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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Editing out the inspired singular "they"

James 2 is a real challenge to gender guidelines. I wonder if there was a statement of concern against the NIV for editing out gender neutral terms along with the inspired singular "they".

14 τί τὸ ὄφελος ἀδελφοί μου ἐὰν πίστιν λέγῃ τις ἔχειν ἔργα δὲ μὴ ἔχῃ μὴ δύναται ἡ πίστις σῶσαι αὐτόν

14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?

15 ἐὰν ἀδελφὸς ἢ ἀδελφὴ γυμνοὶ ὑπάρχωσιν καὶ λειπόμενοι τῆς ἐφημέρου τροφῆς

15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.

16 εἴπῃ δέ τις αὐτοῖς ἐξ ὑμῶν ὑπάγετε ἐν εἰρήνῃ θερμαίνεσθε καὶ χορτάζεσθε

16 If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,"

μὴ δῶτε δὲ αὐτοῖς τὰ ἐπιτήδεια τοῦ σώματος τί τὸ ὄφελος

but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?

17 οὕτως καὶ ἡ πίστις ἐὰν μὴ ἔχῃ ἔργα νεκρά ἐστιν καθ' ἑαυτήν

17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. NIV
The first thing I noticed in this chapter of James in the NIV is that three different words are translated by man in English. They are ανθρωπος, a "person"; ανηρ, a "man" or "citizen"; and τις, the gender neutral "someone".

But even odder is the way that the Greek was tidied up in English in the NIV. Note the "him" and "his" in verse 16, "if one of you says to him" and then "does nothing about his physical needs". In fact, in the Greek it says, "to them".

Somehow an English stylist must have come along and decided that the singular "they" was a product of the English translation, not the Greek, and edited it out. The TNIV has restored it. But if singular "they" is acceptable in Greek, why isn't it used more often? I don't know - maybe this one was just overlooked. Each epistle was written by a different author, or scribe, etc. They all had their preferences. So do we.

What is even odder is that the ESV, which does include the inspired singular "they", but whose translators have sworn, up, down and around that the singular of anthropos should be translated as "man", has suddenly translated anthropos as "person" in verse 20 - and inserted the word "you".
ὦ ἄνθρωπε κενέ
you foolish person
I wonder if this goes against the Colorado Springs Guidelines!

And at the end of all that, how many of us stopped to think about how we can help to clothe and feed our brothers and sisters. We don't need good grammar for that. Let us remember Rahab.



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20 Comments:

At Thu Apr 26, 08:35:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

Great post Suzanne.
Actually, you missed one. The plurals begin with the adjective γυμνοὶ in v. 15. This is a case where the adjective does not agree with the nouns in number after two singular nouns connected by ἢ. Perhaps this is because following the feminine singular ἀδελφὴ with the masculine singular γυμνὸς as a predicate adjective would have been too awkward. So he treated the ἢ as if it were a και. Once this decision was made, the ensuing plurals aren't so striking. Do you have other examples of ancient Greek singular "they"? My suspicion is that the answer to your question about why the NT authors didn't use singular "they" more often, is because there really was no such category per se, and the cases like this where something extenuating pushed them into a disagreement in number were relatively few.

As for how English translators should treat this passage, I'll admit it's a tough one. But I lean toward using "they" and living with the disagreement like James did.

I would say, though, that the NIV English stylists should at least get credit for their grammatical consistency, and their comfortability with the perfectly acceptable inclusive use of the English word "he". This is one of many cases that could be shown to a Christian woman who reads the NIV and feels excluded by all the masculine pronouns. She could simply be shown that here, the word "him" is plainly used for either a brother or a sister. That observation along with a reference to the inclusive use of masculine pronouns from any English grammar published before 1990 should suffice to ease her worries--that is, as long as her concern is really one of how to read the Bible, and not one of advancing an ideology.

 
At Thu Apr 26, 08:41:00 PM, Blogger Alan Knox said...

Good discussion and great reminder at the end! Thanks!

