The Special Case of Conversation

I found myself laughing quite loudly, and re-reading this passage to my wife to help her share in my enjoyment. I’m not sure I succeeded, but I will share with you all nonetheless.

The subject is conversation, and in the specific passage, the authors are beginning to illuminate the “presupposition pool”. Even more specifically, the idea that speakers naturally exclude or include content based on these shared concepts.

…Any speaker will necessarily make certain assumptions about his listeners and will fashion what he has to say accordingly. For example, he will not unnecessarily explain such technical terms as he may use unless he is fairly sure that explanation is required; the gratuitous supply of an unnecessary explanation may become part of the communication and may be perceived as patronizing. On the other hand failure to provide a necessary explanation may be perceived as deliberate one-upmanship, as exhibitionism, as (Chapter 3) sesquipedalian. Under these circumstances the listener may determine not to ask for clarification of the new word and so allow the communication to fail. In either case misunderstanding of the actual contents of the presupposition pool is likely to lead to an undeniable alteration in the character of the conversation.

Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation, p. 258

Yes, I had to look up “sesquipedalian” (Yes, they did in fact define it in Chapter 3, right near the beginning, and yes, that knowledge went “in one ear and out the other”, so to speak). Yes, you should look it up, too. These are my kind of people.

Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation

So far, I’m very much enjoying Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation, by Cotterell & Turner. Very easy to read and understand, as it strives to lay a foundation for the value of linguistically-supported study of Scripture.

I found the following, from the chapter on the pitfalls of word studies, interesting:

…my concept of ‘boy’ in the more general usage may include very many features concerning the range of their features and physique, their hygiene, their habits of play, their social abilities and limitations, and so forth, none of which is linguistically attached to the word ‘boy’ as such at all. The sentences

(1) Boys are usually male,
(2) Boys are usually unkind,

illustrate the difference. The first will be recognized as semantically anomolous (sic), for the qualifier ‘usually’ implies there are exceptions; but a boy that was not a male would appear to be a contradiction of the sense “boy”. The second sentence is linguistically acceptable (even though we consider it wholly untrue) because nothing about the sense of the word ‘boy’ overlaps in meaning with either ‘kind’ or ‘unkind’. The sense “male” is linguistically attached to ‘boy’; “kind” or “unkind” is not.

L&BI, p. 117

That seems pretty clear, and that level of clarity is appreciated. More often than not, linguistic study is rolled up with nuance – but that doesn’t mean it has to be overly complicated!

Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis: Motivation

The final three chapters, chapters 6-8, were a nice bridge from the shortened specifics of linguistic study and history towards a sounder study of scripture. Six focused on issues directly relating to Hebrew, seven to Greek, with eight being a well-spoken defense, a resounding “yes” answer to the question, “Is it all worth it?”

Chapter 6 focused on issues with Hebrew linguistics, and my background and grasp of Hebrew is smaller than it is for Greek (itself not all that great). I’ll admit that as the author spoke on the troubles of understanding the verbal stems and their potential relations, I was intrigued. But I also felt like I was at the top of a fog-covered mountain trying to find my way back down, visibility at minimum.

The difficulty of a small amount of source material for determining meaning and truly taking advantage of modern linguistics, itself bent towards the study of living languages and their communities, was articulated perfectly, however.

This paucity of data led nicely into the next chapter on Greek, where the opposite was the case: too much data, especially recently, has made cohesive wholes difficult, resulting in a lot of published work being derivative as well as incomplete.

Greek, too, has received tons of attention regarding its verbal system, with arguments over the representation of tense and/or aspect, and how to understand the voice system (active/passive with a ton of deponency) or a middle system expressing subject affectedness with a coordinated, “default” active system. Aubrey covered this material well. Overall, the information was an easy read, and not incredibly argumentative. He even got to give a nice shout-out to his wife (I have a link to the sited work below).

