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Monday, October 22, 2007

The Law of Leasts

We’re coming up on the end of October and I’m a month behind in everything. (That’ll teach me to arrange for two trips out of the US within 10 days of one another.) I owe my discourse students two homeworks that are still ungraded and I’m sitting here facing a pile of midterms. So I’ll procrastinate a little more and post on a point I wanted to post on September 25th.

Why September 25th?

Because it’s the fourth anniversary of the death of my best friend.

Fred and I met in graduate school in January of 1971. We had Linguistics 471 together with George Lakoff. I was literally fresh off the plane from Vietnam. Fred had come to grad school in the fall just back from a stint in the Army in Korea. We had a lot of other things in common. We had both been undergrad chemistry majors. We both liked sports. We spent the summer as roommates attending a linguistics institute at UC Santa Cruz that summer. I got married the next spring, but that fall, Fred started to have some strange pains in his legs. In January of 1974, just before my wife and I were to leave for a short term stint with SIL in Mexico, he was, at long last, diagnosed. It was a spinal tumor and he was whipped into the hospital for immediate surgery. The tumor was benign, but that doesn’t mean it was harmless. They couldn’t get it all surgically and had to use radiation to kill the rest. This meant that in the long run he would lose the use of his legs. He knew it was coming.

When I came to Berkeley in 1986 I left my tenured wife and my children behind in Ann Arbor for the academic year while we figured out whether we were going to move to California or stay in Michigan. Fred came along to be my roommate for that year. His legs were already greatly weakened, but he came because his maternal grandmother had lived in Berkeley and he knew that if you have to be disabled somewhere, Berkeley is possibly the best place in the world to be. When the nerves in his legs finally gave out completely in 1994, he got himself a power chair. Still it took more than a few years for him to get past the frustration and anger at the unfairness of life. He only started to re-emerge around 2000 – mostly in the form of becoming politically active in Berkeley. He loved the Berkeley library. On September 18th, he was on his way to a meeting where he was to discuss an Environmental Impact Report regarding the construction of a new apartment building which would ruin the view from the library reading room. He had earlier confided in me that he had evidence that a crucial section of the report had been fudged by the contractor. Just after he turned to go down Ashby, he was struck by a car, thrown from his chair, and landed on his head. He was medivac-ed to immediate surgery but he never woke up. He was in a coma for a week on life support when it became clear that his brain was shutting down. We were with him when he breathed his last.

How is this relevant to Bible translation?

Because Fred’s PhD work was interrupted by his tumor. He left a fair amount of unfinished work behind that contains no few brilliant linguistic insights which have never been published (or never been properly credited to him). One of them is of pinpoint relevance to the debate about the need to translate literally and stick to structure.

Fred noticed that when you want to talk about all (or none) of something, you tend to want to do so in emphatic ways. He further observed that languages achieve this emphasis by referring to the smallest amount of the stuff. (Or more accurately the conventionally smallest amount of the stuff.)

It’s good to the last drop. (= all of it)
A drop is the smallest amount of a liquid.

He doesn’t have a penny to his name. (= no money)
A penny is the smallest amount of money.

She was gone in an instant. (= in no time)
An instant is the smallest amount of time.

I didn’t hear a word she said. (= no communication)
A word is the smallest amount of language.

Previous folks (like Larry Horn) had believed that these were just a kind of negative polarity item – expressions that are, to all intents and purposes, restricted to negative (or implied negative) contexts. But Fred realized that negative context was not what is crucial for this class of data. Rather they are ways of expressing exhaustiveness whether it is all or none. He called his observation the Law of Leasts. (As far as linguists know, the Law of Leasts is a universal way to emphasize completeness.)

Such least based expressions are very common, including in Scripture. Some modern translations get it right some of the time in the case of ὥρα where Jesus heals someone.
καὶ ἰάθη ὁ παῖς αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὥρᾳ ἐκείνῃ (Mat. 8:13)

... And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour. (KJV)
... And the servant was healed that very moment. (NASB)
Other places with the same expression include Matt. 9:22, 15:28, 17:18, Lk. 20:19, Acts 16:18, and 22:13. But translations, except for the TEV, don't generally recognize when ὥρα is being used as a least.
ὅταν δὲ παραδῶσιν ὑμᾶς μὴ μεριμνήσητε πῶς ἢ τί λαλήσητε δοθήσεται γὰρ ὑμῖν ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ὥρᾳ τί λαλήσητε (Matt. 10:19)

But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say. (NASB)

When they bring you to trial, do not worry about what you are going to say or how you will say it, when the time comes, you will be given what you will say. (TEV) [marginally better: at that moment]

καὶ ἐζήτησαν οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς ἐπιβαλεῖν ἐπ' αὐτὸν τὰς χεῖρας ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ ὥρᾳ ... (Lk. 20:19)

The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, ... (NASB)

The teachers of the Law and the chief priests tried to arrest Jesus on the spot, ... (TEV) [more literal but still a dynamic equivalent: right then or then and there]

