese and English, Spanish and English…. Jesus also spoke Greek to Pilate and the other Romans at the time he was under arrest

        Rich, I love these two observations of yours here. They are (objective) historical comments about very individual (subjective) experiences. If the latter observation (of Jesus) is indeed a fact, then we have to wonder about what can be made (of his experience, i.e., “experienced in the other language”) from our imagination, our perspectives. We’re more like the gospel writers, etically in a sense, as we construct what is the psychological reality (of Jesus, Pilate, their immediate observers, etc.), towards emics. That lead me to a thought related to another point you make.

        In that other point, you say: “Only in Christianity could there be a KJV only movement. If translations — even mediocre ones — serve as well as the original, it must be about the meaning and not about the words.

        This is a fascinating and fantastic statement. On the one hand now, you are using “Christian” (as Theophrastus uses the label “Christian”). What’s emically “Christian” since you are one is etically “Christian” for those who are not (and Theophrastus has the etic variant(s), doesn’t he, if he’s not a Christian himself). So, again, there’s a subjectivity, an insider and an outsider view of a category, of this talked about reality. Now as to the content or argument of your statement, I think it’s really astute. If I were a Jewish insider, nonetheless, I imagine I might argue. Torah, as untranslated Hebrew instruction, allows (perhaps requires) Midrash, a “translation” if you will. But your point, I think, is that Christians are tolerant of and even enjoy translation. Now, I think this is Plato, if you’ll allow me to broadstroke “label” platonism as Chomsky-like idealism. You’re conceiving of language, once again, as mere window dressing. What’s in the deep structure (if you won’t use “universal grammar contained in S, the Sentence”) is the meat. Communication is the end. Language (whether Greek and perhaps especially Hebrew, since Hebrew’s under much Greek) is merely the means to the communicative end. Am I understanding you correctly?

        Now, I think you’ve not understood what I’m saying as you comment the following. You say: “when I [Rich] want to use oppositional thinking to get to a pragmatic objectivism, you [Kurk] balk, but when you use oppositional thinking to reveal problems in conceiving of God, then it’s OK.

        I’m not exactly opposed to oppositional language. I like Derrida’s dialectic that spins this around, or will even go with Hegel’s dialectic that derives a synthesis from the mere binary. But I think many feminist scholars get the problem right: The fundamental structure of the patriarchy is binary. And yet, women experience language (and we men can too) in multiple dimensions; Pike said N-Dimensional, ironically a formulaic math-like abstraction in which N = infinity. At first glance, to talk this way is to use a particle perspective. Nonetheless, a person immediately can see infinity as a wave, as a field too. Cixous would urge, at this point, for someone like Pike or Einstein or Heisenberg to consider how women “write the female body.” I think it’s pretty good advice. The suspicion of power that Derrida asks for (the hermeneutic of suspicion) only goes so far. To be forced outside, to have to exist in multiple dimensions in the margins, as the opposite of the male in the male binary world, now that’s an experience to be written.

        Subjectivity is the most profound objectivity of all; subjectivities are. We can talk about reality all day. But what if first we agreed to talk about our talked about reality? What if we started by acknowledging our own experiences, where we are, as outsiders, humbly, in a poly-lingual world or even in an anglo-centric English world? We might come up with a theory of relativity or quantum physics or something like the God of the Bible.

  2. JK:

    Sorry, I disagree. I don’t think you can equate Gorgias with Matthew’s Jesus.

    Gorgias is not Helen’s defense lawyer — he is not an advocate at all — not a Cicero, not a Robespierre, not a Lincoln, not a Clarence Darrow. He is telling a story of pure whimsy, much like Lewis Carroll would write more than two millennia later, about a character that even in Gorgias’s time was considered mythical (and if the Trojan War did happen, it happened at least 700 years before Gorgias). Furthermore, I do not see how you can say he does not use wordplay until the last word — what about his many puns (e.g., at verse 1 between kosmos and akosmia, at verse 2 between pasau tes aitias and pasau tes amathias, at verse 3 between genomenou and legomenou and between dia to einai and dia to phanai, at verse 4 in the phrase labousa kai ou lathousa and between philonikou and aniketou, at verse 6 between prothymian and promethiai and between anatheteon and apolyteon, at verse 8 in the phrase doxei deixai, at verse 9 among phrike periphobos, eolos polydakrys, and pothos philopenthes, at verse 10 between epagogoi hedones and apagogoi lypes and between psyches hamartemata and doxes apatemata, and so on and so on right up the final verse between momou adikian and doxes amathian. If a man of lesser scholarship than yourself were to claim that the Encomium were lacking in wordplay, I would suspect him of reading a mere translation — and not a very good translation at that. Fortunately, the modern trend of placing the Encomium in scansion allows one to more easily see what Gorgias is doing.

