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Monday, June 26, 2006

Bibles in NEU (Normal English Usage)

James comments on a recent post:
Perhaps we get too caught up with "...normal English usage..." sometimes. If normal English usage was a vocabulary of 300 words, would the Biblical texts and other Sacred texts thus be limited? If the richness of a language suffers over time, is there not some way to repair the damage, or at least stop the bleeding? "Normal English Usage" is starting to feel like a crutch, or even a walker. Eventually, it appears that NEU (normal english usage) will become a stretcher.
James raises an important point which needs to be clarified. That is the distinction between NEU (Normal English Usage) and LEP (Limited English Proficiency). Native speakers of any dialect of English have vocabularies far, far larger than 300 in number, which might be the number of words found in the BBE (Bible in Basic English), which was designed for LEP speakers.

I have no idea how many words a "normal" speaker of English knows but I would guess it would in the thousands, perhaps 10,000 or so.

My own opinion is that the level of English we use in translations to be used by millions of speakers of standard dialects of English should be equivalent to the levels of Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek found in the original biblical texts. There are thousands of different words found in the original biblical texts, but nearly all of them would have been easily understood by all fluent Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek speakers who lived during the time period that the authors of the individual books of the Bible lived. Those authors did not used a limited vocabulary. Nor did they use a specialist, technical vocabulary. They did not use colloquial "street language," for the most part, although there are a few examples of such language in the Bible. Nor did they, for the most part, use the elevated classical language of Socrates, Plato, and the other classical authors of ancient times.

I would think that it would be appropriate to use "normal English" in Bible translations, English which is grammatical and understood by millions of fluent speakers of English around the world. There are some speciality audiences, such as foreign students learning English as a second language or Native Americans (First Nations people) who can benefit from Bibles produced with limited vocabularies. Such Bibles have already been produced and have been used with such audiences, such as the New Life Bible for Native American (First Nations peoples). The Good News Bible was originally produced for speakers of English as a second language. But it opened up the meaning of the Bible to so many native speakers of English (including myself when I first read it in the late 1960s) that it was soon marketed for all speakers of English. The Good News Bible, by the way, is not written with a limited English vocabulary.


At Mon Jun 26, 05:40:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


I work in a public sector school with many other women of very diverse backgrounds, but many have been making the journey with me on the BBB, as we explore the text from a woman's point of view.

Many of them have shared with me their own spiritual journeys. Yesterday a woman teacher aide and youth counsellor, an expert teen worker, but hindered in her own education by learning difficulties, shared with me this story.

She was brought up in a Catholic school and felt that she had never read the Bible, and could not understand the Catholic Bible at all. After being approached by some JW's she said that she would undertake to read the Bible, but she would chose her own version. She then was given some scripture notes, acquired a Bible and read it straight through over a year. She talked about how wonderful it was to use a modern Bible that meant something to her. Over and over she remarked on how she could never understand the other Bibles. Then when the JW's came back she was able to show them in her BIble what the verses meant that they were discussing with her.

She spoke with such excitement about how she had herself been able to understand and explain the meaning of someting in the Bible. I finally asked her what Bible she had read and she said "Good News."

I did not in any way elicit this endorsement. I was entirely surprised by her story because we were discussing something else at the time. I was showing her some of my own writing about children and she commented on how it was meaningful to her. Then she volunteered this story about the Bible.

At Mon Jun 26, 10:55:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Tue Jun 27, 03:19:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anonymous wrote: "I don't believe there is evidence to support that the language of the Hebrew Bible was understood by all fluent Hebrew speakers at the time of its composition." Well, Anon, I don't believe that in 3000 years time there will be evidence to support that the language of your comment above is understood by all fluent English speakers at the time of its composition. On the other hand, there is a general presumption that what is written in any language at any time is expected to be understood by most speakers of that language at that time. Exceptions might be technical writing using specialised vocabulary - but even so the grammatical constructions would normally be understandable to all, only the vocabulary would be obscure. I accept that much modern legal writing and some official jargon are beyond the easy comprehension of many fluent English speakers, but this is surely not intentional but largely because the authors have not taken proper care about how they right. Yes, there is some deliberately archaising language in use, especially in churches, but even so care is taken that it is not so archaic that it is not understood by most hearers.

And, of course, Greek is another example where texts were written in commonly understood language. So I the general rule I am putting forward applies not just to modern times and languages. What evidence do you have that Hebrew is any different from English and Greek in this respect?

So, Anon, I think you need to prove your case that the Hebrew Bible was not understood by most Hebrew speakers at the time it was written, and abandon your neat attempt to claim that something highly improbable is true just because the evidence to prove it false is not available.

References to the obscurity and difficulty of texts like Job refer to a time many centuries after their composition, and perhaps in a different geographical area. Many modern readers find Shakespeare difficult, and almost all have problems with Chaucer. That does not mean that they were hard to understand for their contemporaries. After all, both Chaucer and Shakespeare were writing for popular mass audiences, who would not have appreciated works they could not understand.

At Tue Jun 27, 11:24:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Tue Jun 27, 02:31:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

I guess when I made my original reply, I was operating under my own personal "larger scope" with the term NEU.

However, I appreciate the clarification by Wayne, and perhaps I should adopt this way of looking at it instead of lumping everything together into one huge category

I feel the post will help many people, and it does bring up some good issues, which is what this Blog is all about (most of the time,:).)

At Tue Jun 27, 02:34:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Oh yah, forgot to mention. For me, I had broadened my definition of NEU into "anything that is standard in english." This included vocabulary, grammar, structure, etc.

However, seeing the confusion that it can cause... I am going to go with Waynes definition.

:D Keep blogging Wayne!!!

At Tue Jun 27, 02:38:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Tue Jun 27, 03:19:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Matthew said:

For me, I had broadened my definition of NEU into "anything that is standard in english." This included vocabulary, grammar, structure, etc.

We're on the same page, Matthew. Thanks for your own clarification. Isn't it good that we who are living today can clarify things with each other? I wish we could clarify things with biblical authors. Maybe we wouldn't have any debates over Bible translation then! Well, maybe, and maybe not!!


At Tue Jun 27, 04:03:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anon, I more or less agree that "there was no evidence that the Hebrew Bible was generally comprehensible". But also there is no evidence that the Hebrew Bible was NOT generally comprehensible. Therefore I must disagree that "the balance of evidence points towards a difficult work at the time of composition"; the balance of zero against zero points nowhere at all!

Of course it is unlikely that your comments will survive but little else from this generation - although I am sure that the writers of for example the Elephantine papyri would have found just as likely the similar proposition concerning their letters.

Yes, there is a lot of variety in the Hebrew Bible, but that is adequately explained in that it is known that it was composed over several hundred years and in various dialect areas, and so by Occam's razor we can exclude the further hypothesis, for which there is no evidence, that some of it was written in a language not understood by most people of its time. But I can accept your restated point 3 with the clear qualifications "Some parts" and "may". Also it is clear to you and me, but maybe not to everyone reading this, that we agree in referring only to linguistic, not conceptual, difficulty. But then I don't accept that academic works are linguistically difficult, except for the special issue of technical terminology, and a certain tendency to show off with sentences which are long but can be unpacked by anyone with a reasonable education.

I agree with your beef about Bibles which make the style too homogeneous. I'm not so sure about those which "often present a misleading appearance of the degree of our (contemporary) understanding of the text". Many translations have footnotes like "the meaning of this phrase is uncertain". But the responsibility of the translator is to make their best judgment about the meaning of a phrase, rather than to produce gibberish because the text is ambiguous.


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