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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The etymological fallacy and translation of metaphor

In the comments to my previous post, Michael Marlowe and I have been interacting about the "etymological fallacy" (decried by James Barr in his seminal book The Semantics of Biblical Language) and literal vs. idiomatic translation of biblical figurative language.

Someone commits the etymological fallacy when they claim that a previous meaning of a word is its current meaning. The etymological route the meaning of a word has taken is often referred to as diachronic meaning, while current meaning is called synchronic meaning. Etymological meanings are interesting and often have some bearing on a word's current meaning. But they often are not the current meaning of a word. Dictionary (or lexicon) entries often do not adequately distinguish between previous meanings of a word and the primary current meaning of a word.

Metaphors and idioms semantically derive from more concrete meanings and create new figurative meanings from them. Such figures of speech have some kind of etymological connection (including recent semantic change for live metaphors) to the more concrete (or "literal") meanings from which they derived. But the figurative meaning is not the literal meaning in the case of metaphors, nor the combined total of the meaning of the individual parts of an idiom.

Many Bible versions typically have a mixture of literal meaning (or etymological meaning for recently coined metaphors) and some figurative meanings for translation of biblical figures of speech. In his book The Word of God In English, Leland Ryken promotes the idea of literally translating many of the biblical figures of speech. Dr. Ryken loves the figurative language of the Bible, as do I. Neither he nor I want any Bible translation to sound stylistically flat, devoid of the beauty of figurative language. But if we literally translate the Bible's figures of speech and our literal translations do not accurate convey their figurative meanings to readers of our translations, our translations for those readers are not accurate.

Current speakers most often use the current meanings for words as their primary meaning, unless a context indicates to them that a word is being used in some currently non-primary, such as figurative or obsolescing, meaning. Some, with a more classical education or who are well-versed in older literature of a language, will also know previous meanings of a word. For instance, some, but not many, current speakers of English know that the word "prevent" in the KJV currently means 'precede' in 1 Thess. 4:15:
For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive [and] remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.
I have often heard individuals preach from the KJV using the wrong meanings of some of its words, because they are not familiar with the meanings some of its words had at the time the KJV was translated. Someone could preach from 1 Thess. 4:15 that those of us who "remain" (that is, are still alive) will not hinder (a current meaning of "prevent") those who are "asleep" (a metaphor) from coming back to life. Their preaching would be sincere, but it would not be based on an accurate understanding of the word "prevent" as used in this KJV verse, which meant 'precede,' not 'hinder.'

Similarly, current speakers usually understand the word "son" to refer to the male offspring of someone. There is, however, a figurative use of the word "son" in Biblical Hebrew which is semantically extended from its 'male offspring' meaning to a meaning of 'one who has the characteristics of.' There are a number of references in the Hebrew Bible to "the sons of the prophets", including this one in 2 Kings 6:1:
And the sons of the prophets said unto Elisha, Behold now, the place where we dwell with thee is too strait for us. (KJV)
Now, unless someone already knows that "sons of the prophets" does not refer to male offspring of the prophets, they will commit the etymological fallacy of understanding this Hebrew idiom in its semantically prior sense as 'male offspring.' These men who spoke to Elisha were not literally sons of the prophets. Rather, they were followers of the prophets. They were students who were training to become like the prophets. Today a number of Bible versions translate this Hebraic figurative meaning of the phrase "sons of", allowing users of those translations to immediately understand the figurative meaning.

We come, then, to specifics of the exchanges between Michael and myself. Michael correctly states in a comment to my preceding post:
Wayne, the Hebrew does not say "length of nose" in Ex. 34:6. There are three different senses for the word aph, and "nostril" is one of them. The other two senses are "face" and "anger." In the place you cite, it is clearly being used in the third sense, "anger." So it's really incorrect to say that the Hebrew word means "nose" here.
Michael correctly notes that 'anger' is one of the meaning senses of Hebrew aph. Had I said that the Hebrew actually meant 'nose' in Ex. 34:6, I would have been wrong. It does not mean 'nose' in this verse. It refers only to anger. A critical question here, and it is an empirical one, is whether or not Hebrew aph in Ex. 34:6, meaning 'anger,' semantically derived from a body part metaphor built on the meaning 'nose.' The Hebrew lexicon HALOT (2001, p. 76) indicates that it did, citing a number of instances in the Hebrew Bible where constructions with the word for nose metaphorically referred to anger, e.g.
snootiness Ps 10:4; in anger there is heavy breathing through the nose and a fire burns inside Dt. 32:22, which is why the nose becomes the organ symbolic of anger.
BDB (Brown-Driver-Briggs) supports the same understanding of Hebrew forms with aph 'nose' as having a metaphorical meaning of 'anger' in appropriate contexts.

