We need new language resources for translation

This is the introduction to a series of essays examining how language diversity affects the needs of Bible translation around the world and how Rachel and Michael Aubrey’s work with Wycliffe Bible Translators will help alleviate some of these challenges.

A grammar is a communicative act.

Many people conceive of a written grammar, especially a reference grammar, as a kind of machine, one that presents the logical and systematized account of the internal structure of language. You learn the code and you can process the language that you are studying or needing to interpret. Biblical scholars and exegetes tend to rely on grammars in this way: looking for answers to their interpretive difficulties by applying a set of categories and grammatical rules in order to find the right answer. Thomas Payne, in an essay published in Perspectives on Grammar Writing (Amazon), suggests a different model, borrowed from contemporary approaches to pragmatics. Building on insights from speech act theory, Payne (2010) suggests that a written grammar is “a communicative act, performed in a context for a particular audience.” And because this is true:

[A communicative-oriented grammar] will have several characteristics not possessed by mathematical machines. First, like all communicative acts, its communicative effect will be derived from the interaction of the information presented, and the context available to the audience (Payne 2010, 141).

The reality of this statement has profound implications for how (1) biblical languages are taught and (2) how the analysis biblical languages is taught, particularly in a global context. The majority of tools for study and analysis exist only for a limited set of audiences: majority language speakers, including English, German, French, Spanish, Mandarin, etc.

But for those serving the global church, generally, and those 252 million people without any access to Scripture in their first language, specifically, the biblical language resources that exist are not for those people. In fact, with a few exceptions, they aren’t even for the people working on translation in those communities. The tools and resources for that audience are still waiting to be made.

With that context in mind, Christoph Heilig’s recently published interview with Heinrich von Siebenthal about the newly published English edition of his New Testament Greek reference grammar: Ancient Greek Grammar for the Study of the New Testament (Amazon) suggests an avenue for exploring how different target languages have different descriptive needs.

The title of the interview is the same as the newly translated and revised grammar: Ancient Greek Grammar for the Study of the New Testament. It is certainly worth reading in full, but what stuck out for us was the brief discussion of how differences between English and German result in substantive changes to the reference grammar. This idea (that the language of analysis affects the description) might be disturbing to some: Surely, if we just treat “Greek as Greek” then that should not happen. But, of course, reality is far more complicated than that. And von Siebenthal notes three ways, in particular, where this is true for German and English: case marking, gender, and verb semantics. Those first two, case and gender, are worth exploring in more detail.

But first, here’s Heilig’s interview question and the relevant portion of von Siebenthal’s answer:

In preparing the English version of your grammar, which areas required the most modification due to the new target language?

HvS: Case forms and their syntax so prominent in Ancient Greek (and German) called for special attention, of course, as in Modern English case forms hardly occur at all. Dealing with grammatical genders required special care, too, as Ancient Greek and German, unlike English, do not connect these with natural genders in any systematic way.

The first, case morphology, represents a formal difference: English has only retained case marking on its personal pronouns (and even there, diachrony is taking its toll), while German continues to retain four cases:

Singular:Plural: Singular:Plural:
Nom.:der Tischdie TischeNom.:ἡ γυνήαἱ γυναῖκες
Gen.:des Tisch(e)sder TischeGen.:τῆς γυναικόςτῶν γυναικῶν
Dat.:dem Tisch(e)den TischenDat.:τῇ γυναικίταῖς γυναιξί(ν)
Acc.:den Tischdie TischeAcc.:τὴν γυναῖκατάς γυναῖκας
   Voc.:ὦ γύναιαἱ γυναῖκες
Case & Gender in German (left) and Greek (right)

The second, grammatical gender, is a complex blend of form and meaning. Gender is realized in the morphosyntax in Greek and German. In German, gender is realized via dependent marking morphology on the singular article and other nominal modifiers. The chart above has the masculine article. Similarly, in Greek the article is inflected for gender, but it is also realized in the case morphology. Greek has elements of both dependent marking and also head marking morphology. The Greek noun in the chart above is a feminine noun.

