The man who hunts ducks out on the weekends.

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.

James 1:2
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.

Phil 3:7
[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.

Introducing Construction Grammar

Recently I’ve been reading “Louder Than Words” by Benjamin Bergen. It is a well written introductory work about how our brains create meaning. Bergen introduces several complex concepts concerning language and the brain in a way that is engaging and fun to read. I encourage you to go to a library and check it out. His initial chapter on language (chapter 5) will provide the ‘jumping off’ point for this post. The concept that I want to focus on is the basic idea of construction grammar.

Meaning is not only produced by the individual words of a language. Although words do contribute a large portion of meaning to a sentence, phrase, or passage, they are not the only meaning carrying instruments. The grammar of a sentence also contributes to the meaning. Grammar is not limited to the aspect of the verb (kind of action) or the connectors used to link clauses (and, also, but, etc.). Bergen provides some fun examples showing how argument structure constructions provide meaning to language.

Now the most common way to talk about argument structure is using the language of transitivity. A transitive clause contains two arguments (an argument is a noun that the verb requires to be complete), the subject and the object. Intransitive clauses only contain one argument, a subject. Examples used by Bergen belong to the ‘ditransitive construction’ which contain a subject and two objects.

The ditransitive
(1) John sent his landlord the check.
(2) The goalie kicked his defender the ball.

Bergen argues that there is a meaning associated with this construction. There is a form-meaning pairing where the individual parts (the words in the sentence) do not produce the meaning. In most cases the first noun transfers the third noun to the second noun, so that the basic semantic value is a transfer of possession. Some may argue that it is not the construction that conveys this meaning, but Bergen offers some fun examples to prove that this is the case, and that it is the construction which produces this meaning of [transfer of possession].

(3) The delivery boy motorcycled his clients some blueprints.
(4) Venus tennis racketed her sister the hair clip.
(5) Lyn crutched Tom her apple.

In these examples the meaning cannot be contributed by the verb alone because the verbs themselves (motorcycled, tennis racketed, and crutched) are unique to these sentences. These examples match the regular patterns found in (1) & (2), so Bergen assumes that the meaning [transfer of possession] is contributed by the construction itself. The form of the sentence is paired with the meaning much like words have a certain form that is paired with a meaning.

Ancient Greek scholars have used the theoretical framework of construction grammar to show that Greek also possesses constructions which are non-compositional or idioms. This means that the individual parts do not account for the semantic value of the whole.  Jóhanna Barðdal & Serena Danesi cover two example constructions which are idiomatic, the “dative of agent” and the “infinitive with accusative subject” constructions. 1

Examples:

Luke 23:15 (dative of agent)
οὐδὲν ἄξιον θανάτου ἐστὶν πεπραγμένον αὐτῷ·
Nothing deserving death has been done by him

Mark 1:14 (infinitive with accusative subject)
Μετὰ δὲ τὸ παραδοθῆναι τὸν Ἰωάννην ἦλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν
Now after John was arrested Jesus came into Galilee.

In both of these constructions there is a break in the normal grammatical patterns of the Greek language. The dative case does not normally indicate the agent of an action, even with the passive voice. And the accusative case does not normally indicate the subject of a verbal action. Both of these constructions can only be accounted for by assuming that the constructions themselves indicate some semantic value.

I would like to look at two verses that I ran across in my daily reading which are very normal grammatically. The reason I want to look at these sentences is to show that even ‘normal’ sentences, while being compositional, follow patterns.

LXX Isaiah 7:18

καὶ ἔσται ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ἐκείνῃ συριεῖ κύριος μυίαις, ὃ κυριεύει μέρους ποταμοῦ Αἰγύπτου, καὶ τῇ μελίσσῃ, ἥ ἐστιν ἐν χώρᾳ Ἀσσυρίων,

And It will be on that day, The Lord will whistle for the flies that rule part of the river of Egypt and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. (NETS)

Ignoring the relative clauses, there is a simple sentence with one verb (συριζω) and three noun phrases (κύριος, μυίαις, τῇ μελίσσῃ).

(6) The Lord will whistle for the flies and bees.

