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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Where angels fear to tread

Since there seems to be a buzz at the moment (see here, here, and here) about the value of learning the original languages — something that I highly recommend, by the way — I interrupt my posting on inerrancy issues to give my two cents as a linguist on the matter of learning a dead language. Since the reasons and benefits have been outlined already I want to warn about a particular kind of pitfall, which far too few are aware of. And if you are aware of it, will help you get the most out of even a minor investment in Greek and Hebrew.

When I was in high school many, many years ago, the language I studied was Latin. (That should give you a good idea of just how long ago that was.) Some time in the fourth year, when we were reading Vergil and doing translation exercises, I noticed that no one’s translations sounded like anything we would normally say. Instead they sounded rather more like the English of the Bible and the the Prayer Book. (I was raised an Episcopalian.)

And it bothered me.

Now, given that it was forty years ago, I’m a little fuzzy on the details of how the next thing happened, but somehow during that school year I ended up with a different Latin dictionary. And, lo and behold, my translations started to sound different. I remember very vividly that they sounded more modern. I don’t remember for sure if Miss Lang gave me better or worse grades for them. But they were much more satisfying. And since I ended up with A’s in Latin, she couldn’t have given me grades that were too bad.

As you can imagine from my recounting this experience decades later, it was an ah-ha moment for me. I got an early glimpse into just how centrally important reference materials are to the student of a dead language.

But even with that it wasn’t until March of 1995 when Geoff Nunberg, doing his semi-regular piece on Fresh Air, reviewed the release of an album of Elvis songs in Latin, that the full implications hit home. (The piece can be found here.)

A short version of Prof. Nunberg’s review goes like this. He pointed out that we tend to think of Latin as a kind of polite, vaguely British exercise. (He called it Edwardian.) That view is possibly best epitomized by Winne Ille Pu (Winnie the Pooh in Latin — and, yes, I still have the copy I got in the 1960’s when it first appeared). But this is really not a true picture of Romans at all. We have lost sight of the fact that Romans were Latin, as in Latin lover and Latin America. Prof. Nunberg’s review pointed out that Elvis’s lounge songs translated into Latin do remarkably well, because the songs are, well, Latin.

This, of course, set me off re-thinking all of my classical education.

Suddenly Cicero’s Cataline orations sounded to me like the DA in Palermo bringing charges against a major Mafia don.

Caesar seemed like just another ego-obsessed Latin American dictator.

I started to hear Latin in my head sounding like it was spoken by the characters in Mediterráneo.

Why am I telling you this?

Because the thing about learning dead languages is that there is no corrective for misleading views of what the meanings, implications, and worldview are. If you study German and go to Germany, your mistakes are quickly apparent. There’s a lot of “Oh, so THAT’s what that means”. But not so with Greek and Hebrew. We have to supply the corrective ourselves.

That’s why I was so mad at Mel Gibson. He completely blew his chance to show us what it was really sounded like in The Passion of the Christ.

Aramaic from that era should have sounded like Arabic, both in having the pharyngeal sounds that make Arabic sound strangled to our ears, and in having a wide range of intonation. There should have been no Latin to speak of. Everyone in the Eastern Empire was speaking Greek as the lingua franca. And the whole thing should have been louder and much, much more emotional.

Keep this in mind as you study Greek or Hebrew. You can learn enough to read the Bible without a pony and still hear the KJV in the back of your head. You can read the Greek and still come away thinking in terms of twentieth century theology.

No, these writers were Jews, Italians, and Greeks. Much more Levantine. Much more animated and rougher around the edges than we take as proper in our churches nowadays.

Don’t get me wrong. There are great rewards for the investment in learning Greek and Hebrew, but the biggest lesson to learn is not how to parse the verb forms or how to recognize apparently odd uses of singular agreement with neuter plurals.

The biggest lesson is to learn how to let the text speak for itself, lest you think you’re hearing the original but you end up where angels fear to tread.


At Wed Apr 23, 06:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rich, as much as I enjoy debating with you...I can't on this one. This post is beautiful.

At Wed Apr 23, 07:30:00 PM, Blogger Nathan Stitt said...

Seconded. Thank you for adding some confirmation to the various thoughts floating through my brain. Advice is always welcome.

At Wed Apr 23, 07:47:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Where were you today, Rich? I was reading some of Leonard Spengal's Latin translation of and commentary on Aristotle's Rhetoric. I posted an excerpt verbatim and didn't hear Elvis crooning once (and still don't know what it all means!)

I do think there are analogies in learning, that are helpful to learning language, even dead ones. Like how Monty Roberts learned to "gentle" or to "whisper" horses. (He has reduced the amount of time it takes to "break" a wild horse from around 6 weeks of sheer pain to the tied up and beaten animal to around 30 minutes with absolutely no pain!!! It's gotten the notice of the Queen of England, and has completely revolutionized horse training--and now dog training--and even work with autistic children. In Fort Worth, or "Cowtown," Texas USA where I live, I've seen this remarkable thing first hand. No idiot now "breaks" horses the old fashioned way.) Also Kenneth L. Pike's monolingual demonstrations use the very same kinds of techniques. And Pike could learn the language of another friendly human being in minutes (with lexicon, phonology, syntax developed substantially).

Yeah, I know the next objections: horses and humans, not Romans, are alive. And yet. and yet. I've got a secret....

At Wed Apr 23, 09:05:00 PM, Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks, Richard - this post gets an unqualified 'yes' from me too. I am as stilted as I can be in Hebrew - so much so I sometimes can't even reread my own translations - and I wonder - how did they really sound to each other - and what were their idioms? I can only guess based on the first translations and the earliest uses I know in the NT - but here, I am warned by my rebellion against commonplace assumptions. If my Latin teacher had been more balanced, I might not have been such an angry rebel - but who knows.