All English Bible translators know that in the appropriate contexts aph refers to anger, not a literal nose. And no English Bible translators that I know of have translated aph with its semantically prior etymological sense of 'nose' in any English Bibles that I have checked, and properly so. Were they to have done so, they would have committed the etymological fallacy. But it is still likely that the figurative meaning of 'anger' derived from the Hebrew metaphor based on nose.

But many other body part metaphors are translated in Bible versions with their prior, concrete, "literal" (that is, non-figurative) meanings in a number of English Bible versions, including "the finger of God," "the arm of the Lord," "bowels," "heart," "head," "neck", "forehead," "the ears of the church," and many others. If literal translations of these metaphors accurately communicate their figurative meaning to current English speakers, they are accurate translations. If they do not, it would be well for English translators to put the metaphorical meaning in the translated text, as they did with the metaphor of 'anger' for 'nose' and leave etymological or literal meanings for a footnote.

I suggest that when literal translations of biblical metaphors do not accurately communicate the meaning of those metaphors, we are committing the etymological fallacy just as much as if we had translated Ex. 34:6 referring to nose, rather than anger. For those who object, I would suggest that Ex. 34:6 then also be translated with its non-figurative meaning, and that we teach the metaphorical meaning, as some say should be done for people to understand the literal translations of many other metaphors in the Bible.

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At Tue May 23, 10:07:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne wrote: It does not mean 'nose' in this verse. It refers only to anger.

I'm glad to see this statement, Wayne. But I note that further down in your article you characterize the usage of the word aph in the sense of "anger" as a "figurative" usage. You write, "But it is still likely that the figurative meaning of 'anger' derived from the Hebrew metaphor based on nose" (emphasis added). And so by this means you smuggle the etymological fallacy back into your analysis of the word. You call the sense of "anger" a "figurative" sense. Which it is not. It is regular sense of the word. And in the sentence after that, you include this sense of aph under the category of "body part metaphors." But it is not a metaphor. It is a regular sense of the word. You continue to treat the word as if "anger" were only a "figurative" sense and a "body part metaphor." You are not fully admitting that the word means "only anger" in Exodus 34:6, because your argument depends upon classifying this as a "figurative" or "metaphorical" usage that you can put in the same category as "the arm of the Lord." The "arm of the Lord" really is a metaphor. It is an anthropomorphic figure of speech, and treated as such in the lexicons. But your "long of nose" figure is quite fictitious.

To sum up: the sense "anger" may have originated as a figure or metaphor, but this does not indicate what the word means in the context of Exodus 34:6. Ostensibly you admit this, being aware of the fallacy in it, but then you continue to discuss the word as if the sense "anger" were not a regular sense of the word, as if it were only a "figurative" or "metaphorical" usage in Exodus 34:6.

I do hope I am getting through to you with this tiresome critique, because it's evident that you have not yet extricated yourself from the etymological fallacy.

At Tue May 23, 11:48:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Michael, you wrote "It is regular sense of the word." This is bad English. Did you mean "It is A regular sense of the word"? If so, I agree. Or did you mean "It is THE regular sense of the word"? This is not true, it is just one of the regular senses, and another one is "nose" or "nostril".

How do you distinguish body part metaphors from words for body parts which also have abstract senses which do not have a body part meaning? On what basis do you claim that "long of nose" is different in principle from "the arm of the Lord"? You accept that "the sense "anger" may have originated as a figure or metaphor". But on what basis do you insist that it was no longer a metaphor at the time that the Hebrew Bible was written? If we knew what criteria you are using here, we might be able to evaluate more properly your insistence that this is not a metaphor.

This critique is indeed tiresome because you are simply asserting that this is not a metaphor without providing any evidence to distinguish it from expressions which you accept to be metaphorical.

At Tue May 23, 12:38:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Hello again, Michael. You concluded:

To sum up: the sense "anger" may have originated as a figure or metaphor, but this does not indicate what the word means in the context of Exodus 34:6.

I agree with what you say in both clauses of your sentence.

Ostensibly you admit this,

I hope it's more than just ostensible. It was my intention to state that explicitly and clearly.

being aware of the fallacy in it,

I'm sorry, Michael, but I do not yet understand where there is any fallacy in anything I have written about the meaning of aph in Ex. 34:6.

but then you continue to discuss the word as if the sense "anger" were not a regular sense of the word, as if it were only a "figurative" or "metaphorical" usage in Exodus 34:6.

Then I have miscommunicated to you, Michael. I have agreed with you that 'anger' is a regular sense of the word aph in Ex. 34:6. I am also claiming that the meaning of 'anger' in Ex. 34:6 is semantically derived from the body part metaphor of nose, as supported by the HALOT and BDB lexicographers. It is not so derived in that verse. I have only been speaking about the semantic route that the word aph took before its then current meaning as used in Ex. 34:6.