-Alan

 
At Thu Apr 26, 09:04:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Eric,

I wrote this in a fairly light tone, but you are making me think. I don't know if singular "they" is a category in English, but certainly this example was more awkward than usual in Greek. Tis followed by auton is not too awkward.

Frankly, I never noticed the pronouns in the Bible. That was not an issue, but it does make a distinct difference now when I hear a generic "she" used. I do sit up and notice.

The things that just sound completely off are the following,

1. The peacemakers shall be called the sons of God.

2. Brothers, sll brothers, except for my own two that I grew up with and my blogbrothers, this because they are, in fact, male. I have no female brothers.

3. Using the word "man" for "human" or "people".

On singular "they", I am not a prescriptive grammarian. Prescriptive grammar is much like TV for me. I would simply rather live without it.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 06:33:00 AM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

"On singular "they", I am not a prescriptive grammarian. Prescriptive grammar is much like TV for me. I would simply rather live without it."

I'm not familiar with grammarian debates of "prescriptive" versus whatever the opposite is (descriptive?). So I'm sure I'll learn plenty of new things from all of you linguists by bringing this up. But have you really managed not to be prescriptive? If a child says, "Bobby and me are gonna go play," won't you tell her she should say, "Bobby and I"? And when you do that, aren't you being prescriptive?

I have a hunch that "prescriptive" might sometimes get used on this blog as a label for grammatically correct Bibles with the purpose of defending more colloquial ones. But when you get right down to it, you're all more prescriptive than you probably admit. With the English speaking world being so large and diverse, there's a great value to having relatively few sets of standardized rules that are written in textbooks and learned in school. Naturally, English does change, and the teaching of it needs to change with it. But these two things happen together and are not mutually exclusive. The benefits we get from having a language that is regulated this way are too great to ignore (just ask the folks who tried the failed experiment of teaching Ebonics for English in grade school). I think if we recognize the important place that rules and standardization do play in English then it would be hard to suggest that English Bibles shouldn't follow these rules except as novelty Cottonpatch-like versions.

Sorry, I'm mixing thoughts from comments on different blog posts. Probably most of what I just said here belongs on the last post about Matt 19:11 where I complained about the grammar of the HCSB. But both places brought up this "prescriptivist" idea. So...

 
At Fri Apr 27, 08:14:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Eric commented:

I'm not familiar with grammarian debates of "prescriptive" versus whatever the opposite is (descriptive?). So I'm sure I'll learn plenty of new things from all of you linguists by bringing this up. But have you really managed not to be prescriptive? If a child says, "Bobby and me are gonna go play," won't you tell her she should say, "Bobby and I"? And when you do that, aren't you being prescriptive?

Good observations, Eric. The basic difference between a prescriptive grammarian and a descriptive one is that a descriptive grammarian discovers the rules of a language from how people actually use the language. A descriptive grammarian can observe that a majority (?) of English speakers say "for you and me" instead of "for you and I". But descriptive grammarians also notice the shift taking place, and that someday the majority of speakers may say "for you and I". Grammatical correctness is found in usage by the majority of speakers, rather than in grammar books. Grammar books are written by people who believe they know how a language should be spoken. But sometimes they are teaching artificial rules such as not splitting infinitives (based on Latin where it was impossible to split infinities), or a proscription again using singular "they" when singular "they" has been used since 1400 A.D. and is used by some of the best English authors, such as C.S. Lewis, translators of the KJV, and many others.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 08:43:00 AM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

But Wayne, the grammar books and the usage of people work together. I don't think observation of usage and prescription of rules are mutually exclusive. The use of prescriptions in English language provides us with certain benefits, like a network of Universities where similar dialectical expectations will exist for paper-writing regardless of geography. Also, see my latest comment on the Matt 19:11 post (this is going to get confusing). The fact that a usage is found among examples of great masters of English does not mean that their usage of it in one context establishes its correctness for other contexts. Acknowledging that exceptions exist, and that certain situations are more demanding of rule adherence than others, is not the same as proving the nonexistence of the rules. Suzanne's example from James is a good case where the situation was more amenable to a singular usage of "they" than other situations would be, both in the Greek and English. And if you are going to acknowledge the use of singular "they" based on usage, then you must also acknowledge the use of gender inclusive "he". The current movement of replacing all the occurrences of "he" in place of "he or she" with "they" is only partially based on English usage, but largely based on the hard-to-explain idea that inclusive "he" is somehow sexist. By the way, I concede that opponents of that movement seem to be waging a losing battle. But their cause is noble nonetheless. The English language lost a great tool when it lost the distinction between plural "you" distinguished from the singular "thou." To lose the inclusive "he" and always replace it with the ambiguously plural or singular "they" does not lend itself to maximal clarity, which is one of the principles I know you value.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 08:53:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Eric responded:

And if you are going to acknowledge the use of singular "they" based on usage, then you must also acknowledge the use of gender inclusive "he".

True, and I do so. That is what a descriptive linguist, like myself, does. We observe how people use language and describe it. We also observe how a majority of people use a language. And we observe which grammatical constructions people consider better than others. It is important to know which constructions are considered better if you are applying for some jobs. You will have a better chance at getting the job if you speak according to a dialect that the employer prefers.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 09:12:00 AM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

"We also observe how a majority of people use a language."
This is a bold claim. I can't imagine claiming to know how the majority of people use English. It seems much more manageable to learn English from one of the countless textbooks in existence and trusting that many other people will join me in this than by polling the English-speaking population of the planet before I can know what is and isn't good English.

Ironically, the use of inclusive "he" has all but disappeared from the grammar and style books. In its place, writers are being positively encouraged to find gender-neutral alternatives, including singular "they". So, in effect, the proponents of increasing usage of singular "they", who appeal to descriptive linguistics in their defense, are liable to get their way precisely by using prescriptions to force conformity on others.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 09:45:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

So, in effect, the proponents of increasing usage of singular "they", who appeal to descriptive linguistics in their defense, are liable to get their way precisely by using prescriptions to force conformity on others.

There is obviously a mix of different forces in play. Look at the lost "thou" and "thee". I don't think there was any way to turn that around. Even the Quakers who did keep it, used it contrary to the prescriptive rules. They used "thee" as the subject form, instead of the object form only.

If a child says, "Bobby and me are gonna go play," won't you tell her she should say, "Bobby and I"? And when you do that, aren't you being prescriptive?

I wouldn't actually do that. Personally, in speech, I prefer to say, "him" and "I", to "he" and "I", as the subject, because this matches the disjunctive pronoun behaviour in French and simply sounds right to me. But I might try to alter this if I felt that it would give someone the wrong impression of me.

I also know that when I refer to children that I teach, and I often teach in a one-to-one situation, I will say something like "But if the child is having trouble discriminating the sounds, they will sometimes not be able to articulate the correct sound, even if they do recognize the word."

I do talk like that. I teach boys and girls equally and I do not like to hold in my head the idea of a male when talking about a female etc, but I don't like to restrict the concepts to either males or females. I teach dyslexic girls as well as boys and I find that there is already enough bias in the literature to the effect that male students have more difficulty in langauge and reading. I find that girls have almost equal difficulty. There may be a slight statistical difference but much of the data is skewed by perception.

I read a particular professional literature that has decided that all teachers should be generic "she" and all students are generic "he" and I notice and it irritates me extremely. Some of our teachers are male, and half our students are female.

I think generic "he" has had a checkered history, not as strong as one might think. I am glad enough to see it on the way out, although I never was never proactive on this. I think Wayne is the English stylist on this blog anyway. I sort of get by without thinking about these things unless I have to.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 12:41:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

She could simply be shown that here, the word "him" is plainly used for either a brother or a sister.

I don't thnk that would "ease her worries", as you say. Either women have to concede all, or we all concede equally. That is the issue.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 01:57:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

Who's talking about conceding anything? I'm only talking about allowing words to mean what they mean. If English (like Greek, Hebrew, and most European languages) happens to have a word that can apply particularly to a male or generically to either a male or female, then a woman who reads that word is not enduring anything the slightest bit malicious unless she has previously committed herself to the notion that there is something sexist about the existence of such a word. If that is the case, then she is not the victim of anything but her own desire for victimhood.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 02:07:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

I suppose my point might be better made if I make it less close to home and simply make my observation from the Greek. Here we have a series of adjectives and pronouns that are formally masculine plural and plainly being applied to either a man or a woman. Suzanne, as a reader of this Greek text, do you really feel like you are being forced to concede something by it's inclusive use of masculine gendered words?

