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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Inverted negatives, revisited

I have previously posted on obsolete inverted negatives in the ESV. Jeremy Pierce has just posted on finding some inverted negatives in the TNIV. They are retained from the NIV and also found in several other English Bible versions:
And lead us not into temptation. (Luke 11:4b, KJV, RSV, ESV, NASB, NIV)
English has for several hundred years used the contemporary word order for negatives which would call for:
And do not lead us into temptation (NKJV, NET)
To be fair, the NIV and TNIV use only a handful of inverted negatives. There are a very large number of them in the ESV, retained from the RSV. Inverted negatives were already becoming obsolete when the KJV was published in 1611 A.D.

Using obsolete English in recently published Bibles may make longtime users of the Bible feel good due to their familiarity with oldfashioned language used in Bibles and by some who preach from them. But such language reinforces to newcomers the idea that the Bible is not a book relevant for them today. I prefer to use English Bibles which speak my language, not language which was spoken by my English ancestors hundreds of years ago. All around the world, people find that they understand the Bible more accurately and are spiritually and emotionally impacted more by it when it is translated in their own language.

Better Bibles are translated into the language of the people who are going to use them.


At Sat Nov 04, 09:11:00 AM, Blogger Kevin Knox said...

Hey Wayne,

But such language reinforces to newcomers the idea that the Bible is not a book relevant for them today.

I just wanted to say that I find your argument persuasive here. :-)

I am vocal about over-simplification, but this is a great point, and well made.

Thank you.

At Sat Nov 04, 05:27:00 PM, Blogger Brandon said...

I agree with the general thrust of your argument; but the particular way you state it is emblematic of a lot of what bugs me about some of the arguments on this weblog. Inverted negatives could only be obsolete if they did not form a part of a contemporary language; in fact, it is straightforwardly false to say that inverted negatives don't arise in contemporary language, since it's easy to find examples that arise in casual conversation (phrases like 'I think not', 'he ought not', and 'it need not' are the most common, but not by any means the only, examples) and extant proverbial expressions ('waste not, want not'). Inverted negatives can't be obsolete because they have never ceased to be in active use, however rare they have become. What would be more accurate is to say that they are rare or unusual in comparison with standard ways of forming negatives.

The reason I find the tendency always to dismiss things as 'obsolete' a bit exasperating is that the argument for not using rare words and constructions has to be different from the argument for not using obsolete words and constructions. The argument for not translating with inverted negatives can't be the same as the argument for not translating with Elizabethan conjugations, because the latter are obsolete, used in contemporary language only when deliberately tapping into past forms of language, whereas the former are simply rare, and still can spontaneously arise on occasion in contemporary conversation and oratory. Inverted negatives can't be rejected by any rigid rules, because there may be rare cases where it is more natural to translate with an inverted negative than in another way. There are excellent reasons for not generally using inverted negatives (namely, general accessibility or readability); but they have nothing to do with inverted negatives being 'obsolete', which they certainly are not. At most the only thing that's obsolete is the practice of always using inverted negatives; that's rather different from saying that inverted negatives themselves are obsolete.

At Sat Nov 04, 07:43:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Brandon, I understand what you are saying, but I do disagree. A form is obsolete in a language, not if it is never used but if it is never used commonly by the majority of people in the target group of speakers that you are interested in. The examples of inverted negatives which you gave are basically frozen forms. They are not part of the active, creative grammar of current speakers of English. Inverted negatives, as the word order to express negatives, were already on the way out at the time the KJV was published in 1611 A.D. They were essentially dead by 1750 A.D. That does not mean, nor have I ever claimed, that certain individuals can produce inverted negatives today. Typically those people will be more familiar than the general population with older forms of the English language.

When current speakers of English produce negative sentences, they do not do so with the inverted word order. Instead, they use what English grammarians for many years have called "do" insertion. For instance when negating the sentence, "John slept," current speakers will insert the word "do" and produce the negative sentence in this word order: "John did not sleep." Current speakers do not commonly produce the older inverted order of the negative which, in this case, would be "John slept not."

It is a matter of what are the common current forms of syntax used by the majority of English speakers. *If* a Bible translation team wants to produce a translation for current speakers, that translation will sound most natural and impact the speakers most effectively if current English grammar is used in that translation.

That is one of the basic arguments on this blog. It is promotion of current standard English grammar, rather than awkward or outdated English grammar, in English Bible versions.

The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the original biblical texts was not outdated for the audiences to whom they were addressed. Nor is there any good reason why current translations of those texts should be rendered in outdated forms of a language.

Your comment began with this statement:

I agree with the general thrust of your argument; but the particular way you state it is emblematic of a lot of what bugs me about some of the arguments on this weblog.

So that we do not simply have your broad brush generalized statement here, would you please be specific about what arguments on the blog you consider erroneous or otherwise inappropriate so that those arguments bug you. We do not want to be posting arguments which are not linguistically or translationally valid.


At Sun Nov 05, 01:50:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Brandon, of your examples "'I think not', 'he ought not', and 'it need not'", only the first can be considered obsolete. This is because in standard modern English there are a small number of auxiliary verbs are exceptions from the rule that "do" must be inserted before "not". "Ought" is always an auxiliary verb, this "he ought not to come" is correct and "*he doesn't ought to come" is impossible. "Need" is sometimes an auxiliary verb, sometimes not; when an auxiliary, as in "you need not come", "do" is optional; "you don't need to come" is also possible; but when it is not an auxiliary, "do" must be inserted, as in "you do not need a bath". But "think" is never an auxiliary, and thus "I do not think" is normal, and "I think not" is obsolete, except to some extent when used on its own as a frozen idiom to indicate disagreement.