But in both languages, gender is also lexical in nature. Each noun has an inherent gender. These effectively function as noun class markers and they provide speakers with a means of organizing conceptual information about their world. The gender/classes of nouns must be learned by language users. Whether in Greek or German, gender is not predictable from the syntax, but it is also not arbitrary. Köpcke and Zubin (1984 and 1996) observe four types of semantic regularities in German, helpfully summarized by Schwichtenberg and Schiller (2004, 327-328):

  1. Simple classification, where a single gender ends up being used for a semantic field: German tends to associate color terms with neuter gender: das Blau, ‘the blue,’ and das Rot, ‘the red’).
  2. Inner structure classification, where gender seems to reflect the internal structure of a domain when individual sub-domains take different genders. For example, alcoholic drinks generally are assigned the masculine gender, but beer and its individual types are neuter.
  3. Zubin and Köpcke’s complex classification category involves semantic associations with a gender that get overridden by regularities between phonology and gender. Birds tend to have masculine gender, unless there are other morphophonological motivations, involving phenomenon such as syllable structure, that push it toward the feminine gender, such as die Meise, ‘the titmouse’.
  4. Continuum classification involves two opposite semantic poles each associated conceptually with a particular gender class. Nouns close to one pole or the other are each associated with a particular gender, but nouns with senses in the middle show no predictable preference for one gender over the other. A good example is what is known as the affect continuum, especially for abstract nouns, involving a continuum from extroversion/externally focused to introversion/internally focused nouns. Those that refer to the latter affect, introversion, are feminine (die Trauer, ‘the mourning/saddness’), but extroversion/externally focused nouns are masculine (der Zorn, ‘the wrath’). Nouns in the middle of this continuum lack that same predictability.

This summary is far from complete and there is substantial space for debate or discussion (the literature on grammatical gender in a majority language like German represents a vast and comprehensive research project). Still, it is important to remember, especially for monolingual English speakers, that languages with fully developed gender systems are complex and intricate in subtle ways.

English has nothing like this kind of grammatical system. That has profound effects upon what a written grammar looks like and how information is presented. It is extremely unusual for English grammars of Greek to say much at all about the semantic structures behind Ancient Greek gender. To my knowledge, von Siebenthal’s new translation is the only New Testament Greek grammar in English that says anything about the semantics of Ancient Greek gender marking. He provides the following observations in his introduction to noun declension (von Siebenthal 2019, 50):

gender:typically refers to:
MASCULINEmale beings (human/non-human) as well as inanimate entities such as (especially) rivers  or streams, winds, months, e.g. ὁ Ἰορδάνης the Jordan, ὁ Κεδρών the Kidron, ὁ νότος the south wind, ὁ Ξανθικὀς [the month of] Xanthikos (↑ 2Macc 11:30), but also to abstract concepts, e.g. ὁ ἁγιασμός sanctification
FEMININEfemale beings (human/non-human) as well as inanimate entities such as (especially) fruit-trees, countries, islands, cities, e.g. ἡ συκῆ The fig-tree, ἡ Ζυρία Syria, ἡ Κύπρος Cyprus, ἡ Αντιόχεια Antioch, but also to abstract concepts, e.g. ἡ πίστις faith
NEUTERphenomena without natural gender, fairly frequently also to male or female beings in diminutives (↑361b), e.g. τὸ θυγάτριον the little daughter, but also to abstract concepts, e.g. τὸ θέλημα what is willed (also ↑132a).

Now, these observations are still short of the vast account of grammatical gender in modern languages, but it does well to illustrate the point. The needs of a German audience for an Ancient Greek grammar are different in many ways from those of an English audience. The language of description affects the end product because it changes the audience.

If the descriptive needs for describing New Testament Greek can vary so much between two related majority languages, like English & German, how much more need is there for biblical language resources—both Ancient Greek and Classical Hebrew—that effectively communicate for those serving minority languages in Bible translation?

Over the course of the next couple months, we would like to examine a number of the ways that the world’s languages are similar and different. And we want to discuss how those similarities and differences impact those people working in Bible translation.

Rachel and Michael Aubrey have been invited by Wycliffe Bible Translators to help contribute to a new generation of digital resources for studying Biblical languages, geared directly toward these kinds of challenges. Because Wycliffe is a faith-based mission, they need people to partner with them in their Wycliffe ministry before they can begin their work.

The readership here at Koine-Greek.com represents a thoughtful and vibrant community of people with an engaging interest in biblical languages and translation.

We hope that some of you might consider joining them in their Wycliffe Ministry.