Knowing a Language

Eric, over at Archaic Christianity, has written an interesting couple posts about learning Greek or Hebrew and what it means to know a language.

I’d like to throw my two cents in on the second post. Doug Chaplin’s comments on the topic are also interesting.

Eric covers three languages that he “knows” in some way, English, Greek, & German.

I’d like to look at the first two.

For English, he means that he is fluent in the language. “Sure, I make a grammatical mistakes and do speling erors. But I am fluent.” For one, that’s a very clever little sentence. But also these are not the kind of errors that we who are fluent would make while speaking – probably just writing. And even when we do make mistakes speaking, we can recognize pretty quickly that what we said was awkward or ungrammatical.

But even still, in a sense, Eric probably knows Greek better than he does English. The fact is, being fluent in language doesn’t mean you understand how it functions. One of the first rules we learned in our grammatical analysis and field methods courses in linguistics is to never ask the native speaking the significance of any grammatical issue. They probably don’t know. They probably haven’t thought about it. Describing a language grammatically, syntactically or even semantically is very different than being fluent in the language.

And that is why in a sense, Eric (and others such as Peter Kirk, David Ker, Kurk, John Hobbins – though he may very well be fluent in Hebrew too! – and plenty of others I have not named) actually know the languages of the Bible potentially better than than their first languages.

They are able to answer the question, “Why?” Why does this occur in the language? And even when they don’t have an answer to “why” they generally do know how to go about figuring it out.

Knowing a language as in fluency and knowing a language as in linguistic description are very different.

But in either case, the best case scenario is having both fluency and linguistic description. It is the person who has both in both the receptor and source languages that will make the best translator.

And that is why translations are so often done by committees. Nobody has completely mastered both.