The verb (συριζω) can be translated ‘to whistle or hiss like a snake’ and while the subject will be producing a whistling sound, the meaning of this sentence is more than production of a noise. The point of the sentence (what it means) is the purpose of the action, the reason the sound will be produced. The Lord κύριος is not going to whistle the bugs a tune. He is going to call them into the lands of Israel. The two noun phrases, μυίαις and τῇ μελίσσῃ, will be the recipients of the Lord’s whistle, and they will not just hear the call, but be affected by it. A translation which makes this idea more explicit would be something like; “the Lord will call the flies and bees over with a whistle.”

Isa 5:26
τοιγαροῦν ἀρεῖ σύσσημον ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν τοῖς μακρὰν καὶ συριεῖ αὐτοῖς ἀπ᾿ ἄκρου τῆς γῆς, καὶ ἰδοὺ ταχὺ κούφως ἔρχονται·

Therefore he will raise a signal among the nations that are far off, and whistle for them from the high place end of the earth. And behold, they are coming quickly, swiftly! (NETS)

Verse 5:26 follows the same pattern as 7:18; a subject noun, verb (συριζω), and the recipients of the whistle in the dative case. The context makes it clear that the recipients of the whistle are responding to it like it was a call to action and not just a noise or song. This is a common usage for the dative case. Smyth says that the dative is commonly used to denote “the person who is interested in or affected by the action.” 2

Again, grammatically these two examples are normal, but the use of συριζω is uncommon as far as I can tell. But it makes sense. I didn’t have to figure out what the text was trying to get at when I read these passages. Because I, like you, have seen westerns where the rough and tumble cowboy got out of a jam by using a sharp whistle to call his horse, and I have pets who I call by whistling. The performative sense of whistle makes sense to me. I assume that this is true of the ancient audience as well, but I don’t yet have any evidence to support that claim.

Could it be that this is a type of sentence pattern? I’m not really sure. It will take more searching on my part. If this were a kind of patten it should be productive. It should be used with different subjects and different recipients and maybe even different verbs. Remember the English construction Bergen used? The ditransitive construction is so productive that he could make up verbs to use in the construction. I’ll be on the look-out for more sentences that could fit this pattern. If you know of any please pass them along in the comments.

1. Construction Grammar and Greek Jóhanna Barðdal & Serena Danesi University of Bergen Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Language and Linguistics (EAGLL), Brill
2. Smyth §1459

Meet Jimmy…

Well, I finally convinced my husband Jimmy (@fakejimmy) to be a guest contributor here at Cataclysmic!  While he won’t be one of the regular Cataclysmic bloggers, he will be posting every now and then on his favorite subjects: linguistics and Biblical Greek.  Below is a short bio to help you get to know Jimmy:

jimJimmy Parks is a graduate of Houston Baptist University (MA in Biblical Languages) and will be pursing a PhD in the near future.  Jimmy currently works at a Maternal-Fetal Medicine office where he spends his lunch breaks reading Septuagintal Greek.  He also works as a student grader and occasionally substitutes for Greek, Hebrew, and Linguistics classes at HBU and SWBTS. During the summer he enjoys teaching Greek grammar classes at a local prison.  He is a deacon at First Colony Christian Church (Sugar Land, TX).  Jimmy is married to Jessica and they have two dogs – Charlie and Parker.

Jimmy is interested in Biblical Languages and Linguistics.  He loves reading books about language and the brain and is especially interested in how humans process language.

His first post will be up later this week so stay tuned!

Biblical Studies Carnival XCIV: December 2013

‘Twas the night before the new year when all through the house,
not a creature was stirring… except me and my laptop’s mouse.
Smart phones and iPads were set by the nightstand with care,
with hopes that the Biblical Studies Carnival would soon be there.

The bibliobloggers were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of end-of-the-year top ten lists danced in their heads.
And professors, students, bloggers, and more,
had just settled their brains for a two-week to month-long snore…
except for grad students because everyone knows we never sleep.

Happy New Year!  Welcome to 2014, the year we all finally keep our new year’s resolutions… here’s hoping! Before we take a look back at December and all the bloggy goodness it contained, I wanted to remind you of the most exciting thing happening in 2014:

Houston Baptist University is hosting a conference on “Paul and Judaism” on March 19-20, 2014. Our keynote speakers include N.T. Wright (St Andrews University)Beverly Gaventa (Baylor University), and Ross Wagner (Duke Divinity School).