At Wed Apr 23, 09:22:00 PM, Blogger Eric Sowell said...

I've got a question for you. In whatever dead languages you know, how long did it take for you before you felt like you were no longer just parsing verbs and looking up every other word. In other words, when did you start feeling comfortable with the language? It's a question that came to me while I was reading your post. I think I'll have to ask that on my own blog...and thanks for the link!

At Thu Apr 24, 08:02:00 AM, Blogger Randall Buth said...

Several comments, but in different directions.

On learning 'dead languages' there are some easy litmus tests to see what is really going on. After five or twenty years can you tell someone what you did last week in the language of interest? If not, why not? See a Koine parable:
(url needs 'new line' deleted after
"". Parable is item one, January 2008. See endnote below, too.

--when does one stop parsing?
when did one stop parsing German? Hopefully from the beginning as the language is being used in small pieces.

good point on materials and dead languages. one needs to get past materials. Yes, bilingual dictionaries do color the way in which learners think about texts. The field could use an ancient Greek-ancient Greek dictionary. Start using one of the languages and they start to have real meaning. (But it is a much longer process than most imagine as they start.) It is both amusing and revealing to listen to someone try to express themselves in Biblical Hebrew. It is pretty clear how much of the language is inside, pretty fast. (did I say that the process was long? It's probably longer.)

On the first century. yes they were speaking Greek instead of Latin and a lot of Hebrew instead of 'Aramaic-only'. [NB: the area was tri-lingual: tribal language was Hebrew (notice that the 2nd temple prophets spoke/wrote to the people in Hebrew, as well as the Prushim when discussing daily Jewish life up to 200CE and beyond), wider business language and former international government language was Aramaic, language of education and government was Greek. All three would have been heard regularly and are widely attested. (FWIW: Hebrew in two registers and Aramaic was a bit like someone growing up where they heard Spanish and French together.)
Those who control the multi-lingual discourse styles of Jewish narratives for the first century can recognize pretty quickly that the Jerusalem Church probably composed a 'divre-Yeshua' [if Papias' comment has historical roots] in a Qumranesque, Maccabeanesque literary Hebrew.

Well, the above ought to leave plenty of loose ends for pondering. When church schools teach the languages of the canon 90% or more in the language being studied and when the professors can communicate with each other in the language--that is the day that we take our sources seriously.
Interested in change? Drop by some summer. Visiting teachers have been having as much fun as "students". [Aside: you will be encouraged to use real pharyngeal fricatives.]

shalom laxem שלום לכם
yisge shlamxon יסגה שלמכו
χαρις υμιν πληθυνθειη

At Thu Apr 24, 11:58:00 AM, Blogger David Ker said...

I really want to speak Latin like Julio Iglesias.

At Thu Apr 24, 12:06:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Several of you have asked about having a sense of when you get there. That's hard to say.

Let me give you one.

There is a turning point in language learning when you start to react to words, instead of figuring them out. You know you've reached this level when you have the experience of reading (or hearing) something you understood completely, and you say to yourself, "Oh, so THAT's how to say that!" because you realize you wouldn't have thought to say it that way in a million years.

At Thu Apr 24, 05:32:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At Thu Apr 24, 06:10:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

You've given me enough to post on several times over. (BTW, I loved the parable, although there is this thing about the NT that it thrives on translation, in a way that the Kuran or the Rig Vedas don't. The OT is less so. It may have to do with how much of the particular Scripture is consciously literary.)

From my point of view, the real problem is not teaching Greek in Greek and Hebrew in Hebrew -- although that's a great start. Most of the vocabulary that one needs to know is about living and relating. The class that really should be carried on in Koine (or Hebrew for that matter) is Family Counseling.

At Thu Apr 24, 06:35:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

The class that really should be carried on in Koine (or Hebrew for that matter) is Family Counseling.

:) ! !

(וַיֹּאמְרוּ שָׁאֹול שָׁאַל־הָאִישׁ לָנוּ וּלְמֹולַדְתֵּנוּ לֵאמֹר הַעֹוד אֲבִיכֶם חַי הֲיֵשׁ לָכֶם אָח וַנַגֶּד־לֹו עַל־פִּי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה הֲיָדֹועַ נֵדַע כִּי יֹאמַר הֹורִידוּ אֶת־אֲחִיכֶם׃)

ὅστις γὰρ ἂν ποιήσῃ τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πατρός μου τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς αὐτός μου ἀδελφὸς καὶ ἀδελφὴ καὶ μήτηρ ἐστίν

At Fri Apr 25, 08:56:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

I'm running out the door to hear Robert Alter speak, but you've brought up the passage that I think best illustrates what a translation should sound like if you really want the NT to be Jewish sounding.

The summary would be: Joshua's gonze mishpuchah shows up, because people have said he's meshuggah. They want he should come home. etc., etc.

You see, I was raised in a Jewish neighborhood. All those names and names of things that Barnstone leans on to emphasize the Jewishness of the NT do nothing for me. And I"m put off by the underlying quasi-Elizabethan English. But a few carefully placed Yiddishisms, and it's clear to me that it's very Jewish and not unnatural at all.

At Fri Apr 25, 04:38:00 PM, Blogger Geoff said...



At Sat Apr 26, 11:40:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At Sat Apr 26, 11:44:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Thanks, Geoff. I only tried looking on Fresh Air, but the link there was dead.


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