Review Part I: Porter (2015) Linguistic analysis of the Greek New Testament

Porter, Stanley. 2015. Linguistic analysis of the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

This review is a long time coming. I owe it to my readers for their generosity in helping my wife and I get to Cambridge for the Greek Verb Conference (The Greek Verb Revisited) in 2015.

Part II of this review is available here: Part two of Porter (2015): Approaching analysis
Part III of this review will be available here when it is posted.

At first glance, the title of this volume might be construed as suggesting that Porter has provided us with a textbook on linguistic analysis and the Greek New Testament. And I am sure many professors could (and perhaps should!) adopt this volume as text for topical readings on a various issues in Greek for a second or third year seminar class. But this book constitutes a collection of topically organized essays on themes that have been at the forefront of Dr. Porter’s mind over the past couple decades, rather than being a text with a singular argument that logically builds from one chapter to the next relying on the content that has come before, as one might anticipate in a textbook on linguistic method or analysis. This is not a criticism, however, merely a statement of fact. It is simply important for the reader who picks up this volume to understand just what it is. Indeed, there is great value in its contents—many of the essays are unpublished conference papers and thus difficult, if not impossible, to find elsewhere.

The breadth of Porter’s interests is, as always, impressive. Not all sections of the volume will, perhaps, be of interest to all readers. Still, I would expect everyone can find something that catches their eye. Linguistic analysis is divided into three sections: (1) Texts and Tools, (2) Approaching Analysis, and (3) Doing Analysis. The review will be posted in three parts, each corresponding with a section of the book.

Part One: Texts and Tools

The four chapters on texts and tools cover a few seemingly disparate issues that are nonetheless ordered quite meaningfully: copyright and the text of the New Testament—an ongoing difficult topic for those of us doing computer-assisted research on the Greek language. This flows logically into the second chapter detailing the topic of computer-assisted research itself. Here Porter lays out what he views as the basic requirements for such work. One of his biggest frustrations here is (1) the lack of annotation of the data in various available databases, (2) the reliability of existing annotations, and (3) the great difficulty of getting corrections implemented.[1] Each of these is directly tied to the fact that most existing databases are closed systems. It is not clear to me whether or not this chapter was written before or after Perseus began making available all of its texts publicly for others to work on them. Still, he touches an important point either way, downloading the raw data from Perseus presumes a knowledge of coding that most language scholars are unlikely to have—this is something that is going to need to change for future generations of linguists and NT scholars.

The other two chapters of part one deal with lexicography, the first dealing with how Louw & Nida’s lexicon (Louw and Nida 1989—L&N) might be improved upon, and the second discussing BDAG (Danker 2000) with general thoughts on the future of lexicography and Koine Greek. Much of the third chapter on discussing L&N is devoted to examining how the lexicon could be improved. For example, Porter laments the fact that the lexicon’s organization creates the appearance of different senses of the same lexeme, particularly for lexemes covering multiple semantic domains, existing independently of each other seemingly without rhyme or reason. The theoretical foundation for Porter’s proposed corrective to this very real and substantive issue comes from Ruhl’s (1989) monograph: On DEemy: A study in linguistic semantics, a book written to respond to the proliferation of polysemy as an organizing principle in semantic theory in the 1980’s and beyond. Porter’s own summary of Ruhl’s argument is accurate and useful (2015, 52):

[R]ather than an individual lexeme contributing maximalist meaning to a given utterance, the lexeme contributes minimal meaning. What is often thought of and seen as its lexical meaning is the result of the contribution of cotextual or linguistic and contextual or extralinguistic factors. Another way of stating this is to distinguish between the inherent meaning of a lexeme as semantic and its additional or instrumental meaning as pragmatic, or the distinction between the abstract formal meaning of a lexeme and the specific functional meaning of its use in context.

Porter’s interest Ruhl (1989) is striking.[2] This is partially, but perhaps unfairly, for its novelty: Ruhl’s work has generally not been positively received within lexical semantics and lexicology. Some have lamented that Ruhl’s work could have been excellent.[3] There is a sense (pardon the pun) in which Ruhl exists in a difficult place in the history of linguistics and semantic theory. He wrote his monograph at a time when structuralism was coming to an end and the concept of isomorphism (one form = one meaning) was being set aside. Polysemy, prototype categorization, and metaphor theory were increasingly taking front and center. Ruhl, whether fairly or unfairly, represents a failed attempt to push back against these ideas without the past baggage of linguistic structuralism that so heavily influence lexical semantics for most of the 20th century with a generative linguistic bent.[4]

