Singular/plural; Familiar/unfamiliar: Person marking & Bible translation

This is the second in a 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. For the introduction see: We need new language resources for translation.

This sentence has pronouns in all three persons: first person (I/me), second person (you), and third person (he/she):

She heard about me from you.

The first and second persons are both interlocutors, i.e. communicative participants. First person is the speaker and second person, the listener. Third person exists externally to a given communicative exchange.

1st person2nd person3rd person
Grammatical Person & Communicative Functions

These distinctions are a natural product of how humans interact with each other. There is a speaker (1st person), listener (2nd person), and often, an external person or thing being spoken about (3rd person). Each of these grammatical categories arise from a communicative need that we human have for social interaction. Thus they are functional in nature.*

* It is also why computer games are described as first person or third person: Is the playable character on the screen presented from the viewpoint of the player (body unseen, other than perhaps hands) or is its full body visible and thus still other from the player.

But languages around the world make a number of distinctions (that’s a pun) in person marking beyond speaker, addressee, and the rest. The singular vs. plural distinction is particularly common and important*. But there are common patterns across languages for 2nd and 3rd persons, particularly, to have the number distinction reduced in some forms.

* Earlier forms of Ancient Greek also had a dual number, as well, a distinction that still appears in languages today, such as Hejazi Arabic.

Thus, while Greek 2nd person pronouns exhibit clear distinctions in number across all cases:

2nd personsingularplural
Greek 2nd person pronouns

A language like contemporary Standard American English* only has a single form for 2nd person pronoun, regardless of number. The singular or plural meaning is only inferred from context.

* Though, note that in the Southern United States there is also y’all and all y’all, which make additional grammatical distinctions.

2nd person
English 2nd person pronoun

This lack of difference can have a tremendous impact on the interpretation of the text. A translator for an English Bible can choose to overly specify number marking by some additional means, such as the addition of all or any to any given sentence: all of you or any of you. Such translations do not follow a literal word-for-word approach, but they do effectively communicate the meaning of the text.

A translator could also choose to rely on the larger context of a text in order for the audience to recognize that any given instance of you in a translation is plural. The latter tends to be the preferred approach for English Bibles and for the most part it is perfectly effective for readers to follow the meaning of the biblical text. Still, Mark Ward (2018) observes that the relative pronoun in 2 Timothy 3:14 is entirely ambiguous to both contemporary and Elizabethan readers as to whether it is singular or plural.*

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned I (NIV).

* For an excellent discussion of English Bibles and the history of translating pronouns in English, see Mark Ward’s recent book Authorized: The Use & Misuse of the King James Bible (Amazon), especially chapter 4. It represents one of the most engaging, accessible, and thought-provoking books on the fraught relationship between the history of the English language and Bible translation.

There are other kinds of distinctions that pronouns make, however. The reduction of singular/plural distinction like in English is common for languages, especially in the 2nd and 3rd persons, but sometimes instead of a reduction, there is an increase in distinction.

For languages with familiar vs. unfamiliar personal pronouns, translators are obligated to make a judgment call, interpreting the text and deciding whether the relationships among interlocutors should receive a familiar pronoun or an unfamiliar one. Spanish Bibles and those of other Romance languages make judgment calls for each 2nd person pronoun they encounter in Greek: Should it be (familiar 2nd person) or usted (unfamiliar 2nd person)? Some languages have multiple layers of politeness/familiarity for their pronouns.

Marathi, an Indo-Aryan language spoken in India, has three levels of familiarity in its pronouns.

type2nd person
politete and he
highest statusāpaṇ
Marathi 2nd person pronoun

The first form, the familiar one is used with family and close relationships. The unfamiliar form, te, and the high-status form, he, show the same degree of respect, but to different audiences. The final form, āpaṇ, is for specific people, such as priests and teachers, in very formal contexts.

What pronoun do you use for the Pharisees and the Sadducees in Marathi? Do you choose the same pronoun for Jesus?

Bible translators are obligated to make these judgments in their work.

Translators in languages like these also need translation resources that can help them make these decisions in the most informed manner they can. Our work with Wycliffe Bible Translators will help provide these tools so that translation projects in the thousands of minority languages in-progress and not-yet-started can be completed efficiently and accurately.

Paul O’Rear, has published an excellent article examining the contemporary challenges that exist for translation work around the world: “Towards a Common Aim and Framework for Tools and Research in Support of Bible Translation and Biblical Language Online Learning,” which we plan on talking about more in the coming weeks. Our assignment with Wycliffe Bible Translators is his invitation to us to help overcome and alleviate many of the challenges he lays out in that article.

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 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. If you have benefited from their writing here, perhaps you can help them give that same benefit to the global church through Bible translation. Any amount, no matter how small, will help them begin their work.