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.

32 thoughts on “Knowing a Language

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  1. Great questions and points, Mike! Erik is right to say “know” is ambiguous in English. I think know is a cognate of the Greek γινώσκω [i.e., ginOskO]], which has as rich a set of meanings and uses. For example, Luke has Paul being asked Ἑλληνιστὶ γινώσκεις (or “do you know Greek?”) in Acts 21. It’s not clear whether Paul was speaking Latin or Hebrew before he uses Greek, but he does, Luke says, switch to Hebrew: προσεφώνησεν τῇ Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ “He spoke in the Hebrew language.” This is the same language Paul claims that he hears Jesus speaking as Luke records it in Acts 26:14. But, of course, Luke translates all of this in Greek only. (I think Paul probably “knows” Latin too, since he’s a citizen of Rome. And probably lots of people “know” the three languages, and maybe Aramaic too: John, in his gospel 19:20, has Pilate writing the note on Jesus’s cross in three languages.)

    When we teach ESL here in the US university, we talk about “knowing,” “learning,” and “acquiring” English. But “measuring” how one “knows” makes us reduce “English” to things like “speaking” and “writing” (which can be further reduced to things like “pronunciation,” “fluency,” “vocabulary,” “grammar,” “structure,” “argument,” “rhetoric,” “culture,” and even “punctuation,” “spelling,” and so forth and so on.)

    Some of these language concepts, like “know,” we get straight from the Greeks.

  2. So true, Kurk. There are so many variables in discussing language learning and what it means to know a language. I taught ELS to Russian senior citizens for a year. Now that was interesting. One of my students had been told at one point previous that whenever he couldn’t think of what verb to use in a sentence to simply use ‘get’ and he would be understood – not exactly aiming for elegant English…

    on the etymology of ‘know’, some observations:

    velar-nasal-close mid back

    velar-close front-nasal-close mid back vowel, etc.

    Probably, γ lost its voicing and then eventually in English the switch between a velar consonant and an alveolar consonant just became too much for the English speaker so that the pronunciation of the /k/ was dropped completely and now we have it only in the spelling…

  3. wow, that smiley face above is our computers translating my punctuation. I thought I “know” what I’m doing here.

    Oh well. let’s me make more points. I’m sitting in church today listening to the pastor preach from Philippians 4:2-9. The jump out word from me is φρονέω, which I think I “know.” Paul’s writing in v. 2 gives instructions to two women he names: “Εὐοδίαν παρακαλῶ καὶ Συντύχην παρακαλῶ τὸ αὐτὸ φρονεῖν ἐν κυρίῳ.” My diglot has RSV, the committee of which makes it this way in English: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.” So I look up a few verses: chapter 2:2 has Paul giving the same instruction to the entire church: “τὸ αὐτὸ φρονῆτε” or RSV committee’s “of the same mind.” Wow. Different English.

    So the same Greek gets the RSV committee take variously these ways:
    τοῦτο φρονεῖτε “Have this mind” 2:5
    τοῦτο φρονῶμεν καὶ εἴ τι ἑτέρως φρονεῖτε
    “thus minded; and if in antyhing you are otherwise minded” 3:15
    οἱ τὰ ἐπίγεια φρονοῦντες “minds set on earthly things” 3:19
    τὸ ὑπὲρ ἐμοῦ φρονεῖν ἐφ’ ᾧ καὶ ἐφρονεῖτε “your concern for me; you were indeed concerned for me” 4:10

    So three different English language words by the RSV committee as they “know” one Greek word: “agreement” “mind(edness)” and “concern for”

    I guess I have 2 points here: first, here’s another Greek word that’s ambiguous (that Aristotle tries to lock down in definition as φρόνησις, which many philosophers call “practical wisdom” or the like). second, I’m not sure a committee on a translation is always going to do any better than an individual translator. I wouldn’t necessarily argue for one concordant English word in translation; but the word play sure gets lost on the RSV committee.

    (Then again I have a friend who asks me every single time we meet: “what do you know for sure?”)

  4. There’s that smiley again. I don’t “know” much. I do like your phonological analysis.

    There is this in Greek γνῶσις with much more sound correspondence to our English. And we do have agnostics.

  5. I must admit, I have read more about Greek syntax than I have English syntax. On the other hand, learning Greek made me rethink my English, and as I studies more about Greek syntax I kept subjecting English to a lot of the same questions. But, you are right, I know a lot more Greek syntactical terms than I do English. So you are right and it is a good conversation to spawn off, but doesn’t really track with the point of the article, i.e., we should be humble about what we think we know 🙂

  6. Eric: Yeah…I know was I wasn’t full tracking with your intent completely, but I did try to tie it back together mentioning translation committees at the end. And I think that often when we hear pastors making comments about “the meaning of a word in the original” forgets that he might not know his English grammar and semantics as well as the English stylist who worked through the text with the Greek specialists. There are so many variables to take into account.

