Scholars in Press: An interview with Rachel Aubrey

Editor’s note: This interview and its content was originally published June 9th, 2016.

Scholars in Press: An Interview with Rachel Aubrey

Education: Bachelors in English literature & Latin.

Olympus OM-D E-M5

Masters in Linguistics & Exegesis. I began linguistic study at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (GIAL) in Dallas, TX and then continued at the Canada Institute of Linguistics (CanIL) in Langley, BC. I’m completing my thesis on middle voice in Hellenistic Greek.

A PhD in linguistics is quite likely in the future as well, but we’ll see when that happens. My husband, Michael Aubrey, and I are receiving training in linguistics in preparation for serving with SIL/Wycliffe Bible Translators.

Favorite Pastimes: My favorite activities tend to involve getting outside. Hiking & rock climbing provide a mind-body renewal unmatched anywhere else. And on a daily basis, I run and workout (push ups, burpees, etc.), in all weather and all seasons. That includes rain, snow, and the occasional tornado or blizzard.

How did linguistics intersect with biblical studies in your life (or vice-versa)?

Much of what Wycliffe does centers on language communities that do not necessarily have written resources (texts, educational materials). If there are such resources in a language, they may be preliminary readers or partial NT translations. But if there are none, we have received training in how to develop them – learning the language, engaging speakers, performing phonetic and phonological analysis, and developing orthographies (writing systems) if necessary. When this kind of work is begun then stories can be transcribed and resources developed for the language community. This work provides a means for grammatical analysis to take place – creating grammars as a description of the language structure and its various functional categories.

But for languages like ancient Greek, there are already a plethora of resources available for grammatical description. I came to Greek (undergraduate – Classical Attic Greek; graduate – Koine) and Hebrew (graduate) and began investigating them with the linguistic methods I was learning at GIAL/CanIL simply because they were foreign languages readily available to me at the time.

“Teaching literacy, translation, and language development gives people a voice to join the conversation from their own perspective and within their own mother tongue.”

My initial interest in Greek and Hebrew came from a desire to create better translation resources for ongoing work in Wycliffe, with a particular desire to see people become scholars in their own right – translating, teaching, and interpreting biblical texts for their own cultural communities. Empowering people to grow in knowledge gives them the tools to interpret the text, apply what they learn, and teach it to others.

In the process, I learn to see the texts with new eyes as well. The Church at large needs a diversity of voices, both western and non-western wisdom alike. Teaching literacy, translation, and language development gives people a voice to join the conversation from their own perspective and within their own mother tongue.

This initial desire has developed in a second direction as well – into a broader interest in how languages work, especially regarding the manifestation of syntactic and semantic categories in ancient languages and their contribution to the development of spoken languages today.

Language typology is the study of how languages are the same as well as different. Fitting Greek and Hebrew into what we know about human languages in general helps us to place them into a broader spectrum of what languages do and do not do. This provides a check on the kinds of grammatical categories we posit in analysis and helps us to see how languages and linguistic categories interact with one another and shift over time.

There are plenty of misconceptions about linguists out there, as is the case for many professions. But I like to think of linguists as language scientists. Much like a biologist picks apart the pieces of a flower to see how it works or an astronomer maps out celestial objects (asteroids, galaxies, planets, stars), linguists pick apart language to see how it works, and map out languages into families to see how they are both similar and different, and they even venture into how language arises through communication, cognitive functions, social discourse, and phenomenological experience. Like in physics or chemistry, we gather the data – the facts about the system – and we try to describe it through theories and descriptive analysis, aiming to fit the facts as best as we can, regarding the way people speak and think.

“For ancient languages like Greek… we don’t have native speakers at hand but we do have plenty of history, texts, and curiosity…”

For ancient languages like Greek, Hebrew, Latin, or Sanskrit (among many others), we don’t have native speakers at hand but we do have plenty of history, texts, and curiosity to find out how they function as symbolic systems just like spoken the languages of today. Their wisdom is worth consideration and their function as languages must be part of the larger investigation of how languages work and what their character demonstrates about human thinking and doing in the world.

By investigating our surroundings, our symbolic systems, and ourselves, we do nothing short of reflecting on what it means to be human and our place in the rest of the universe. In this, linguistics is also an art – connected to philosophy, phenomenology, emergence, and poetics (especially consider the work of Northrop Frye and Paul Ricoeur).

What informal or personal educational experience stands out the most to you in your learning career?

I had the privilege of working as a teacher’s assistant for a number of courses in graduate school. Being a TA means you get to take a class several times until you actually understand the material well enough to explain it to others in your own voice. My professor for a course on syntax and semantics of languages around the world was both an educational and personal mentor for me. I learned the material so well that when she left the school I was the one who knew the class well enough to teach it and I did so a few times over. (For those interested, it was a course based in the Role & Reference Grammar framework.) Teaching was a pleasure and I hope to do so again in the future.