    You can get more of sense of the interaction of Gorgias and traditional Jewish views in Daniel Boyarin’s recent Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (Chicago 2009) where, citing Michael Bakhtin, Boyarin argues for an understanding in the mode of Menippean satire (knowing that you prefer Aristophanes’s satire, I expect you to be sorely disappointed by this conclusion).

    As far as Matthew chapter 13 is concerned, the twist comes not so much at verse 9 than at verse 13:14-15, where Matthew’s Jesus quotes a Greek version of Isaiah and gives it a different meaning than its plain contextual meaning; and furthermore one that the Hebrew does not allow: the Hebrew uses active imperative verbs, but in Jesus’s Greek version, which is not very literal, they have been turned into passives verbs, allowing a second reading. There is an important lesson here for Bible translators to learn about the importance of translating literally, and doubtlessly this slip is one of many reasons that the Jesus movement failed to catch on among Jews at the period.

    Which brings me to my next point — anytime you refer to the “the LXX” I must object, because there is no “the LXX” — there are many Greek translations extant — and you give Greek translations a status they do not enjoy by suggesting that there is a unique representative that is (was) universally accepted.

    Finally, in a broad sense Alter and Seidman might be colleagues, but not very close colleagues: they teach at different institutions (Alter at UC Berkeley and Seidman at the Graduate Theological Union) and I am unaware of any collaboration by them.

    • Theophrastus,
      I just love your comments. You always get me thinking (usually at first responding, Now why hadn’t I thought of that?)!

      You are playing with distinctions with language. This is Aristotle’s game, although he’d not call anything that he wrote, “ἐμὸν δὲ παίγνιον.” Yes, I think I was hyperbolic myself in saying, “Both Helen’s Gorgias and Matthew’s Jesus use “prose” without wordplay per se.” Helen’s Gorgias? Really? You know you can’t equate Helen and Matthew! And, “until the very last word”? But, that doesn’t even account for the penultimate word of Gorgias in The Encomium, does it? However, now with a straight face, can’t I really insist that δὲ is more than just a grammatical device? Chomsky (and Plato) might want us to press toward all that’s underneath this sentence, “all and only” what’s in the universal grammar (aka deep structure) under it. Gorgias might help us see otherwise. Of course he’s been playing the whole way through, but the structure is rhetorical. And Plato has Socrates calling that out of Gorgias, has him confessing he’s a “rhetorician.” (Much later, a real rhetorician such as Richard Leo Enos can point out the very distinct ways the “real” Gorgias was so much different from Plato’s. Aristotle, of course, returned to Gorgias, whether the real one or Plato’s, and said much about him — in Book III of The Rhetoric. What Aristotle observes, with a little less detail, gets at some of the things you point out about the wordplay of Gorgias, throughout).

      I think you might do with Matthew what you’ve done with Gorgias. You’ve already pointed out his Greeky version of Isaiah before the big twist. The Gorgiasian twist is what Tom Thatcher calls a riddle marker, as he equates the gospel translators’ (not just Matthew’s) “ος εχει ωτα ακουειν ακουετω” with “the modern maternal admonition ‘Pay attention!'” Thatcher goes on to declare that this Greek is “functionally equivalent to ‘Riddle me ree’ or ‘Here’s one for you,’ although the subject matter [in the public conversation and teaching] is obviously more significant than the pub jokes [where] we [might] introduce those phrases today.” (My own interest in comparing Gorgias’s Encomium with Mark’s translation of and recounting of this particular parable, or fable, or riddle, of Jesus is that both Greek writers employ a set of four possibilities that the audience has to work through. Yes, on many levels, this is full of wordplay right up to the end. There is, nonetheless, an appearance of relatively straightforward prose, until the punchline. “Get it,” Matthew’s Jesus seems to say. And so does Gorgias. (It’s funny how Bettany Hughes sees this as an inside joke, for men: “When, in Ancient Greece, the rhetorician Gorgias stood up and delivered his ‘Encomium of Helen’ (a defence of Helen of Troy’s indefensible character) – this was a great joke. How can you laud the most sluttish femme fatale of all time? But the rhetoric also got people thinking – maybe, just maybe the skilled speaker had a point.” So I get your point about not taking Gorgias serious, not as a defense lawyer anyway.)

      Now to class texts such as “the LXX” as some coherent whole is wordplayful, I see. You’ve helped me see that. Of course! Why didn’t I mind my language?