The final chapter was the cherry on top of the whole effort. If one has gotten through to this point, they are hopefully on the same page already. But in case one has gotten that far, and is still wondering if linguistics is really worthwhile when doing biblical studies, the affirmative answer is laid out clearly. As another commentator before me has said, it would be perfectly reasonable to read this chapter first, and let the passion drive through to reading the rest. I actually preferred it being final, as it allowed for a dense center, a bit of sharp reality, and then an uplifting final note that should leave the reader ready to study some more.



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Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis: Groundwork

At this point, I am about to start Chapter 6. It’s a good breaking point to look back and review. Chapter 1 was a simple, crisp introduction, a nice chilled soup starter. Chapters 2 through 5 are more substantial, a meaty sort of entrée1. It remains to be seen if the remaining chapters are a full on main course, an entrée in the American sense, a matched course, with substance following gracefully on what has come before, or a round of dessert, potentially fruity, cake-y, dense, decadent or sugary sweet. Or maybe it will be some mixture of all of them!

Now that the saliva is going, back to the course in review. Chapter 2 is a well-paced introduction to the basics of language – phonology, morphology, semantics and syntax. It is replete with great explanations, interesting examples that pull in both Hebrew and Greek as they suit the topic, and the right mix of brevity. I have probably had enough of an introduction to these topics, having studied many of them in applied settings (language learning cross-linguistically), having dabbled in quite a bit of formal systems, computer languages, and a fair bit of cognitive linguistics. It felt like a carefree stroll down memory lane, a nice little jaunt through things I had a decent handle on.

But that is not to say it was a loss, or even that I was frustrated or disappointed by the introductory nature of the chapter. In fact, a number of points especially caught my attention. One instance is the discussion of ellipsis, which was incredibly lucid. While I was not unaware of ellipsis, I had never before taken the time to think about how poetry, and especially our reading of Hebrew poetry, might be affected.

Chapter 3 is a brisk introduction to linguistics and language as they are used: the purpose of language, pragmatics, speech-act theory, socio-linguistics. Chapter 4 continues briefly with details on the ground floor of generative grammar: universal grammar, typology and an invigorating discussion of markedness and both its promise and pitfalls. I had to fight to stay in the text, as I imagined my past attempts to work with semantic and phonetic features in SIL’s Language Explorer.

Chapter 5 halts the tango for a moderately-paced waltz through the fields of recent history. It ranges from the birth of linguistics in structuralism, through functionalism and the estranged siblings, generative grammar and cognitive linguistics. All along, brief notes are offered on the affects each of these linguistic trains of thought has had on our understanding of biblical languages. These succeed in illuminating the topic without de-railing progress.

What Chapter’s 2 through 5 did for me was easy to explain. I have read quite a bit on linguistics, on the different camps, on issues and problems affecting different theories and approaches. But I have often struggled to put individual authors in context. This part of the book is an excellent introduction to the sweep and scope of linguistics, and provides a good framework from which to start one’s studies. It more-than-adequately provides the structure, the framing, so as to speed grasp of the numerous tendrils that make up the study of linguistics.

And with that, onward!


  1. From Merriam-Webster:

The culinary sense of entrée can be traced back to 18th-century Britain. In those days a formal dinner could include not only the principal courses of soup, fish, meat, and dessert, but also an impressive array of side dishes. Between the fish and meat courses would come a small side dish, and because this secondary dish came immediately before the centerpiece of the meal, it was called the entrée, being, in effect, the entrance to the really important part of the meal. As dining habits have changed, meals have become simpler, and fewer courses are served. However, in the US, the course following the appetizer continued to be called the entrée, perhaps because it is a French word, and anything French always sounds elegant.

Merriam-Webster, entrée

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Books in the Mail

Last November, Mike Aubrey over at Koine-Greek.com posted about a fairly glowing review of Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis. I’ve always found Aubrey to be a good writer, and an excellent thinker, even if my knowledge of him is limited to blogs about grammar, Greek linguistics and mead-making. Christmas Eve I ordered it, and received it today when I got my saved mail. I’m incredibly excited to get into it!

I may have picked up another book on linguistics, Linguistics and the Formal Sciences, at the same time. Looks to be more of a “how we got here”. But I’m okay with that, really.

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