    I suppose I should say that I did completely agree with your post. I just wanted to add my two cents to it! 😉

    Kurk: Moises Silva has an interesting discussion of the word φρόνησις in his Baker Exegetical Commentary, particularly related to the issue of the variety of the words usage in the letter.

    And you’re right about γνῶσις being a close equivalent to our English word know. I’d also bet that with words like agnostic, the velar was able to be retained because of the syllable structure: VC.CV.CCVC ( as opposed to the CCV changing to CV in ‘know.’

    I’ve got a lot of phonology stuck in my head right now because of classes!

  7. Mike, since at least one of those you name is an English major there is at least a good chance that they have done some proper grammatical analysis of English as well as of Greek. As for myself, my background was in science, but I have done some linguistic analysis of English as well as of Greek, and I am well aware of traditional English grammar. So don’t assume we are all ignorant of our mother tongue! 😉 (deliberate smiley)

  8. Yeah I took a risk on that one. That’s why I kept the word “potentially” in there just to be safe! I very nearly added Wayne Leman to that list above, but I took him out for the same reason.

  9. Mike, I agree that lots of English first language speakers don’t actually understand the way their language works very well. Here in Australia, anyway, schools don’t teach much about grammar. However, as soon as you start to learn a second language, you have to start to understand the grammatical structure of you own, so learning a second language increases your understanding of your first.

    Re mistakes: as well as making accidental grammatical errors, people who speak English as their first language will often make deliberate grammatical mistakes for effect in spoken English. For example, if someone arrives at a meeting and says “We gotted lost so we is late”, most hearers would assume that they were looking for understanding and admitting to having been less than efficient, rather than that they didn’t understand the basic rules of English grammar. People who are not very fluent in a second language would never say this kind of thing for fear of being judged inadequate.

    Those who write professionally will also sometimes make deliberate spelling errors for effect. It would be interesting to know if this was also done in ancient times by professionals.

  10. Those who write professionally will also sometimes make deliberate spelling errors for effect. It would be interesting to know if this was also done in ancient times by professionals.

    That could be a thesis topic for someone…

    I don’t know about spelling, but I sometimes wonder if Paul intentionally used ungrammatical clauses in his letters for rhetorical effect – such as in Romans 5 and Ephesians 3.

    Personally, I often have to work hard on spelling, even though I’m quite familiar with English grammar. When I write, my hands cannot keep up with my brain – which is probably I’m not in David Ker’s Bloglines.

  11. Wow, I check out for 24 hours and you guys have a good conversation without me! But then I can’t think of anything to add so no big loss. I was thinking about some of these same issues on Sunday as I watched multilingual people negotiating very tricky language skills like public prayer and explaining a Bible passage.

  12. Oops, I missed your comment on not being on my blogroll! You are on my staggeringly prestigious links page… Well, you seem to have recently started doing spell checking which has definitely put you in my good graces! As far as grammar, we all screw up: The great Rich Rhodes has some nonsensical prose in his most recent post on felicity! So we all do it. Nick and Esteban call me the Spelling Police. Pathetic, I know.

  13. I think that with this one, all of your identities have officially been approved.

    My wife was an English major, she does the majority of the editing in this household.

  14. Judy,
    Here in Australia, anyway, schools don’t teach much about grammar.

    There’s much to say for that, I think. Even ESL students who start to think more about their L1 grammar by being exposed to English as an L2 or L3 or L4, don’t necessarily have to have explicit instruction in grammar.

    Analogies we use are: when we learn to drive a vehicle we don’t always have to focus on the engine. There’s a balance in sports pscyh between “choke” and “panic”– novice swimmers often tend to panic because they do not focus on the “grammar” of swimming, which must be applied immediately unless there’s a rescuer nearby. But our world class swimmers here in the university are told not to think too much about their technique while in the heat of a swim event; otherwise, they choke on too much information when they need to let their muscle memory take over. (In the 1970s, there was this pop book for learners by Tim Galloway called The Inner Game of Tennis.)

    What you say about second language learners discovering the grammar (even in their first language) is really profound. Note: the ESL teacher may teach English grammar, but it’s the ESL learner who then teaches herself or himself the mother tongue grammar after the fact.

  15. JK,

    In Australian universities, those same students who don’t know much about grammar are very poor written communicators because a lot of the tools available to them in oral communication (tone of voice, speed, emphasis, hand gestures etc) aren’t available to them in written communication and they don’t understand how to substitute. This is not “oh, no, you split an infinitive and you’ve put the apostrophe in the wrong place.” It’s “I have no idea what you are trying to convey, although I do understand every word you are using.” I think that they would be helped tremendously by being taught more about grammar than they are. 🙂

    I think whether or not you need explicit instruction in grammar depends on what you want to do with your L2 or L3 or L4. If you want to be able to have conversations with other speakers and make yourself understood, and read and understand text in the language, explicit instruction in grammar probably isn’t necessary – you can learn by learning patterns. If you want to be able to communicate in written form, especially at a reasonably sophisticated level, I think explicit grammar instruction is essential. If you want to be able to analyse text and understand the subtle nuances of what the author is trying to convey (as biblical scholars do, for example) then explicit grammar instruction is also essential.