When we teach, students help us refine our understanding and become better linguists. Their questions and curiosity drive the learning process so we are constantly assimilating new information and refining knowledge about the nature of language. Keeping up on linguistic research is a plus as well since teaching supplies a perpetual need for new language data and better teaching material/methods.

One of my favorite courses in grad school was one that continues to inform my perspective on the nature of language and human understanding: philosophical perspectives in linguistics. After I completed the course, I continued to engage the topic as a TA as well as through an independent study with the professor. This is where I had my first exposure to cognitive linguistics, the metaphorical nature of abstract concepts, and the cognitive unconscious. For those interested in an introductory text to these ideas, you might consider reading Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999).

What would you say is your linguistic niche, or what are you most interested in? (limit of two topics)

My current interests center on the study of syntax, semantics, and grammaticalization, with a particular eye for grammatical voice. The classical opposition between active and passive has long enjoyed a place of primacy in the study of voice, with scholars applying its rules and regulations to the voice systems of a wide variety of genetically unrelated languages. But there has been a pushback on this because typological research across languages as well as cognitive research into the nature of language categories have demonstrated that the active-passive voice distinction is neither the oldest voice alternation nor the primary one maintained across language systems.

“If we attempt to understand a one voice system, (such as active-middle) in terms of another (such as active-passive), we more often than not skew our understanding of the categories manifest in a given language.”

Instead languages show a variety of different voice systems. One of the oldest and the one present in ancient Indo-European languages is that of the middle voice system — expressing a primary distinction between active and middle. If we attempt to understand a one voice system, (such as active-middle) in terms of another (such as active-passive), we more often than not skew our understanding of the categories manifest in a given language.

A second area of refinement under way in the study of grammatical voice is a shift in the focus of analysis. Most grammatical voice studies have focused on the formal oppositions in morphology and syntactic structure that result in voice alternations. This is tied to the syntactic distinctions found in the active-passive contrast and has lead to a widespread neglect of the cognitive processes and conceptual factors involved in voice. Several studies have sought to remedy this situation in order to consider the conceptual distinctions involved and what this says about human categorization of events.

In this respect, I maintain a life-long love for the study of human cognition and meaning-making, especially concerning the categorization process — how categories take shape, their ontological nature, what they look like, and the cognitive processes involved in creating them. Studying language and human thought allows us to reflect on everything from the architecture of the brain to neural networks, from biological adaptation to the emergence of human consciousness, and from diachronic shifts and conceptual blends to the nature of meaning and the process of meaning-making persistent in human interaction.

Where is your field headed? What advances are being made others might should be aware of?

There is a strong and long-dominant tradition in linguistic study that treats language as the product of an activity, but as linguistics engages other fields of inquiry including psychology, philosophy, anthropology, neuroscience, and biology, it becomes increasingly clear that our primary metaphor for language needs to keep pressing for language as an activity, rather than an object. When we view language and linguistic categories as dynamic activities, biologically based, and cognitively motivated then this opens up new modes of exploration into grammar and indeed into the categorization process in general. Cognitive linguistics tends to be the most engaged in this kind of research, but if it is to continue as a viable option, it needs to remain open to new pursuits and further critiques, especially in the area of cognitive semiotics.

“There is a strong and long-dominant tradition in linguistic study that treats language as the product of an activity, but … it [is] becom[ing] increasingly clear that our primary metaphor for language needs to keep pressing for language as an activity, rather than an object.”

Cognitive semiotics is an emerging interdisciplinary field interested in human meaning making – how we mean things with words, actions, and interactions. It draws on cognitive science, psychology, philosophy, and phenomenology in order to study signs and what it means for humans to be sign creators. For instance, in cognitive linguistics, meaning is often described with respect to conceptualization – the various ways in which humans conceive events and express those in language. While this does emphasize an experiential motivation for meaning and an empirical basis for the study of language, we do need to be careful in our linguistic investigations not to sidestep other essential aspects of meaning and human cognition.

Meaning is not primarily an internal mental affair but a fundamentally relational one. Linguists and cognitive scientists need to continue to engage the emergent and multi-model nature of the phenomena we study, including intersubjectivity (a plurality of subjects), socio-cultural constraints, normative behavior, interpretive processes, and the essential role of the body in action-oriented engagement, including imitation, natural-reaction, gesture, etc. This involves meaning as bound up with bodily perception and proprioception as well as more secondary feelings such as guilt, rage, love, elation, and the like.

How do you hope your work will contribute (or counter) to this end?

Seeking reconciliation between the practical work of language description and functional analysis as married to the ongoing research in cognitive science and embodiment theory.

What is the end goal of your training?

Teaching and research are ongoing pursuits as is working with Wycliffe/SIL in linguistics, translation, and language development. All this with the caveat that life always takes us in new directions and very different adventures than we might initially imagine for ourselves.

