In 1991 the most eloquent curmudgeon in the field of linguistics, Geoffry Pullum, a professor at — of all places — UC Santa Cruz, that most laid back of all the campuses of the University of California, published a volume of wickedly pointed, but very entertaining, essays about the state and practice of the the field of linguistics, entitled The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. The essay that gave the book its title can be read online in a rough OCR’ed version here.
Cutting to the chase, the punchline is this: the CW about Eskimos having hundreds of word for snow is hooey. Baloney. The scholarly equivalent of an urban legend.
Pullum draws on the work of a linguistic anthropologist and Mayanist (!) by the name of Laura Martin, a professor at Cleveland State and one time chair of the Department of Anthropology. She traced the growth of this tidbit of CW from Franz Boas’ introduction to the original Handbook of North American Indians, where he cited 4 words, to the full blown legend it is now. In the early 80s she read a paper on the topic at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (I was in the audience) and circulated a long essay meticulously documenting the whole history, but the American Anthropologist would only publish a much reduced version as a research report (vol. 88.2:418-23 ).
But Pullum’s point isn’t really about Eskimo — interesting though that may be. As he himself says:
“[This essay] isn’t about Eskimo lexicography at all, though I’m sure it will be taken to be. What it’s actually about is intellectual sloth. …. The tragedy is not that so many people got the facts wrong; it is that in the mentally lazy and anti-intellectual world we live in today, hardly anyone cares enough to think about trying to determine what the facts are.” (pg. 171)
Well. I’m here today to grouse about a similar urban legend in Biblical Studies with ugly implications for Bible translation. Dr. Jim West brought it up again last week in a piece called “Why Modern Translations of the Bible Bungle it” and I rankled. The whole piece is based on just a scholarly legend not unlike the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.
The arugment of the piece is this:
The times of the Bible were very different from ours.
The Bible needs to express these differences.
Therefore the language of the Bible in translation should sound different.
I’m tempted to stop here and let the reader work out all the fallacies in that reasoning which should be perfectly obvious when it is laid out as a syllogism. But the fact that huge segments of the church have bought this bogus line for so long suggests I had better be more explicit.
The times of the Bible were very different from ours. This is no doubt true. We have more stuff — a lot more stuff. I don’t mean that we’re more materialist, I mean that science and technology have given us lots of manufactured goods that either didn’t exist or were only available to the wealthiest people of those days. We have indoor plumbing; they were lucky to have outhouses. We have cars and planes. The had horses and camels, and they walked a lot. We have machines, washing machines, dishwashers, and printing presses; they had slaves and scribes.
But, I ask, just how relevant is that to the message of the Bible?
Hardly at all.
Why does the Bible speak to us today? It speaks to us because it’s about human nature. It’s about loyalty and honor, love and respect, and trusting God. These things (and their opposites) haven’t changed a whit since Adam. (If they have, then, as Paul said, we of all men are to be most pitied.)
The Bible needs to express the difference of our worlds. Here I take issue with the premise right up front. The stuff of the Bible that is of interest are those things about human nature. The differences in the worlds and worldviews is irrelevant, beyond the fact that knowing something about them helps us to better understand the motivations and reactions of the people.
So you can see why I reject the conclusion.
Do I think we should go around changing pigs into sheep? or wine into pulque?
Not at all.
But there is an ocean of difference between substitutions of that magnitude and using language that drops a veil between the heart of the reader and the Word of God (Mt. 25:12):
But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, know you not. (KJV)
But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ (ESV)
But he replied, ‘I assure you: I do not know you!’ (HSCB)
(Notice the Message is way off base here, but in a different way:
He answered, ‘Do I know you? I don’t think I know you.’)
Now I don’t think it’s an accident that so many students of the Bible fall prey to the mistake of believing in the essential foreignness of the Scriptures. It has an easy explanation.
Anyone who is seriously interested in studying the Bible will study Greek and Hebrew in order to dig deeper. And, as anyone who has learned a second language as an adult can tell you, it takes a very long time before that language stops sounding foreign, even if you are moderately fluent in it. Often you’re a half beat behind as the native speakers rattle on. And they are constantly saying things in ways you’d never have thought of in a million years.
And for languages that you don’t have to actually use in live interaction, the matter is worse. It is the rarest of people for whom written languages become truly alive.
The distance that so very many Bible scholars feel when approach the Scripture in the original languages is not essential to the Scripture. It arises unnoticed as the product of language learning. They feel distance when reading in Greek and Hebrew and think that the distance is in the text. They read passages they don’t fully understand and think that therefore the author was expressing a mystery.
Not at all. The NT is natural in Greek as the Egyptian papyri show. It should be natural in English.
That foreignness stuff, that’s a scholarly legend.