Greek Prepositions in the New Testament:
A Cognitive-Functional Description
by Rachel & Michael Aubrey
If we could describe how analysis contributes to how prepositions are discussed in Biblical Greek in a single word, it would be: relationships. This plays out in two ways: first, in terms semantic relationships within a given clause, and second, in terms of the semantic relationships between various usages of the prepositions. Let’s talk about the first one of those here.
The meaning of a preposition is more than merely the preposition itself and its object. It’s meaning contributes to the larger constellation of meaning in the clause by delineating a specific relationship between its object and some other element. Following the descriptive tradition of Cognitive Grammar, we label these two elements the TRAJECTOR (TR) and the LANDMARK (LM). As we describe this relationship in our introduction:
Prepositions are relational words. In their most basic senses, they establish a relationship in space between something that can move or change, a TRAJECTOR, and something that is presented as a stationary point of reference, a LANDMARK. To put it another way: Prepositions communicate something about the TRAJECTOR’s position relative to the LANDMARK.
Let’s look at a few English examples to get a sense of what this means.
- Mary placed the Turkey on the table.
- The toys sat in the bucket
This relationship is asymmetrical. The object of the preposition, the LANDMARK (LM) serves as a stationary reference point used for specifying the location in space of the TRAJECTOR (TR). The turkey’s (TR) location is defined in terms of the table (LM). The toys (TR) location is defined in terms of the basket (LM). Observe two things here: (1) the LANDMARK is presented by the speaker as stable and unmoving and (2) the TRAJECTOR is presented as more manipulatable than the landmark. In fact, it is common for physical LANDMARKS to be more stable, larger, and less able to move in natural texts. But this can be overcome depending on the needs of the speaker and the discourse context. But even here the asymmetry remains: the table is in need of movement; the books are a reference point for their location, as we see below.
- David needs the table under the books for the large dinner crowd.
This is the first relationship, the one that appears in individual instances of a preposition in use. This clause internal relationship is an important advancement over traditional accounts of prepositions. Much of this is a product of the reality that lexicons historically focus entirely on glosses to the determent of definitions. Even BDAG which had the major change of including “extended definitions” fail to define prepositions with in terms of the actual two participants involved. For example, the first extended definition for διά is “marker of extension through an area or object, via, through.” There is no mention of either the object of the preposition (the LM) or the prepositional phrase external TRAJECTOR in any of the extended definitions for διά. BDAG’s definitions almost treat prepositions as if they are lexical content words rather than the function/relational words that they are. Compare that with our definition of διά:
“A preposition denoting a TRAJECTOR’s path through or across a LANDMARK.”
The relationship that the preposition establishes between two participants is expressed here clearly and overtly: διά does not merely denote a path, but that path defines a relationship between two participants in the clause. Why does this matter? This feels like a small change, but it matters descriptively and pedagogically. For one, bringing the TRAJECTOR and LANDMARK into the definition establishes the semantic-syntactic significance of how a preposition functions within a clause. Existing traditional definitions and glosses leave TRAJECTOR and LANDMARK, at best, implicit, at worst, missing. But without these two participants, there is no “on,” there is no “at,” there is no “through,” and there is no “near.” Position and direction in space do not exist without reference points. Objects and people in the world exist in spatial relationships, but those relationships are only meaningful relative to the objects and people themselves. Language users employ prepositions to communication about objects and people. They do not employ them to express “on-ness” or “at-ness.”
For length, I’ll pause here, but next we’ll be looking at how individual uses/sense of prepositions share semantic relationships as well.