I am *not* diminishing the lexical status of the meaning of 'anger' in Ex. 34:6 at all. It is appropriate and accurate to list 'anger' as a meaning sense of Hebrew aph. I am only pointing out the semantic route by which aph obtained its meaning of 'anger.'

I do hope I am getting through to you

I do not understand what you are trying to say. As far as I can understand from your comments, you have been saying what I have been saying.

with this tiresome critique, because it's evident that you have not yet extricated yourself from the etymological fallacy.

Your final statement assumes that I have committed an etymological fallacy. I have not. There is no etymological fallacy when one points out the semantic route (diachrony) a word has taken to arrive at its current meaning. I have not claimed that aph means 'nose' in Ex. 34:6. I have only claimed that the meaning in Ex. 34:6 derived from a body part metaphor, a process which is extremely common cross-linguistically. There is a big difference between semantic diachrony and synchrony. It is that difference that James Barr focused upon.

Again, I am NOT saying that when Hebrew speakers or writers used aph, as in Ex. 34:6, to refer to anger that they had in their minds a nose (nor, of course, am I saying that they were nosing around in someone's mind!!). It is entirely possible that the meaning sense of 'anger' was a dead metaphor by the time the book of Exodus was written. It is still a worthy pursuit philologically to study the diachrony of a word, as long as we do not claim that its diachronic route IS its current meaning. I have never done so with this word, or any other word. And this is very important to me since it is foundational to determining adequate and accurate translation of biblical metaphors.

At Tue May 23, 03:05:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

This is too funny. Both of you made an argument based on the idea that the phrase in Exodus 34:6 is a kind of metaphor in which "long of nose" is the "literal" meaning, though it has a "figurative" meaning of "slow to anger," and you compared this to the metaphorical expression "arm of the Lord." Your purpose in this was to suggest that a version which contains "arm of the Lord" should also have "longnosed" at Exodus 34:6, if it were consistent in its treatment of metaphors and idioms. Therefore if we neglect to give your "longnosed" as a translation of Exodus 34:6, then we have no theoretical basis for preferring the literal rendering "arm of the Lord," or any other literal translation of a metaphorical expression. But the argument hit the rocks when I pointed out the fact that there is no "long nosed" figure, metaphor, or idiom in Exodus 34:6. Your assertions about this obviously arose from an etymological fallacy. It is not the same thing as we see in "the arm of the Lord," because there we do have a metaphor, as everyone recognizes. So we have two different things here, one of them being a mere figment of the etymological fallacy (longnosed), and one of them a true metaphor (arm of the Lord). And after I pointed this out, you maintained that your argument continued to be valid in some manner, because you said the tendency to preserve metaphors in a Bible version is not "qualitatively different" from presenting gross and absurd errors of interpretation through an etymological treatment of the words. Any sensible person will see that this argument of yours is unfair, and fallacious, because you are confounding two very different things here. It is one thing to preserve biblical metaphors, and quite another to present a ridiculous misinterpretation in which God has a "long nose."

Peter, you ask on what basis I can say that "it was no longer a metaphor at the time that the Hebrew Bible was written." But you have given me no reason to think that "nose" was at any time a "metaphor" for anger in Hebrew. This idea is based entirely on your etymological treatment of the phrase, and you will have to establish it. Good luck. In the meantime, don't assume that your fallacious analysis of the meaning of the word has any claim on the way others may translate the text.

Wayne, earlier you said that for sake of real communication it would be a good thing to put away the "staw men." But you have constructed a straw man here. If you won't recognize that, and continue attacking this comical strawman as if it represented people like Grudem or me, I will wonder how sincere you were.

At Tue May 23, 03:48:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Michael, I am sorry, but I still see absolutely no basis at all for your repeated assertion that there is a fundamental semantic distinction between the Hebrew words meaning "nostril, nose; anger" and "arm; strength". Both are words with an original or primary sense of a body part, in regular use in the Hebrew Bible, and a second sense which is more abstract, originally of metaphorical origin but by the time the Bible was written probably a "dead metaphor", in other words an established secondary sense of the word.

The only possible argument that you have is one from tradition, that traditional translations have consistently translated the latter word "arm" and not "strength", but the former one according to context. I am not saying that they are wrong to do so. But as a translator I am looking for proper justification for their choice, and so to appeal to the translations themselves is circular argument.

The situation with "nostril, nose; anger" is slightly more complex because it is commonly used together with a word meaning "length" (actually always length in time, rather than in space), and in this expression the main word is always used in its secondary sense of metaphorical origin.