Perhaps the great irony of lexical semantics in the 1980’s is that at the same time that Ruhl was doing his own writing and research, a number of cognitive linguists were putting forward quite similar proposals for dealing with the same challenges that arise with polysemy.[5] Thus, for Langacker (1987) what Ruhl calls the monosemic abstract unity of apparent disparate senses, are termed image schemas. The major differences between cognitive linguists like Langacker and Ruhl are that they (1) maintained a different view of the relation between semantics and pragmatics and (2) rather than attempting to explain away polysemy, they instead sought to integrate highly abstract meaning along with polysemy together. The second of these differences, however, is the lesser one. Ruhl himself does not discard the existence of polysemy; he merely separates it from grammar and recategorizes it within pragmatics instead. He admits this himself as early as his preface (Ruhl 1989, ix-xi). In a sense, then, the question of polysemy vs. monosemy can be reduced to the question of determining the relationship between semantics and pragmatics.

To Porter’s great credit on this, he does not appear to adhere to the structuralist definition of pragmatics laid out for New Testament first by Mari Olsen (1997) based on the Gricean concept of ‘cancelability’ that has since gotten confused in many discussions of later NT scholars (cf. Fresch 2016, 397-400). Rather Porter views semantics and pragmatics as a continuum: “On the continuum of syntax-semantics-pragmatics, pragmatics is extralinguistic or contextual” (2015, 57). This is quite satisfying.[6] Nevertheless, the fact he continues to make some distinction between semantics and pragmatics (if they are a continuum, then one wonders where one ends and the other begins) represents the primary distinction between Porter’s use of Ruhl’s (generative[7]) monosemy and the standard cognitive linguistic perspective of polysemy. As Taylor (2003) observes,

Given the basic assumptions of the generative paradigm, the emergence of pragmatics as an independent object of study was perhaps inevitable. If language constitutes an autonomous cognitive system [as in generative linguistics], then, given the self-evident fact that language is an instrument for conceptualizing and interacting with the world, the need arises for an interface that links these otherwise independent systems. Pragmatics functions as precisely such an interface. In rejecting the notion of an autonomous linguistic faculty, cognitive linguistics necessarily removes the need for pragmatics as a separate branch of study. All meaning is, in a sense, pragmatic, as it involves the conceptualizations of human beings in a physical and social environment. … [The] understanding of any utterance requires an act of context-sensitive interpretation by the listener/hearer; metaphorical utterances, on this view, do not form a special set. (Taylor 2003, 132-3).

The second half of this rather large quote ought to be familiar ground, conceptually, for anyone with a cursory knowledge of Systemic Functional Linguistics: language as a socio-semiotic; meaning making as social activity. Halliday is one of the most radical linguists to push against generativism and linguistic autonomy on behalf of language as a social and communicative entity (Van Valin and LaPolla 1997, 11-15). That is precisely what makes the choice of Ruhl as a guide somewhat unusual. Of course, anyone who has read Ruhl (1989) knows that he was unable to escape from encyclopedic and experiential meaning and usage in his search for generalized abstract lexical definitions, since the only way to thoroughly describe them is through a careful analysis of the variety of “pragmatic” usages. If the lexical semantics of a word is determined via the context-sensitive pragmatics, one questions the value of the distinction to begin with.

Despite my critical view of Ruhl (1989), I nevertheless view Porter’s use of him here positively. There is good reason for this. Whether one locates polysemy within semantics proper (however that might be defined) or in pragmatics, the final result is still relatively similar: an abstract schematic account of a lexeme’s meaning derived from shared aspects of individual differentiated usages. Porter rightly recognizes that the structure of L&N with its semantic domain based organization cannot accurately represent the nature of the lexemes listed across multiple whose senses share a unifying abstract semantic relationship. Porter’s suggestion of one sense per register is also quite interesting. While I am not fully confident that it would hold across all lexemes, it seems like a useful and worthwhile avenue of research to pursue.

The final chapter of part one focuses on BDAG, offering both praise and critique, all of which seems quite deserving. The comparison with DGENT (Mateos & Peláez 2000) is particularly useful, though I confess that I do not share Dr. Porter’s enthusiasm for componential analysis (cf. Aubrey 2017)—the nature of the method invariably produces problems sooner or later. Still, the fact that Porter takes pains to work through an entry in both BDAG and DGENT comparatively provides insight into DGENT that many reads would otherwise not have, simply from lack of access. DGENT appears a step forward from BDAG in lexicographical practice. Additionally, I share Porter’s great interest in the digital lexicon and the great potential for examining particular constructions that bridge grammar and lexicon in way that the printed page would not be able to contain.