καὶ ἀναστάντες αὐτῇ τῇ ὥρᾳ ὑπέστρεψαν εἰς Ἰερουσαλήμ (Lk. 24:33)

And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, ... (NASB)

They got up at once and returned to Jerusalem, ... (TEV)

οἷς οὐδὲ πρὸς ὥραν εἴξαμεν τῇ ὑποταγῇ ἵνα ἡ ἀλήθεια τοῦ εὐαγγελίου διαμείνῃ πρὸς ὑμᾶς (Gal. 2:5)

But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you. (NASB)

... but in order to keep the truth of the gospel safe for you, we did not give in to them for a minute. (TEV)
A slightly more complex case is that sin is treated metaphorically as dirt, so another least is a spot.
... ἵνα παραστήσῃ αὐτὸς ἑαυτῷ ἔνδοξον τὴν ἐκκλησίαν μὴ ἔχουσαν σπίλον ἢ ῥυτίδα ἤ τι τῶν τοιούτων ἀλλ' ἵνα ᾖ ἁγία καὶ ἄμωμος (Eph. 5:27)

... that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. (NASB)
This is without any particular consequence for translation into English because the metaphor works in English as well.
He has an unblemished record.
But there is a piece of literalness debate which an understanding of the Law of Leasts clarifies. In Matt. 4:4 it says:
ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν γέγραπται οὐκ ἐπ' ἄρτῳ μόνῳ ζήσεται ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἀλλ' ἐπὶ παντὶ ῥήματι ἐκπορευομένῳ διὰ στόματος θεοῦ (Mat. 4:4)

In Matt. 5:18 it says:
ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται (Matt. 5:18)

For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (NASB)
In the Old Testament there is Prov. 30:5:
ה כָּל-אִמְרַת אֱלוֹהַּ צְרוּפָה; מָגֵן הוּא, לַחֹסִים בּוֹ. (Prov. 30:5)

Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. (NASB)
Wayne Grudem, for example, uses these verses to argue that we have to have literal translations.[1]

Big mistake.

These are just instances of the Law of Leasts. They don’t say anything to privilege words theologically. Those who think they do simply don’t understand how language works. In fact, understood like this, it seems to me that a proper understanding of the Law of Leasts strengthens the doctrine of plenary inspiration, it just doesn't say anything about translation principles.

This is what makes us linguists want to tear our hair out when theologians like Robert L. Thomas smugly affirm that 18th century approaches to understanding Scripture are so much safer than an understanding of how language works that linguists shouldn’t be allowed say anything about Scripture.[2]

But the way I read John 1, it implies that there is no higher calling than to study language. If He is the Word, then we should want to study every thing about words to know Him better. Theologians who ignore a deep study of the phenomenon of language do so at significant spiritual risk.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Translating the Word of God. Chapter 1 “Are Only Some of the Words of God Inspired?”.
[2] “Modern Linguistics versus Traditional HermaneuticsThe Master Seminary Journal 14/1 (Spring 2003) 23-45.


At Tue Oct 23, 09:37:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Hooray for linguistics, Rich! You share no better linguistic concept with us than the Law of the Leasts to illustrate how (without any linguistics and without even a little word play) supposed absolute literalness and untainted hermeneutics miss the mark of understanding language, especially the Word of Scripture. Thank you for sharing with us, even more, from the work and the life of your best friend. (I was touched reading about Fred Lupke and his great influence in Berkeley on behalf of others, particularly others disabled. Talk about full inspiration!) You, and Fred, made me look at examples of the Law of the Leasts in Aristotle and his Rhetoric. (How about this sentence? μαλιστα μεν οὐ̂ν προσήκει τους ὀρθω̂ς κειμένους νομους, ὁσα ἐνδεχεται, παντα διοριζειν αὐτους, καὶ ὁτι ἐλαχιστα καταλείπειν ἐπὶ τοι̂ς κρίνουσι, πρω̂τον μεν ὁτι ἑνα λαβει̂ν καὶ ὀλιγους ῥᾳ̂ον ἢ πολλους) Though of no inspiration like that of John, the gospel writer's, there's still that Law of Leasts in the language. And literalists (in rhetoric or philosophy unless they are linguistic) just don't get it.

At Tue Oct 23, 12:44:00 PM, Blogger Iris said...

Thank you for sharing Fred with us, and the insights on "The Law of the Leasts." That helps me.

At Tue Oct 23, 04:11:00 PM, Blogger Brian F. said...

Thanks Rich for this post - good stuff!

At Tue Oct 23, 05:46:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Rich wrote:
This is what makes us linguists want to tear our hair out when theologians like Robert L. Thomas smugly affirm that 18th century approaches to understanding Scripture are so much safer than an understanding of how language works that linguists shouldn’t be allowed say anything about Scripture.[2]

I read parts of that work. His thesis is ...ummm...the last straw.


Excellent post. Thanks.


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