What books / articles are you currently reading or enjoying most? (Limit 3)

One book that I continuously return to for citation and reference is Eve Sweetser’s From Etymology to Pragmatics: Metaphorical and Cultural Aspects of Semantic Structure. She does a lovely job of describing, in very common sense language, how metaphorical structure in our habits of thought constrain and shape what words mean, how they change over time, and how language categories grow.

Who have been your biggest role models?

Emma Pavey – I first had the opportunity to teach under Emma’s direction and her ongoing friendship is a great treasure. Emma has studied linguistics, restorative justice, and theology (completed her theology degree @Vancouver School of Theology). She has written several papers on the intersection of theology with hospitality, personhood, imagination, liminality, and healing.

Jamin Pelkey set me on the path for discovering the intersection of linguistics and philosophy. He gave me some of his precious time while I was his TA and student. He continues to teach and write in the area of cognitive linguistics/cognitive semiotics. I can only hope to contribute as much thoughtful interaction and wisdom to the scholarly community as he has.

What is one piece of advice for those following in your tracks?

One of the difficulties of coming to linguistics as a biblical scholar is that it may often seem that certain linguistic theories, texts, or articles are not relevant at all to the aims of the biblical scholar who is primarily interested in exegesis, preaching, teaching, or personal Bible study. However if the field as a whole is serious about understanding how Greek and/or Hebrew grammar works then nothing could be farther from the truth. If we study a language, wanting to know about its structure, its word order, and the function of its categories, then linguistics as a field is always relevant. It is the study of how languages work, what their structure does, and how their categories behave. Greek and Hebrew are languages just like any other human language — used as tools for creating shared meaning among people.

Present and future work in Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Latin grammatical analysis must engage the work of linguistics. Linguistic principles, research goals, methodology, philosophy, and descriptive frameworks are ignored, glossed over, or pushed aside to the detriment of biblical language studies. Short-changing linguistic texts, frameworks, or articles because they do not appear, at first, to have any immediate relevance to exegetical conclusions or teaching grammar, puts the cart before the horse. It steps over the necessary work of learning about how language works in order to rush on to the goal that seeks to conclude something about the meaning of a text based on how the language works.

“When ancient languages are studied in a vacuum outside of linguistic analysis, Biblical students and scholars run the risk of making Greek, Hebrew, or Latin either (1) more like the language we know best, like English (or whatever our native tongue), or (2) making Greek/Hebrew into foreign/strange/quirky objects, unlike any other language.”

When ancient languages are studied in a vacuum outside of linguistic analysis, Biblical students and scholars run the risk of making Greek, Hebrew, or Latin either (1) more like the language we know best, like English (or whatever our native tongue), or (2) making Greek/Hebrew into foreign/strange/quirky objects, unlike any other language. In both cases, we run a deep risk of trying to clarify Greek/Hebrew in light of what we know about grammar in English – either making it more like or less like the grammatical categories we are familiar with. This results in misunderstanding and skewing the categories manifest in the Biblical languages – suggesting that somehow they can never really be understood.

But this is only the case if the field of Biblical studies seeks to understand the categories actually manifest in Greek and Hebrew in the absence of knowledge regarding how language works, what languages look like, and how languages are organized as communicative systems. One simple example of this is the ongoing study of grammatical voice. Greek has a middle voice system just like a vast number of other languages with the same type of voice contrast. Yet in the absence of this knowledge, we risk misunderstanding Greek voice and trying to interpret it through an English lens. But when we are armed with knowledge about voice systems across languages, then the behavior of voice in Greek and the kinds of verbs that are marked in middle voice actually make sense. The behavior of middle voice in Greek fits well typologically with a host of other languages that have middle systems (and yes, even languages spoken today). This same principle applies broadly to the study of Greek/Hebrew word order, tense and aspect, clause structure, verb roots and morphology, the behavior of participles, the position of adjectives in the noun phrase, prepositions, the usage of grammatical cases, and so on.

Do you have online resources you would like to refer people to, either your own or others?

  • Readings in semiotics on a wide range of material and perspectives:
  • My husband, Michael Aubrey, writes on Greek linguistics at: I have contributed in the past and hope to do so in future. And, as is the case, for a husband and wife in the same field, our conversations and research often (but not always) find their way onto the site at some point.
  • A page of links & databases for those studying ancient Greek: It includes a link to the Perseus project and Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (digitized corpus of ancient Greek and Byzantine literature):
  • For those who like charts and helpful teaching tools, Helma Dik (University of Chicago) maintains a page of class handouts:
  • For those who might be interested in getting a glimpse of the kinds of challenges a translation team faces in the field, friends from school have a YouTube channel where they share videos explaining translation difficulties and questions. Michael & Megan Barton are translators with Pioneer Bible Translators (PBT) working in Tanzania:
  • Another couple we attended school with is Nathan & Joanna Michael serving with Wycliffe in Cameroon. They write about translation work and what it entails on their site. Nate just shared an excellent post on the differences in cultural interpretation with regard to Luke 15:12:

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