In my last post I introduced construction grammar with the help of Benjamin Bergen and his book Louder than Words. Bergen’s book, as a reminder, is an introduction to the way humans process language. In this post I want to jump to the next chapter in Bergen’s work (chapter 6) where he discusses the cause and effect of real time language processing.
Did you know that you and I can only take in language one piece of information (syllable, letter, word, etc.) at a time? I guess I knew this–it’s an observable fact. But, I never really thought about it until I started reading up on Information Structure. Information Structure, or IS, is the interaction of pragmatics and syntax. Bergen’s work deals, not with IS, but with processes that our brains go through as we encounter language in real time.
The big idea is that there are limitations on our ability to process language due to our uptake capacity. Whenever we read or hear language we can only take it in as the string of words and sentences that it is. Our eyes have to pass over each word on down the line as we read, and our ears have to hear each syllable as it is spoken. There’s no way to mass download language. Say it ain’t so, Morpheus! This means we hear some words before others and that we can, potentially, read a bunch of words before we get the complete idea of a sentence.
The way our brains deal with this limitation is to try and figure out the whole sentence as soon as we start getting the pieces. We don’t wait to get all the words of a sentence and then process it. We process “incrementally,” making best guesses, and updating as we get more information. The process is like informed guess work where we start off with very little, but continually update as we take in–that is, read or hear–the string of language.
Since we put together sentences incrementally by making informed guesses, we have the ability to make mistakes and have to reevaluate language as we get more input. Bergen provides a few example sentences, designed to be unpredictable, called “garden path sentences” which prove this point.
(1) Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
(2) The lawyer cross-examined by the prosecutor confessed.
(3) The horse raced past the barn fell.
(4) The old man the boat.
These examples trip us up because there are pieces that we analyze one way (‘raced’ in (3) as a verb) which end up needing to be reanalyzed (the verb in (3) is ‘fell’… ‘raced’ is a passive participle modifying the noun ‘horse’). Because we guess at what a sentence will be as we encounter each word, we build expectations of what the entire sentence will be as we process it. When we run into something that doesn’t match what we expect to come next, if it doesn’t fit the guessed pattern, we have to go back and reevaluate everything that we have taken in.
This phenomena is not limited to English, or to modern languages. It even happens in scripture. I would like to look at an example from the book of James which uses this very phenomena on purpose.
Πᾶσαν χαρὰν ἡγήσασθε, ἀδελφοί μου, ὅταν πειρασμοῖς περιπέσητε ποικίλοις,
Consider it all joy, my siblings, when you encounter various trials
The word order of the original greek is extremely important here (as if it’s not important everywhere!). In fact, the word order is actually what creates the effect that I want to look at. Now, I am not talking about information structure. I only want to look at the expectations that are created by incremental processing. The very first words that we encounter are πᾶσαν χαρὰν (all/complete joy) which is followed by the verb ἡγήσασθε (BDAG sense 2: to think/consider). Next is a phrase directed directly to the audience (ἀδελφοί μου my siblings). Last of all is the subordinate clause ὅταν πειρασμοῖς περιπέσητε ποικίλοις (whenever you fall among various trials).
The noun phrase πᾶσαν χαρὰν (all/complete joy) is first in the sentence, and that doesn’t provide a whole lot to go off of for a reader or hearer. Being a Greek reader–I am assuming the intended readers of James held fluency in Koine and could read Greek in the same manner that you and I can read English–the reader’s mind is constrained to start filling in some of the empty information. The reader knows that this is probably the object of a verb since it is in the accusative case. So, somebody or something is doing some action where complete joy is the direct object.
Next comes ἡγήσασθε. Now the reader knows who is doing the action (s/he is), and what is being done (s/he is being commanded to ‘consider’ something). ἡγέομαι is a verb that takes two accusative nouns. In my last post I used English examples of the ditransitive construction. That construction can be divided into two patterns. The first indicates that one object noun is changing possession from the subject to the second object noun.
(5) John sent his landlord the check.
The second indicates that there is a predication between the two object nouns.
(6a) I found the guard sleeping
(6b) The guard is sleeping, and I found him.
(7a) We painted the room red.
(7b) The room is red because we painted it.
ἡγέομαι follows this second pattern. It takes two accusative nouns, and indicates that there is a predication between them. Phillipians provides several examples of this pattern and ἡγέομαι.
[Ἀλλὰ] ἅτινα ἦν μοι κέρδη, ταῦτα ἥγημαι διὰ τὸν Χριστὸν ζημίαν.
Yet, whatever gains I had, I consider these things loss because of Christ.
Here there is a a predication between ταῦτα and ζημίαν. “I consider these things to be loss.”
What we have so far in James 1:2 is, “Consider ____ complete joy.” There is only one noun phrase mentioned. We learned from Bergen that a reader will fill in these sorts of gaps with something that s/he thinks fits this space while reading. We don’t wait until we have all the information to put things together. We build with what we have and fill in the gaps with what we expect to fit until we come to that information.
No one knows what the first readers of James would fill in here, but if I was filling in the gap, I may think something like, “consider waffles complete joy”, “consider knowing Jesus complete joy”, “consider the love of God complete joy”, and so on. The presence of πᾶσαν χαρὰν constrains the reader to consider something, well, joyful! The reader will naturally fill in this space with something that they consider joyful. This builds an expectation for what is coming, and when it comes the reader is going to be befuddled.
But the reader has to wait to fill in the missing piece. James doesn’t fill in the gap immediately. What comes next in this string of words is a phrase addressing the audience directly, ἀδελφοί μου. Because this is the next set of words in the sentence, the reader has no choice but to continue to guess at what s/he is to consider total joy. The vocative phrase adds nothing new to the sentence, it only serves to delay the reader.
What fills the space in James 1:2 is the subordinate clause ὅταν πειρασμοῖς περιπέσητε ποικίλοις (whenever you meet trials of various kinds). Wow! I wasn’t expecting that. And I’m willing to bet that the first readers weren’t expecting that either. Who would? To consider all kinds of trials to be total joy is counter intuitive. Trials and joy don’t go together…usually. But that is what James wants the readers to think. And as if the thought itself wasn’t dramatic enough, he uses the readers own expectations of what is joyful to add more effect to the command.
Had you ever thought about the limitations of language uptake and the way it affected meaning? It is something that I find fascinating, and hopefully I have demonstrated that it is useful in the study of scripture as well. I would love to go through other passages where this sort of devise is being used. If you have come across one please let me know.