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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Linguistic self-awareness and Bible versions

As visitors to this blog know, I like to survey people to gather empirical answers to questions. My polls usually are about language usage and often relate to how closely the speech of respondents conforms to wordings found in different Bible versions. For the past five months I have had the following poll active on my Bible Translation website, as well as this blog:
Bible versions English quality

Which English Bible version has wordings closest to how you normally speak and write? [799 votes total]

King James Version (63) 8%
New International Version (144) 18%
Today's New International Version (33) 4%
New Living Translation (120) 15%
New American Standard Bible (69) 9%
English Standard Version (52) 7%
Holman Christian Standard Bible (36) 5%
New Revised Standard Version (31) 4%
Good News Translation (10) 1%
Contemporary English Version (40) 5%
New Century Version (11) 1%
New King James Version (29) 4%
New American Bible (10) 1%
New Jerusalem Bible (24) 3%
NET Bible (14) 2%
Revised Standard Version (9) 1%
The Message (72) 9%
God's Word (14) 2%
Revised English Bible (18) 2%
With almost 800 votes so far, I find the responses most interesting. One thing that stands out to me is that many individuals are not very aware of how they actually speak and write. Some people, among them linguists and others who have their "ears to the ground," are tuned in to how others speak (and write). And sometimes these people are also aware of how they themselves speak and write. But most people just speak and write without much self-reflection and analysis of their own language patterns.

I have been listening to how people speak all my life. My father did the same, and I'm sure I picked up that trait from him. 63 respondents said that the KJV was the Bible version which had "wordings closest to how you normally speak and write." I would like to listen to some of these 63 to see how closely they actually speak and write in the wordings of the KJV. Yes, some preachers and others who are dedicated to the KJV sprinkle their speech with KJVisms, but I suspect that there are not too many KJVisms when they "normally speak and write" such as when they are talking to their children about how their school day went, or talking to their neighbor about what kind of weed killer they use on their lawn.

Now, I don't think the problem here is simply one of lack of linguistic self-awareness. I think a major part of the problem is the poll itself. Even though I worded the poll question carefully, many Bible users do not have much experience with Bible versions which have wordings closest to how they "normally speak and write." So many respondents probably answered the poll as best as they could, thinking about Bible versions they are most familiar with and choosing the one which has "wordings closest to how you normally speak and write." That response does not mean that the version chosen does have wordings close to how they "normally speak and write." It just means that in the mind of the respondent they were answering the poll question, stating which of the versions they are familiar with has "wordings closest to how you normally speak and write."

For me to discover what versions actually do have wordings closest to how the respondents "normally speak and write," I should have had sample wordings from each of the versions and asked people to choose which wordings were closest to how they normall speak and write. And to try to get as objective responses as possible, I should not have labeled the versions that the wordings came from.

In actual fact, a high percentage of the almost 800 respondents probably normally speak and write using the vocabulary and syntax of the more idiomatic versions listed in the poll, such as the CEV, NCV, or GW.

To create an adequate poll to test how closely the normal speech and writing of people is to the English found in various Bible versions would be a large task, probably larger than can be carried out by the simple polls we typically post on our websites. A really accurate and thorough testing of the speech and writing of English Bible users would require a much longer test with a variety of different kinds of sample wordings. If any of you are in a graduate study program in communications, communication theory, or some areas of biblical studies, and if you are keenly interested in how closely Bible versions conform to normal speech and writing, this would be a good topic for an M.A. thesis. It would be a significant contribution to the study of English language usage and naturalness of English Bible versions.

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At Wed Sep 07, 01:14:00 PM, Blogger Trevor Jenkins said...

These results are very interesting. Like you, Wayne, I wonder whether people really understand their own language usage. By which I mean, these results looks as if some Bible readers voted for their prefered translation merely out of habit and not from any lack of knowledge of their own ideolect.

I like the polls you create; you probe neglected areas. Unfortunately, the polls are constrained by the nature of the available polling software. For example, it doesn't allow for cross-checking questions.

We need good to collect data on aspects of Bible translation and publishing. But questionnaire usage is not trivial. Following a link on different blog got me to the Newsweek site and their report In Search of the Spiritual. They conducted a survey of (American) religious behaviour and spiritual formation. For online readers of the article they include an interactive version of the questionnaire so we can compare our responses to those in the sample. There are a number of problems in the formulation of their questionnaire; leading questions, ambiguous wording, inconsistent response choices, limit of don't know when the respondent wants to answer other, demographic information collected in mid questionnaire, similar questions asked with no verification that the interviewee is answering the appropriate variant. Some vital demographic question were not there: gender, and bizarrely for a survey of US attitudes the online version did not verify the interviewee's country of origin/residence.

Creating a good (and valid) questionnaire is a difficult task. I've been working on a questionnaire to analyse people's responses to Bibles. The outline set of questions is there but when checking how each question is worded things have to change; typically one question becomes two or more so that examples do not become leading. Also cross-checking questions are needed so that if respondents merely voted for their preferred rather than responding to the question can be highlighted. If there were a web site with survey hosting facilities I could perhaps issue my questionnaire.

We need more polls like this one and then in-depth questionnaires that help us to understand and explain what people really do.

At Thu Sep 08, 04:46:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, one thing which you probably could do with the poll software you use is to choose a Bible verse and put up various versions of it, and then ask people to say which version corresponds best to how they normally speak and write. But the verse would have to be chosen carefully. You should avoid anything too well known or too explicitly theological, to suppress people's "this is how the Bible ought to sound" instinct. Something from OT narrative would make sense, especially a verse whose origin is not immediately obvious. But you would also need a verse which is representative and offers a wide range of different readings. So it might be hard work to find something suitable!

At Thu Sep 08, 06:15:00 AM, Anonymous Pat said...

As I look at these results, my cynical side suspects people weren't answering your question honestly but were voting for the Bible version they think is best for other reasons.

It's sad, but many people have naively mad "discussion" about Bible versions an all-or-nothing war. You never concede anything positive about a version that's different from your sacred cow because giving an inch means losing the war.

So, for instance, those who think the KJV is the only Bible anyone should ever read would likely vote for that version in a poll like this, even though were they honestly to consider the question and not be threatened by it, they wouldn't say that those version most closely match their speech patterns. Good grief, how could it?

KJV-only people are not the only ones who would do this.

So, to be honest, Wayne, I don't see how this poll could be considered empirical at all. Moreover, I doubt the conclusion to be drawn from this poll is that people are unaware of their speech patterns. Rather, I think that too many of the respondents simply are the types who would put a poll like this to use for their own ends rather than the ends specified by the poll itself.

Sad, cynical maybe, but I bet it's true.

At Thu Sep 08, 08:16:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Pat, I had had similar wonderings. There have been several Bible versions popularity polls on the Internet (including blogs) and I was hoping that the specific wording on my poll would elicit different kinds of responses, but I think there is probably some element of the popularity element entering into my poll results, even with my specific wording about one's own speech patterns.

At Thu Sep 08, 08:20:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Good idea, Peter. I've done some of that kind of testing in the past, such as on the Bible Translation discussion list. But I think it might require several verses, to help respondents differentiate different genre, etc. among the versions. It's not easy making a good questionnaire to test things like this, but I think it is important. I received an email from someone yesterday who needs to do an M.A. thesis and picked up on my comments about a thesis topic being in here somewhere. I gave one idea as doing good field testing of English versions. I don't think it's ever been done and if testing is done with enough respondents (of varying familiarity with Bible language) and a variety of Bible passages, the results could be of significant value to English Bible translation teams.


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