 
At Fri Apr 27, 03:40:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I can't imagine claiming to know how the majority of people use English.

Well, we linguists are language scientists, so one of our jobs is to scientifically observe and catalog language usage. We are able to conduct statistically reliable surveys on language usage. We don't have to survey every individual to know how a majority of speakers speak. We can conduct scientifically valid random sampling of different speaker groups and extrapolate to the majority.

It seems much more manageable to learn English from one of the countless textbooks in existence and trusting that many other people will join me in this than by polling the English-speaking population of the planet before I can know what is and isn't good English.

But that isn't how we learn English, or how anyone learns any language, for that matter. We learn language from our parents and other caregivers when we are very young. We do not learn language from textbooks. Textbooks can tell us how English grammarians believe we *should* speak our language. Often, but not always, that aligns with the actual rules of language usage we learn from our parents.

We quit saying "thee" and "thou" hundreds of years ago not because of textbooks, and not because of a Bible (after all, the most influential Bible until a few decades ago still used "thee" and "thou"), but because people stopped saying "thee" and "thou." I know that sounds circular, but it really is simply an observation of what happened, not of any motivation for what caused that language change.

There is nothing wrong with splitting infinitives. The rule was an artificial one created to imitate Latin where it is impossible to split and infinitive because Latin infinitives are single words. Many grammarians used to study Latin (and often Greek) and thought that English grammar needed to follow Latin rules of grammar. But every language has its own rules. And the rules gradually change over time.

The English language has been experiencing use of different generic pronouns for the past 500 years. Some speakers have used generic "he" and others singular "they." In the 1800s some English grammarians declared that "he" was the correct generic pronoun. That was language policing. Eventually, their prescription made its way into all English grammar books. But it didn't keep English speakers, including translators of the KJV and a number of well-known and respected authors from using singular "they."

In the past few decades people have suggested a variety of English generic pronouns, which do not sound either masculine ("he") or plural ("they"). Most suggestions have failed such as the suggestion to use the made-up pronoun e.

Those who were taught a previous way of speaking often resist, for one reason or another, changing to the new way of speaking. But some changes win out and others fade by the wayside. No one, not even language police from the left (feminists) or the right (Grudem et al), has been successful at making people speak according to the patterns that they prescribe. People only change their ways of speaking when they feel a need to do so.

It isn't simply the newer writing guidelines at universities and newspapers which have been influencing usage of English generic pronouns. English speakers have been struggling with what generic pronoun to use for hundreds of years. The French are fortunate that they have a true generic pronoun, on, which is singular and inclusive. It sounds neither masculine nor feminine. It has worked for the French for a long time. I predict that English speakers will eventually settle on an inclusive pronoun that a majority of speakers feel comfortable with. Whoops, notice how I naturally ended my last sentence!

:-)

I've enjoyed these exchanges with you, Eric. Nice to have you around.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 04:02:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

If English ... happens to have a word that can apply particularly to a male or generically to either a male or female, then ...

But it doesn't, at least in the variety of English I speak. At least, "man" and "he" are not such words, although I suppose "person" is as you can call an individual man a "person".