      But I do this all the time.

      I do it, as a linguist, as the expert in an ESL class for adults, as a native English speaker, as a proficient writer — do it with the “letter A.” It’s “letterally, the figure A” I say.

      I do it with “the Bible.”

      I do it with “the” “faculty of ‘Jewish Studies at Cal'” (and meant to get that link right, when trying to point to somebody else’s class or category for the colleagues; the link is

      Of course there are differences. And in Nature, we can talk about essential differences, fundamental ones. Alan Lightman, for example, says the game of science writers is to “name” each distinct thing (as if it’s a thing in itself). The game of writers of science is to find, to find out, to point to, to point out, what’s different. That’s NOT the game of Gorgias, and maybe he’s definitely “not a Cicero, not a Robespierre, not a Lincoln, not a Clarence Darrow.” I think I might get you to see, to agree, that Gorgias is, likewise, NOT a Lewis Carroll. When Lightman says that science writers are not novelists, then I want to do something else. “Are you yourself saying that as a scientist, or as an artist?” I asked him, hoping he’d make a sustained distinction. And I think I did get him to admit that scientists can be as wordplayful. He wants the translators of his novels, he tells me, to be both scientists and artists. Of course he does!

      Now, you’ve made me want to read more. I can’t wait, for example, to read Daniel Boyarin’s Socrates and the Fat Rabbis! You make me want to talk about the LXXes more with you, or to think about them more in the interim. Thank you again!

  3. In fact, Gorgias (who Philostratus regarded as the true father of the sophists, rather than Protogaras) is particularly interesting among the Sophists in that he was so silly (his work On Not Being is a big satire [although some philosophers in our time take it seriously!] as of course was his Encomium of Helen and arguably even the Defense of Palamedes) although, of course, his Funeral Oration is quite serious. Even better, we have so much material about him:

    * he is discussed by Philostratus’s in Lives of the Sophists and in his letter to Empress Julia Domna,
    * he is discussed in the Suda,
    * he is discussed by Diogenes Laertius in Lives of the Philosophers,
    * he is discussed by Diodorus of Siciliy in the the Universal History
    * he is discussed by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in Life of Lysias
    * he is discussed by Xenophon in Anabasis
    * he is discussed by Aristophanes in The Birds and the Wasps.
    * his statue at Olympia is discussed by Pausanias in Guide to Greece,
    * his statue at Delphi is discussed by Pausanias, but also by Cicero in On the Orator and by Pliny in Natural History,
    * we actually have the epigram at the base of his Olympian statue,
    * he is discussed by Aelian in Varia Historia,
    * he is discussed by Olympiodorus in Commentary on Gorgias,
    * he is discussed by Athenaeus in Deipnosophistae,
    * he is discussed in Long Lived Men, traditionally attributed to Lucian,
    * he is discussed by his pupil Isocrates in Antidosis,
    * he is discussed by Plato both in Meno, Philebus, Phaedrus, and Gorgias,
    * he is discussed by Aristotle in Politics, in Rhetoric, and in a lost work of Aristotle mentioned by Cicero in Brutus,
    * he is discussed by Cicero also in Orator,
    * he is discussed by Pseudo-Aristotle in Melissus, Xenophanes, and Gorgias,
    * he is discussed by Sextus in Against the Mathematician/i>,
    * one of his writings is discussed by Plutarch in
    Life of Cimon and another in On the Glory of the Athenians, and
    * he is discussed by Proclus in Commentary on Hesiod

    These many, many presentations of Gorgias, and his rhyming Sicilian style (as you know, basically he was a precursor to the rap artist!) , bring him fully to life in my mind — much more than just the typical view (which ultimately is more about Plato than Gorgias) that shows up in famous Platonic dialogue.

    And of course, Gorgias has many modern incarnations — for example, the infamous endocrinologist and UC Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes, who (although it is a bit anachronistic) shed light on the character of Gorgias.

    • In your list, probably the most informative discussion on Gorgias is “between” Isocrates, Aristotle, Plato, and Plato’s Socrates. Isocrates, as you point out, was one of Gorgias’s students; but Isocrates, like Aristotle, was also one of Plato’s students. Although he only characterizes Gorgias twice (both times disparagingly in Antidosis), Isocrates seems to write Against the Sophists with at least Gorgias in full view. The struggle over how Gorgias used language (in the texts of his you mention, in others we may not have, and in his speeches and his dialectic) formed the dispute over what Plato first coined as “rhetoric” (in The Gorgias). How legitimate is rhetoric (or rap)? The discussions of the power of language, of language, continue thanks in a big way to this one Gorgias.

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