In addition to the keynote speakers, we are inviting papers in the area of Paul and Judaism, representing a variety of approaches from scholars and graduate students. Participants will have 30 minutes to present papers (inclusive of Q&A). Please submit a 200-300 word abstract to Dr. Ben C. Blackwell at bblackwell[at]hbu.edu by January 15, 2014, and you should receive notification regarding acceptance by January 31. Registration by February 15 is required for those who will present at the conference.

For more info: www.hbu.edu/theologyconference

This conference is going to be AWESOME so be sure to get your paper submissions in by January 15th and/or register for the conference!  Hope to see y’all there.

Now, on to the feast of December blog posts!

Advent, Christmas, and the Incarnation
Since this month’s carnival covers December it seems natural to start off with a sampling of Christmas-themed posts.

“One item of folk religion is the belief among Christians that the incarnation was temporary—a mere interim and perhaps even a charade in the life of the Son of God, God’s Word, the Logos. For many evangelicals (and others, I suspect), the incarnation was simply the Son of God ‘putting on human skin’ for thirty-some years in order to teach us how to please God and then to die for our sins. Either at the moment of his death or at his resurrection or at his ascension he shed that human skin and returned to his glorious pre-incarnation existence as God’s purely spiritual Son in heaven who also, somehow, dwells in every Christian’s heart.

This is, of course, an informal form of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. It is a docetic Christology. Most of the time I find that people who believe the incarnation was temporary don’t really believe in the incarnation at all! That is, they tend to think of Jesus’ humanity as an act, an outward performance, not a real human nature and existence like ours. To many Christians ‘Jesus’ was Clark Kent to the Son of God’s super-human glory.”

ANE, Hebrew Bible, OT Theology, and More

LXX, DSS, Apocrypha and More

New Testament, NT Theology, and More

Early Christianity and Patristics

Hermeneutics

Language, Linguistics, Textual Criticism, and Translation

“I say to my students, ‘Check your sources.’ I tell them,
‘Look up the works in the footnotes and read them.’ I warn them to get beyond the slogans and labels of ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘evangelical’ or whatever and to discover the substance of the argument. In this day of uncounted online ‘“news’ sources (not to mention on air news sources), many of which are propaganda for various positions and/or sensationalism, some of which being not just junk but worse than junk, this admonition is even more important than it has been in the past.

Archaeology

The “I wasn’t sure where to put it but you should definitely read it” Category

“One of the differences between ‘theology’ and ‘religious studies’ is that theology is carried out from within the perspective of the believer, while religious studies takes a strictly historical/sociological perspective. I am enrolled in a theological program: perhaps this is why my immediate response to learning of this theologian’s persistent sinful patterns of behavior was to question whether and how it reflected on the value of his theology. It seems a screamingly obvious question to me.”

Book Reviews
Good heavens, December was the month of book reviews!

The Biblical Studies Carnivals of 2013
Since it is the end of another year, I thought I’d include a link to all of the previous Biblical Studies Carnivals of 2013 compiled by The Biblioblog Top 50.

Peter Kirby has the Top 50 Biblioblogs Winter Report at his blog and Abram K-J has the Septuagint Studies Soirée #5.

And of course, Jim West is hosting his ‘Wright Free Zone’ carnivalat his blog… but is a carnival without Wright really a carnival at all?  We here at Cataclysmic love us some N.T. Wright… well, most of us (wink, wink)… so to start off the new year with lots of joy, here’s Tom-foolery: 12 Epic Facts About N.T. Wright from Out of Ur.

The next Biblical Studies Carnival (Jan 14, Due Feb 1) will be hosted by Brian Renshaw at NT Exegesis.  See y’all ’round the blogosphere!

In Which I Disagree With Mark Driscoll (and it has little to do with women)

Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill recently posted a blog over at The Resurgence on Why Mars Hill uses the ESV Bible. He starts with 6 theological reasons behind choosing the ESV (or why the ESV is the King of all Bibles).

I have my own qualms with the ESV (one of which he mentions, although he sees it as a plus) but I do own an ESV bible and use it at times when I need to read an English text. I consider it to be one among many readable translations. However, I found Driscoll’s six theological reasons for choosing the ESV highly problematic from a linguistic perspective.