  16. You’re right, Judy.

    Argument and pursuasion at a discourse level, whether spoken or written, is the most difficult level of language to reach from what I’ve read about language learning. Its easy to plateau at a level where communication is possible though not effective.

  17. Judy, what you write seems to make sense. But I don’t think it actually accords with observations on a cross-linguistic level. It doesn’t explain how many of the complex grammatical structures of Indo-European languages have been preserved independently for thousands of years in several different languages, including through long periods in which there was no kind of formal grammar for these languages. It doesn’t explain how some of the morphologically most complex languages in the world are found among Amazon rain forest tribes who don’t even know what grammar is. The evidence shows that people are able to learn, use and pass on highly complex grammatical structures without any kind of analysis of that grammar.

  18. I think this situation is somewhat different in that its referring to writing because writing is much more of a learned skill. I know a number of students whose speaking abilities are very good and they use complex grammar regularly, but when it comes to writing, everything falls apart.

  19. Peter,

    I think Mike’s right about written language being different to spoken. In the modern languages with which which I am reasonably familiar (English, French and German), acceptable formal spoken language is different to acceptable formal written language. Oral and written language use different mechanisms to indicate meaning. I have no idea about the ancient languages because they are no longer spoken and we only have written examples.

    When I speak, I use pauses, loudness and softness, speed etc for emphasis and to convey meaning. If someone asks me to do something and I say “yeah, right”, the hearer will know immediately whether I plan to do it or not. If I want to record the conversation in written form, I need to use a lot more words to convey meaning.

    The research with which I’m familiar about oral transmission by illiterate people (Havelock, Lord, Foley, Ong, Bailey) suggests that what happens is that people learn set units that they string together to tell stories and otherwise transmit information. People can learn quite sophisticated grammatical structures by hearing them over and over again – the expression just sounds right – but once it is written down, we need extra rules and conventions and devices (the commas, full stops, semi-colons etc) to replace the tone of voice, pause, body language etc that are part of the complexities of oral communication.

  20. Judy and Mike, I accept that written language is not quite the same as spoken. But I am sure that some people can write language with complex grammar without being aware of that grammar. I suspect that was true of the ancient Hebrew Bible authors. And then what about Shakespeare and other English writers of that period? Did they have any formal tuition in English grammar? I agree that grammar tuition is helpful, but not that it is a prerequisite for good writing.

  21. There was a time when it was just assumed, in the US, that black people spoke a kind of grammarless (i.e., poor grammar) English. Fact is, and this goes to some of the points Peter’s making, ebonics or Black dialect has a very very sophisticated grammar. It’s just different from the “grammar” (no split infinitives and the like) that is “standard” (i.e., most white people) American English.

    And, in the US academy today, English profs are very very interested now in the kinds of language teenagers (i.e., digital natives) are developing and using. Some profs but more high school teachers are alarmed. Will these young people ever be able to learn how to write?!!!! Funny thing is, they know how to write with visual and auditory rhetorics (i.e., multimedia) in ways that run circles around the grammar and composition teachers. I reviewed a textbook entitled Picturing Texts some years back, ostensibly written to teach young college writers the how to; but in fact it was a manual for the profs on the “grammars” of the young people in “new media.”

    Judy, What I liked about your first comment above was that it suggested learners, and not native speaking grammar teacher expert types, were the best teachers of grammar. That is, the second language learners can in deed and in fact teach themselves even grammar or writing conventions.

    Prescriptive grammar teaching is so, well, it’s just plain boring for the student. And painfully unnatural. I think our conversation here reveals some of our values about what is “standard” in language and what “ought” to be “standard.” Who sets ’em? Standards, that is.

  22. Some people have argued that Ebonics should be considered a separate language for sociolinguistic / language esteem reasons.

    If its a dialect of English, some consider it “a lesser dialect.”

    That’s interesting about new medias and grammar. I might have to look around to read about it.

  23. If its a dialect of English, some consider it “a lesser dialect.”

    Mike, Then all dialects are lesser. (Are you up late studying too? Oh, it’s only 10:30-ish but feels like 2am. All the other beings in this house are getting ready for work or school by dreaming quietly.)

  24. Yeah, I was finishing a paper on Russian phonemes. I went to bed around 1:00 finally…though I avoided my blog so that I could get it done after I wrote that comment above.

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