At Sun Nov 05, 03:36:00 PM, Blogger Mark Strobel said...

I'm intrigued by the following comment:

"All around the world, people find that they understand the Bible more accurately and are spiritually and emotionally impacted more by it when it is translated in their own language."

Is there a source for this comment?

My experience (though clearly limited, is just the opposite).

The parish I serve includes both a large number of homeless people struggling to get by day after day and a significant percentage of people in their mid-30s to mid-40s who have returned to the church after being away for up to two decades. As different as both groups are, they have something in common.

More times than I can remember, I have given a copy of the CEV or a NLT to homeless parishioners (with minimal reading skills) only to have that version politely returned and request made for something that, to borrow their words, "Sounds like the bible."

Also, the mid-30 to mid-40 crowd returning to faith doesn't seem all that interested in versions such as the NRSV, the nearly official version of my liberal mainline denomination.

In both cases, and based only on this one parish experience of two very different groups, these people want to grapple with a text that reveals and speaks to them of a God with whom they are so deeply grappling.

At Sun Nov 05, 05:02:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Mark asked:

"All around the world, people find that they understand the Bible more accurately and are spiritually and emotionally impacted more by it when it is translated in their own language."

Is there a source for this comment?

Yes, Mark. Thousands of reports by missionary Bible translators around the world who observe how people respond when they can understand the Bible translated in their own language. And millions of people who read the Living Bible and Good News Bible understanding the Bible as if for the first time, and for many it was the first time, since they could not understand more literal versions. Our own four children were raised on the Good News Bible which was our pew Bible. When we have read a more literal Bible to them they have commented on how they have not been able to understand it. And they are speaking truthfully since they all excelled highly in school.

Our own experience translating for a tribal group which speaks English as a lingua franca, but their own language as heart language. It became clear many, many times from our testing that they finally understood what the Bible was saying when it was expressed in their own language.

I do understand the other experience that you refer to in your parish and it is relatively common. I have seen it myself, but far less than the experience where people understand and are impacted far more when they hear or read the Bible in their own language or dialect.

There are some people who have been exposed to church English and assume that that is what a Bible is supposed to sound like. Any Bible that is in their own dialect therefore doesn't sound like they think a Bible should sound. That is a shame because it is part of the "Latinization" of the church, anywhere in the world. It gives people the idea that God only communicates to them through a sacred language which is different from the language spoken by good school teachers, college professors, doctors, and others. Not colloquial language, but ordinary good quality grammatical English, as taught to you and me by our English teachers. That kind of English more accurately communicates the message of the Bible to millions of English speakers. There is a lot of testing and anecdotal evidence which supports this.

And, as you have noted, there is also the other factor where people like language that has a sacred sound to them, even if they don't understand it well. My post is about accuracy of understanding and emotional and spiritual impact, not person preference. I recall that when the mass could be celebrated in English, some Catholics preferred to hear the liturgy continued in Latin, even though they did not understand it.

Understanding and familiarity are often quite different.

Thanks for your comment. It raises important issues for Bible translation and how pastors might help parishioners learn that the Bible can communicate sacred truth and still be in their own language.

At Mon Nov 06, 03:15:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Mark wrote, "the mid-30 to mid-40 crowd returning to faith doesn't seem all that interested in versions such as the NRSV". I'm not surprised. But what version are they interested in? I would expect them to want something they can understand, like NLT or at least (T)NIV, rather than the stilted unnatural English of NRSV.

At Mon Nov 06, 09:34:00 AM, Blogger Mark Strobel said...

In response to Peter's question, both groups--the homeless and the returning mid-30's to 40's folks--are looking for a KJV.

The positive side of all this is that, instead of collecting dust on shelves in the church library and Sunday School rooms, our old KJVs are getting read again.

At Tue Nov 07, 02:50:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I surprised myself today by writing positively about inverted negatives, on the b-trans list. Someone else had written concerning the newly revised ESV text:

It still includes examples of unnatural word order of the kind that Croosway is supposed to be updating. One such is Matt 1:25, which says of Joseph that 'he knew her not until she [Mary] had given birth ...'

In reply I wrote:

Oddly enough, I can offer some support for the ESV rendering here. If instead they had written, according to modern English grammar, "he did not know her until she had given birth ...", that would surely be misunderstood as implying that they had never met or got to know one another well, and not as a euphemism for sexual relations. The archaic word order serves as a reminder that an archaic idiom, in fact probably an idiom which was never current in English outside the Bible, is being used. If you insist on using obsolete language, it is less confusing to be consistent in doing so. So perhaps ESV would be even clearer with the "thees" and "thous" restored. Indeed it would be more consistent with the translators' policy on singular "they", as well as more in keeping with the Tyndale-KJV tradition which they revere, to reject also singular "you".

So, Mark, I suppose I am more or less agreeing with you that KJV is less confusing than NRSV or ESV. At least KJV is unambiguously old-fashioned. ESV and NRSV are a strange mixture, neither fish nor fowl, neither hot nor cold but lukewarm.


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