What Driscoll puts forward as obvious truths I see as common misconceptions concerning Bible translation, interpretation, and hermeneutics that I hear quite often in the church.  The original post is rather long so I won’t quote it all here, but I did want to take a look at Driscoll’s third point and his reasoning behind it.

“The ESV upholds the truth that words carry meaning

Some scholars will argue that thought-for-thought and paraphrase translations do not change the meaning of Scripture, just the words of Scripture in an effort to clarify the meaning of Scripture. But this reasoning is misguided because meaning is carried in words. So when we change the words of Scripture, we are changing the meaning of Scripture.

There are a couple of problems with Driscoll’s reasoning here.  For one, linguists and other language scholars have argued the very opposite — that meaning is not carried in words.  I learned early on in my language studies that “words don’t have meaning.”

Fellow HBU graduate Kris Lyle has a great post (go read it!) on this very subject – Do words have meanings?  Kris points out the importance of CONTEXT in determining meaning because words do not come “pre-packaged” with meanings.  Linguistic research, particularly in the areas of semantics and pragmatics, has corrected this false idea that “meaning is carried in words.”

Kris provides a great excerpt from an article by linguist Vyvyan Evans (Evans, V. “Lexical concepts, cognitive models and meaning-construction,” Cognitive Linguistics 17:4 [2006], p. 492):

“That is, the ‘meaning’ associated with a word in any given utterance appears to be, in part, a function of the particular linguistic context in which it is embedded. Put another way, word ‘meaning’ is protean, its semantic contribution sensitive to and dependent on the context which it, in part, gives rise to (Croft 2000).

To illustrate consider the following ‘meanings’ of fast.

(1)   a. That parked BMW is a fast car.

b. That car is travelling fast.

c. That doddery old man is a fast driver.

d. That’s the fast lane (of the motorway).

In each of these examples the semantic contribution of fast, what I will later refer to as its informational characterisation, is somewhat different. In (1a) fast has to do with the potential for rapid locomotion. In (1b) it has to do with rapid locomotion. In (1c) it relates to ‘caused’ motion beyond an established norm: a speed limit. And in (1d) fast concerns a venue for rapid locomotion. Examples such as these show that the view of open class words, as possessing fixed meanings, is untenable on closer scrutiny. The precise semantic contribution of any word is a function of the utterance context in which it is embedded, and, moreover, the sorts of (conceptual) knowledge these lexical entities provide access to, as I shall argue in detail. In other words, words don’t have ‘meanings’ in and of themselves. Rather meaning is a function of the utterance in which a word is embedded, and the complex processes of lexical concept integration, an issue which is developed below.

Second, Driscoll argues that thought-for-thought translation changes the words and meaning of scripture by adding additional interpretation and commentary whereas a word-for-word translation does not.  Earlier in his post, Driscolls writes:

“A word-for-word translation (like the ESV) best enables this to occur by seeking, as much as possible, not to insert interpretive commentary into the translated text of Scripture.”

The problem here is that there simply isn’t an exact one-for-one correspondence between languages.  What I mean is, there isn’t one word in Greek that is perfectly and always represented by another word in English.  It is inaccurate to say that δικαιοσυνη means ‘righteousness’.  What we can say is that ‘righteousness’ is one of the English words that we can use in some instances to represent the Greek word δικαιοσυνη (depending on the context!)  Choosing a word from one language to represent a word from another language always involves a choice.  The truth is all translation involves interpretation, whether you employ a formal equivalency method (which Driscoll assumes is almost completely devoid of interpretation or commentary) or a dynamic equivalency method.  Formal equivalency translation seeks to represent as closely as possible the grammar and syntax of the original Greek or Hebrew while dynamic equivalency is concerned with representing the meaning or intention behind the original Greek or Hebrew as closely as possible.  (It’s interesting to see that both methods were employed by translators of the LXX throughout different books of the Hebrew Bible!).

In many conservative circles formal equivalency is often seen as ‘pure’ and ‘more accurate’ while dynamic equivalency is seen as ‘muddied’ and ‘less accurate’.  The truth is both methods have their strengths and weaknesses and both methods involve interpretation.

I imagine Driscoll’s post could generate a lot of discussion on Bible translation and the nature of language and it’s unfortunate that the blog does not allow comments.  What about you?  Did you find Driscoll’s reasons convincing?  Why or why not?  Is a word-for-word translation better than a thought-for-thought translation?