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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Man, the answer is blowing in the wind

It is time to retire my poll asking blog visitors what they think Bob Dylan was singing about. The poll has been up a least a month, I think, probably longer. Here is the poll and its results:
In the 1960s Bob Dylan sang, "How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?"

It sounds to me that Dylan was singing about a male adult. 59% 142
It sounds to me that Dylan was singing about any human being. 22% 53
It sounds to me that Dylan was singing about any adult. 15% 36
I don't know what Dylan was singing about. 4% 9

240 votes total
The results are interesting. If we add together the 53 and 36 votes from those who felt, respectively, that Dylan was singing about any human being and those who felt he was singing about any adult, we get 89. 89 out of 240 votes cast means that 37% of respondents thought that Bob Dylan was singing about some person whose gender was not specified. 142 of 240 respondents, 59%, felt Dylan was singing about an adult male. I probably cast the first vote (not stone!), as I usually do, in my polls, and I voted for the first option. If Dylan had only sung "How many roads must a man walk down?" I believe that the referent of "man" could be interpreted by some speakers today to mean any person. That would be the generic meaning of "a man" which has meant "a person," but means that to a decreasing number of English speakers today, myself included.

But Dylan added "before you call him a man." I personally find it difficult to take the meaning of "a man" in this clause to be anything other than 'a male adult.' We parents can speak of our son "becoming a man." We might even say, "Now we can call him a man." But this is my ideolect, and those of others, as shown by the poll results, obviously differ.

Although I like this Dylan song, I'm not sure what he was singing about. I voted for what it sounded like he was singing about. For some people, it is never clear what Dylan is singing about. So some respondents voted that fourth option as the best answer for them.

Why did I post this poll? I wanted to test current understandings of indefinite reference usage of "a man." I was interested, also, in trying to find out if there were differences in percentages of people thinking that what Dylan sang in the 1960s might have a different meaning today. Again, I did not word my poll questions clearly enough to get an answer to that question.

I was stimulated to ask the question in this poll by reading the following comments made by Dr. Wayne Gruden about the translators of the TNIV:
“They are changing a historical document [the Bible],” Grudem said. “It is like someone writing about Bob Dylan’s song from the 1960s, ‘How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?’ and deciding that people today wouldn’t understand that Bob Dylan was using an example of a specific man to teach a general truth, and therefore telling modern 18-34 year olds that Bob Dylan wrote these words in a song: ‘How many roads must a human being walk down, before you call them a person?’"
When I first read those comments I thought that I might be able to poll English speakers to try to determine if their language intutions agreed with those of Dr. Grudem. Now, in retrospect, I'm not sure my poll was worded properly to test these comments. It was worded properly to test his claim if Dr. Grudem meant for his second sentence to claim that Bob Dylan had used the words "a man" to refer to a male adult who represented a general truth about anyone, man or woman, reaching adulthood. If that is what Dr. Grudem was claiming, then 37% of this poll's respondents agreed with him. It would be helpful to discuss Dr. Grudem's comments with him sometime, asking for clarification. Perhaps that can happen someday.

Thank you to each one who voted in this poll. I don't have a sure answer to any of the questions I was asking, although we can see tendencies in the results. I think it's all right not to know some things for sure. Sometimes, the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind!

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At Fri Aug 19, 04:56:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I agree with Wayne Grudem that "Bob Dylan was using an example of a specific man to teach a general truth" - that specific man being himself. And that is why I voted that "Dylan was singing about a male adult", even though in his time the word "man" might have had a gender generic sense.

But I don't agree that such using an example to teach a general truth is general in the Bible. Romans 7 would be an example, but there the first person is explicit. There is certainly no indication that this is what is happening in Bible passages which are contentious for their gender reference.


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