In sum, part one of Porter (2015) provides a stimulating and thought provoking read, affording us insight into Porter’s thought on text and lexicography. He is to be greatly thanked for making these essays readily available. In a number of places, Porter provides greater insight into his views on particular important linguistic issues and also puts forwards ideas and proposals for texts, semantics, and lexicography that would greatly benefit the field if they were acted on. This is an excellent book so far and will give food for thought to anyone willing to take the time to wade in.


[1] From conversations with colleagues of my own, Perseus is one of the best in terms of responsiveness to sharing corrections.

[2] One wonders which came first: Porter’s preference for Ruhl’s proposal or his view of the Greek aorist, imperfect, and pluperfect as denoting perfective aspect and remoteness — a minimalist expression of semantic content — rather than tense.

[3] For example, Birch (1990) in her review comments:

It is unfortunate that the discussion in these chapters rambles from one unexplained and sometimes tangential abstraction to another. [Ruhl] draws incomplete, unconvincing analogies which cannot be evaluated because he often either does not define his terms or redefines conventional terms in such a way as to make the reader think that he must have an entirely different mental model of language. In other words, reading R is sometimes an exercise in bending your mind into a new shape; when it is successful it is illuminating, but when it is not successful it is frustrating.

[4] The majority of biblical scholars would not be aware of this, but much of the discussion in Barr (1962) about semantics actually quite problematic for this very reason.

[5] The irony arises from the fact that parallel accounts of It is ironic because one of Ruhl’s purposes in positing his theory of monosemy was, at least in part, a response to Lakoff & Johnson’s (1980) account of metaphor and Lakoff’s (1987) account of polysemy and it is not clear to me that Ruhl properly understands Lakoff’s account of either.

[6] Porter (2015, 202-3) lays out this view in a bit more detail in chapter 12 in his discussion of the points of agreement and disagreement between himself, Fanning, and Campbell.

[7] That Ruhl views his own work as within generative linguistics (“My point of view parallels modular conceptions in the tradition of Transformational Grammar [TG], particularly current Government-Binding [GB] theory.” (Ruhl 1989, 7) produces an uncomfortable situation for Porter, since he speaks so highly of his work, while wrongly criticizing as generative Danove’s (2001) Construction Grammar (CxG) work on Greek argument structure (valency): “However, Danove’s proposal is formal and generative, and thus not contextual” (Porter 2015, 56). Danove may use a formalism, but there’s nothing formal or generative about it in the sense of the functionalist vs. formalist divide within the field of linguistics. It’s also unfortunate that Porter did not update this essay to also reference Danove’s two additional books on Greek argument structure (Danove 2009; 2015).

Works Cited

Aubrey, Michael. 2017. “Linguistic problems in Biblical Greek.” In Linguistics and biblical exegesis. Edited by Douglas Mangum and Josh Westbury. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Barr, James. 1962. The semantics of biblical language. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Birch, Barbara M. 1990. “On monosemy: A study in linguistic semantics by Charles Ruhl.” Language 66:4, 881-2.

Danker, Frederick W; et al. 2000. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Danove, Paul. 2001. Linguistics and exegesis in the Gospel of Mark. Edinburg: T & T Clark.

Danove, Paul. 2009. A grammatical and exegetical study of New Testament verbs of transference: A case frame guide to interpretation and translation. Edinburg: T & T Clark.

Danove, Paul. 2015. New Testament verbs of communication: A case frame and exegetical study. Edinburg: T & T Clark.

Fresch, Christopher J. 2016. “Typology, polysemy, and prototypes: Situating nonpast aorist indicatives.” Pages 379-415. In The Greek verb revisited: A fresh approach to biblical exegesis. Edited by Steven E. Runge and Christopher J. Fresch. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Langacker, Ronald. 1987. Foundations of cognitive grammar volume 1: Theoretical prerequisites. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Louw, J. P. and Eugene A. Nida. 1989. Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains. 2nd Ed. New York: United Bible Societies.

Broman Olsen, Mari. 1997. A semantic and pragmatic model of lexical and grammatical aspect. New York: Garland Publishing.

Mateos, J. and J. Peláez. Eds. 2000–. Diccionario Griego-Español del Nuevo Testamento. 5 vols. Córdoba: Ediciones el Almendro; Fundación Épsilon.

Ruhl, Charles. 1989. On monosemy: A study in linguistic semantics. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Taylor, John. 2003. Lingustic categorization. 3rd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Valin, Robert D. Jr. and Randy LaPolla. 1997. Syntax: Structure, meaning, and function. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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