I repeat that my understanding of "nostril, nose; anger" has nothing to do with etymology and I cannot be committing the etymological fallacy. To show this, let's look at the definition of "etymology" in the American Heritage Dictionary:

1. The origin and historical development of a linguistic form as shown by determining its basic elements, earliest known use, and changes in form and meaning, tracing its transmission from one language to another, identifying its cognates in other languages, and reconstructing its ancestral form where possible.
2. The branch of linguistics that deals with etymologies.

In my discussion of the Hebrew word for "nostril, nose; anger" I have at no point referred at all to the origin or historical development of this word, nor to changes in form or meaning, nor to transmission, cognates or ancestral forms. Well, I have referred to senses "originally of metaphorical origin", but in fact my argument by no means depends on this. It depends only on the recognition that the same Hebrew form has, at the same time in the development of the language, two (or more) meanings, one of them "nostril, nose" and the other "anger". I am supposing that a Hebrew speaker would recognise that these are the same word and that there is some link between "anger" and "nostril, nose", just as you are supposing the same of the link between "strength" and "arm". I am not sure whether either link can be proved as a psychological reality to the authors of the Hebrew Bible, so perhaps we are both making assumptions here. I suppose that there is a psychological distinction between words with multiple senses and homonyms, but this psychological distinction is in fact independent of the actual etymology, thus proving the semantic irrelevance of the latter. In fact it matters to me not a whit whether אַף "anger" is etymologically linked to אַף "nostril, nose" or to אַף "also" (although the former link is in fact more probable). What matters is what link might or might not have been perceived by Hebrew speakers and writers at the time and place of origin of the documents in question. And in view of the prevalence in Hebrew of body part "metaphors" (in fact mostly "dead metaphors" or extended senses), I would strongly expect that this too would have been understood by the original speakers as a body part "metaphor". But the quotation marks are deliberate; I would not call this a metaphor, at least not without the qualifier "dead", but I would call it an extended sense of the word.

At Tue May 23, 05:16:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael concluded:

Wayne, earlier you said that for sake of real communication it would be a good thing to put away the "staw men."

And I still hope and pray for that and wish to be a part of getting rid of straw men in the Bible translation debates, Michael. I am totally sincere.

But you have constructed a straw man here. If you won't recognize that,

I'm sorry that I don't, Michael. I don't understand what you are saying. I don't understand how to differentiate between the different kinds of metaphors that you are referring to. I'm totally sincere. It seems clear to me that the meaning sense of 'anger' in Ex. 34:6 is a semantic extension of the concrete body part language. The type of semantic extension appears to be metaphorical. It was probably a dead metaphor, which may be why you are sensing a difference between the semantic relationships of the meanings senses of Hebrew aph and figures such as "arm of the Lord" and "body of Christ" which we can easily recognize as metaphors.

and continue attacking this comical strawman

I'm not trying to be funny, Michael. I'm totally sincere. You can call me deluded if you wish, but if I am, it is unintended. All of my training plus the lexicons HALOT and BDB support my understanding of the the lexical relationships involved in the semantic network of Hebrew aph.

as if it represented people like Grudem or me, I will wonder how sincere you were.

If that's the actual issue with you, Michael, then I apologize. If I have communicated to you the message you have heard and are reflecting back with your final statementg, then I have not communicated to you clearly enough that my posts about translation of biblical metaphors have nothing to do with you. I don't even know if they have anything to do with Dr. Grudem. I haven't heard him address the issue of translating metaphor.

I am just trying to address the difficult issues involved in translation of biblical metaphors to any language. There are different kinds of metaphors, including the categories of dead and live metaphors. Each provides challenges for accurate Bible translation.

Shalom, brother, I don't know what else to say. I've said everything I know what to say on this topic right now. I don't know how else we might be able to understand each other better. Perhaps it would help for you to explain what, if any, semantic relationships you might find among the three main senses of the Hebrew word aph. That's the only thing that crosses my mind that might help.

And now I lay me down any straw man to sleep. If there is a straw man I hope he dies before I wake!


At Tue May 23, 09:23:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne wrote: I still hope and pray for that and wish to be a part of getting rid of straw men in the Bible translation debates, Michael.

Wyne, This is really pathetic. You don't even see it. I don't think it will serve any good purpose to continue the discussion. Have a nice nap.

Peter wrote: I repeat that my understanding of "nostril, nose; anger" has nothing to do with etymology and I cannot be committing the etymological fallacy.

Peter, once I thought you were incorrigible. But now I think there is hope for you. I do see your mind working. But you should stay away from the heat of controversy, because it distorts your thinking too much. Do some studying and writing away from the pressure of debate, and you will do well.

God bless.


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