Editor’s note: this interview was originally published March 30th, 2015.
The following interview is part of an ongoing series titled Scholars in Press, which aims to showcase a particular variety of scholars who contribute to biblical studies through their linguistic skills.
- Robert Bascom
- Post-graduate study (1 year) – UCLA, 1991 (Linguistics-visiting scholar)
- Ph.D. Claremont Graduate University, 1986 (Religion/Biblical Studies). Dissertation: Prolegomena to the Study of the Itinerary Genre in the Old Testament and Beyond. UMI: Ann Arbor, 1986
- M.A. Fuller Theological Seminary, 1977 (Theology/Biblical Studies)
- B.A. Westmont College, 1973 (Political Science)
- Favorite activities: Hiking in the local mountains and road biking on the local streets.
How did linguistics intersect with biblical studies in your life (or vice-versa)?
Linguistics for me came both before and after my biblical training. I was raised the son of Wycliffe Bible Translators / Summer Institute of Linguistics missionary/teachers. I spent from September to June in the mountains of northern Mexico among the Northern Tepehuan, with whom my father was working to produce a NT. So while I never studied linguistics formally in my youth, it was all around me, and it certainly had an influence on me later.
Somewhat ironically, I never was interested in biblical studies until I decided to take biblical languages at Fuller Seminary. There I was struck by the difference it made to read the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew (Greek had not made the same impression on me).
After receiving a doctorate in biblical studies from Claremont Graduate University, I took a year of postdoctoral study at UCLA. There I had little time for more than the introductory courses, but was already fascinated by Anthropological linguistics. In particular, I liked the re-situation of linguistics under the domains of human interaction and behavior, an emphasis I continue to appreciate in cognitive linguistics and usage-based grammar (and semantics).
What informal or personal educational experience stands out the most to you in your learning career?
My years as a translation consultant with the United Bible Societies stand out here. I have learned far more from translators of the Bible into native languages (mostly of the Americas) than I have ever taught them as a consultant. It was the surprising interest they showed for the complex taboo systems in the Hebrew Bible that sent me back to read Mary Douglas. It was the observation that “simple” interaction with translators involved a much deeper negotiation, complex and hidden, which I became convinced was also intrinsically connected with the negotiation of meaning we (but mostly they) were carrying out with the biblical text in translation. Here I went back to read Erving Goffman, and later more in social psychology. Soon after that I picked up “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.” From there readings in evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, and all kinds of “cognitive” (psychology/anthropology/biology/linguistics) quickly followed.
What would you say is your linguistic niche, or what are you most interested in? (limit of two topics)
I am interested in cognitive linguistics, but am not very formalistic by nature. Thus some recent trends in that direction are not very interesting to me. I still find Lakoff’s conceptual metaphors productive and interesting.
The other area I am interested in is semantic category mapping. I use this terminology on purpose as opposed to semantic domains, as I do not think the latter is the most helpful way to think about the issue. Two alternate approaches are to investigate the functional areas of the brain where meaning is processed (e.g. motor vs. sensory), and/or to use a usage-based bottom-up approach to find “centroids,” or centers of meaning in our minds (these at times may not even be words but semantic spaces between words).
Where is your field headed? What advances are being made others might should be aware of?
Cognitive linguistics has broadened out into metaphor theory, category mapping, construction grammar, and many other sub-disciplines. It would be foolish of me to try to guess where all these will end up.
I hope that the field of cognitive linguistics will make more explicit those often hidden areas where we negotiate meaning, starting with the ways we negotiate our own identities as the basis for the negotiation of meaning based on those identities (see Goffman as well as recent cognitive science work on the social-emotional bases of language). The recognition in cognitive science of the “social brain” (see Patricia Kuhl) is key to this advance.
How do you hope your work will contribute (or counter) to this end?
I have watched in some frustration the continuation of work on “traditional” semantic domain dictionaries. I hope advances in cognitive studies in general and cognitive linguistics in particular will help bring clarity to this area of study. It would be a great help to translators, as one might imagine. I might help by providing examples from the field, or encouraging others to do the same. Similarly for the field of metaphor, I hope I could contribute in practical ways, if not theoretical. It seems to me, for example, that there are several biblical schemas/scenarios for sin: judicial, medical, animal husbandry, the road, etc. And which of these is emphasized may have much to do with the reader/ interpreter/ translator.
What is your end goal with your training? (e.g., teach, research, preach, translate, etc.)
At this point I am supposed to mentor and train (teach) in the area of Bible translation. I also continue to consult with translators.
What books / articles are you currently reading or enjoying most? (limit of 3)
- Louder that Words (Bergen)
- Self Comes to Mind (Damasio)
- The Slain God (Larsen)
Who have been your biggest role models?
- Burton W. Bascom, Jr. (my father)
- Eugene Nida
- William Reyburn
- Esteban Voth
What is one piece of advice for those following in your tracks?
Find something in your work that you love, and follow it up. If your interest changes along the way, don’t be afraid to keep following what interests you. That way you will never lack for motivation, will come across as enthusiastic about your job, and will encourage others to do the same. Try to avoid or minimize what you find uninteresting and not useful. You might be wrong, but if so, you are more likely to come to that conclusion by following your passion than by forcing yourself to do something you despise because you think you ought to do it.