 
At Fri Apr 27, 04:33:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

The last two comments have specifically addressed my observations as if the determinative patterns of English are those which are spoken. But this is only partially true. The English I usually speak is not the same as what I write, particularly if I am submitting something as a graded assignment or (hopefully in the future) to be published. To learn how properly to conform to the expectations of professors and publishers, as a matter of fact, I do depend very much on rules that are prescribed in books. As linguists, I'm sure that you probably already have a name for this aspect of language rules, which are different in different contexts, particularly written versus spoken contexts. I would not at all presume that by studying the Hebrew of the Bible I am learning how ancient Israelites spoke colloquially. My remarks about disjoining prepositions from their objects were along these lines as well, so don't need repeating. But, since you bring up splitting of infinitives, I should say that I would include them in the same way. You may try to prescribe to me that there is nothing wrong with splitting infinitives, but I have had enough professors who thought otherwise that it would be foolish for me to try prescribing to the that the rule they follow is incorrect. Now, not only am I careful not to split infinitives in the papers I submit, but it bothers me when I read scholarly works that do it. Like it or not, it IS a rule. As long as it bothers people, particularly people who give us our grades or review the articles we submit to journals, there is something wrong with doing it.

Finally, you're certainly right about your ability to use sampling to become confident about how most people speak. But it would be elitist of linguists to suppose that other English users need to acquire that kind of specialized knowledge to learn how to use the language properly. It's much more utilitarian to let grammarians prescribe what is right. And naturally, observation of how language is used must be a part of that prescriptive process--the two things must work together. Then ordinary English users like myself can learn how to use the language properly by being taught in school and studying it in books. Of course this process won't determine our colloquial usage, which will vary from place to place. But it will give us practical guidance in using a standard form of the language that transcends colloquial idiosyncrasies.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 04:34:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Eric,

I try to defend the freedom to use a wide range of language styles. There is the generic "she", the generic "he" and the generic "they", a nice variety.

This post was just about an over zealous editor. A little quirk I thought.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 04:48:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Yes, Eric, there are differences between spoken and written English. Written English is typically a little more formal, and, as you noted, concerned with following stylistic guidelines set by some institution or style books.

I typically refer to English speakers but I intend that to cover writers as well. All English speakers speak, but not all write, or at least not all write very much. Speaking, of course, is a skill which precedes writing.

But for Bible translation, I think we need to be concerned with writing style, although I think that the language in Bible translations should not be so different from spoken style that it becomes difficult for lower level readers to follow. There is surely a happy balance in there somewhere.

I like balance.

:-)

 
At Fri Apr 27, 05:04:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

First off, thanks for the welcome, I found this blog from the sidebar at NTGateway, and I'm glad I did.

I also like balance, and may not be as far off from you as I thought.

But I would add that a Bible translation that conforms to prescriptive grammatical principles may differ quite a bit from how many of its readers speak, but that doesn't necessarily put it beyond their reading ability. In the list of translations of Matt 19:11 on the earlier post it is probably true that the HCSB conforms to how its readers speak. But the same readers would not have any difficulty with the "to whom"'s found in the other formal translations. For a Bible translation to use solecisms in its English style as a way to sound more like some form of colloquial spoken English there really is no payoff in understandability. On the other hand, since colloquial spoken forms of English are more variable from group to group, an English Bible version might well be more understandable and/or tolerable to a greater number of people if it conforms its style to the prescriptions found in English grammars rather than the idiosyncrasies of the spoken English of some group, even a group that comprises the majority.

 
At Fri Apr 27, 09:30:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

Good thoughts, Suzzane. i wonder if guidelines like Colorado (or whatever it's called) become straitjackets. I guess to "protect" God's Word, that is what these guidelines were meant to be. And in this day and age we can point out the inconsistencies for those who care (and I'm glad some do). Though, as you point out, let's not miss the point in the process!

 
At Fri Apr 27, 10:00:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I appreciate a formal Bible translation, but I also like the less formal ones as well. I have never noticed a singular "they" or other solecism while reading the Bible, unless I was out to look for them. I often do notice when something is a distinct shift from one translation to another or when it is different from the Greek.

I don't think that I have ever once in all the writing I do, stopped and edited for a split infinitive, misplaced prepostion, or singular "they". I have edited for other things like balance and rhythm.

I remember distinctly being taught not to start a sentence with "and" but now I do it all the time. I do care about spelling though, and I make an effort to spell correctly but that is impaired by my poor keyboarding.

Yes, Ted, I think the CSG may indeed be straitjackets! I don't know why they were necessary. It is not as if any one particular Bible translation was forced on anyone. I don't know why the different translations needed gender guidelines at all.

 

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