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Monday, June 20, 2005

Grace-ful diablogue continues

Dave Rattigan, of the Grace Pages blog, has returned to the diablogue between us (click on the title to this post to read his lastest in our exchanges). As usual, he makes careful, thoughtful statements about language use, and, in particular, about language use in English Bible versions. We seem to see eye to eye on most matters concerning language usage, including that it is good to write (and I would add, speak) in plain English, but that we should not move to policing the language of others, demanding that they speak or write only according to our personal preference.

Dave suggests:
We should give translators room for linguistic innovation. For example, the James passage that says "You desire and do not have; you covet and do not get," was understandable to me, even if have and get without objects are not ordinarily heard. I often use unconventional wordings and even coin new words and grammar myself in everyday speech because I'm a very inventive communicator -- but plain English and innovation are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Dave is responding, of course, to my statements on this blog that I find sentences lacking objects for the verbs "have" and "get" (or "obtain") to be "ungrammatical" (a technical term which deserves its own blog posts; maybe Dave and I can include it in a future exchange) and undesirable in an English Bible translation.

I suspect that a number of readers of my blog would agree with Dave, while others would side with my preference. (To find out, I would need to post another field test, but I don't feel like doing that right now.)

The issue for me is not whether an utterance can be understood, and I assume that Dave is not simply saying that "anything goes" in language usage as long as it can be understood. One of my little grandsons, Sam, is being taught sign language and spoken language at the same time (he has no hearing deficit, but his parents have heard reports that children develop cognitively and linguistically faster if they learn to sign, since larger muscle movement with their hands is easier than the smaller refined muscle movements required of vocal speech). A few days ago Sam signed two words, "Daddy" and "milk." It was clear that he wanted some of the milk that he often sees his daddy drinking. Was Sam's utterance complete. Well, no, not for full-fledged speakers, but it was a complete enough communication for a toddler. And those who study child language development have observed that children typically go through a two-word utterance stage. So what Sam said was sufficient for his age and language development, and he communicated clearly.

My bigger concern is with the impression that can be left with users of Bible translations if transitive verbs which, technically require objects, are in wordings which lack objects. To me these utterances sound incomplete. They give me the feeling that those who wrote them do not know English as well as they should. It is something of the feeling I get when I read an appliance manual which obviously was written by someone who is not a native speaker of English. I can figure out what they mean, so communication occurs. But there is something "odd" about the English. I, personally, prefer to read English which sounds "grammatical" and natural.

I realize that there is a danger in my position, the danger of slipping into an unintended prescriptivism that, in essence, projects the idea that writing transitive verbs without objects is "inferior language." There could even be an element of literary elitism involved.

Yet, there is a matching danger in Dave's position, that of slipping into the linguistic relativism, that anything goes in language, as long as adequate communication is occurring.

Perhaps there is the proverbial "happy medium" somewhere between these two positions. I, for one, am not ready to give up the idea that literary excellence, which is claimed for several English translations that word the transitive verbs in James without objects, calls for sentences not only to sound pleasant but also "grammatical." I assume that the translators of the versions which have the "missing" (but understood) objects in James would agree with me that there are many linguistic rules of English which should be followed and which they carefully followed. For instance, they wrote
You desire and do not have; you covet and do not get
which breaks a rule about transitive verbs needing objects but I am sure they would never write
You desires and not have; you covets and not get
Had they written the latter sentence, I would have understood it also. Adequate communication would have taken place. But something would have prevented the translators from writing like that. What is the "something"? Where do we draw the line? Why is it that most speakers and writers who can speak and write in some "standard" dialect of English would never break some rules of English, but will break others during translation. The translators of James know well the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. I suspect that few, if any, of them would ever say or write, in any composition which they were authoring originally, "I desire but do not have." If I am right, why would they not produce a transitive sentence here without an object, when they are making an original composition, but they would do so for a translation. This, I think, is a key question. I suspect that the answer has to do with these translators' desire to conform as closely as possible to the linguistic forms of the original text, the Greek New Testament in this case. The Greek lacks the objects (even though the objects are implied in the semantic structure of the verbs), so they allow the English verbs to be written in the same way.

I believe in linguistic innovation, as Dave does--and I do not always speak or write "grammatically." But I think linguistic innovation is more acceptable when it occurs with original utterances or compositions, which start in English, not when we are imposing upon English foreign forms which are not part of English, during a translation process. That's my opinion. Dave may not agree. If so, we've got more meat to chew on for some more diablogging.

This is the crux of the matter for me: Why do we allow English Bible translations to sound worse than the English we would normally speak or write? I know that the answer is that the translators are trying to honor the biblical languages. But all translators recognize that all languages are different, that they follow different rules. So why will translators follow some Englishrules, but not others during translation?

I get wordy in my posts sometimes. I think it happened again. I ran out of space and time to respond to Dave's second point. But that's good. It's gives us something else to diablogue about.

OK, Dave, it's your turn now.

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6 Comments:

At Tue Jun 21, 01:22:00 AM, Anonymous Dave Rattigan said...

The name's "Rattigan". I guess I'm just thankful you didn't say "Ratzinger". ;)

 
At Tue Jun 21, 07:01:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I'm sorry, Dave Rattigan. Now you've really got something to diablogue about, that it's not worth exchanging views with old men with atrophying brains who can't even get people's names straight.

 
At Tue Jun 21, 07:23:00 AM, Anonymous Richard Hershberger said...

I'm coming in late to this discussion, so I apologize if I am covering old ground. But I question the assertion that transitive verbs require overt objects. That is to say that even when the semantics require an object, the syntax does not mandate that it be overtly stated.

This was discussed extensively about a year ago over at Languagelog. Search on 'strict transitivity' for the postings. Several examples of 'have' used this way were included. My favorite is from the Billy Holliday song: "Mama may have, papa may have / But God bless the child that's got his own." I withhold judgment on the question of there being any strictly transitive verbs, but if there are it is a very small set.

 
At Tue Jun 21, 07:36:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Richard, thanks for the tip to search for this discussion on languagehat. I want to do that.

 
At Tue Jun 21, 08:36:00 AM, Anonymous Richard Hershberger said...

Not languagehat (though that is a fine blog I read nearly every day), but languagelog.com (which is another fine blog I read nearly every day).

 
At Tue Jun 21, 01:49:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I've come even later to it... (tis the season of marking and rushing off to conferences arranged for Northern years, here). But, to my ears
"You desire and do not have;
you covet and do not get
"
sounds poetic, in English as in many (all??) other languages poetic speech is terse, this strikes me as a good, even beautiful example...

 

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