How many groups of languages are in 1 Cor. 14:21?

Today I checked translation of 1 Cor. 14 in an Asian language. I don’t actually see the translation itself. Instead, I work with a back translation (fairly literal English translation of the vernacular translation). I came to verse 21 which has the following back translation:

I will speak to my people, says the Lord,
by means of other languages and by languages of foreigners,
but they will certainly not listen to me.

I asked the translation team the following question: “How many groups of languages are mentioned in this verse?”

Based on the back translation, what would your answer be to my question?

What would your answer be if you read that verse from the original Greek and/or various English translations?

12 thoughts on “How many groups of languages are in 1 Cor. 14:21?

  1. Lue-Yee Tsang says:

    Well, the language isn’t Chinese, because Chinese would use asyndeton.

    In any case, though, it seems fairly obvious to me that there’s one group of languages designated by two terms, because I can’t get two groups of languages to make sense.

  2. John Radcliffe says:

    From the English, I’d say “Two”.

    However, from the Greek I’d say that the translation doesn’t accurately reflect the original (assuming, of course, that the back translation is accurate). In other words, I don’t think the problem lies in translating “kai” as “and”, but in how we should understand what might be literally rendered “by the lips of other / different [people]”. As the “language” idea has already been conveyed, I don’t think this rephrases it but refers instead to the speakers (who will use those other languages).

    So as I see it, “lips” doesn’t = “language(s)”, but is the figure of speech (whatever it’s called) where a part (“lips”) is put for the whole (“the person speaking”). Of course I could be entirely wrong.

  3. codepoke says:

    > where a part (”lips”) is put for the whole (”the person speaking”).
    = Metonymy

    This passage is an allusion to:
    Isa 28:11 Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people,

    Hebrew poetry uses a pattern of repetition with intensification during the movement from statement to repetition. The back translation you quote here does the same thing. “Other languages” => “Languages of foreigners” captures the feeling of more intense specification that characterizes OT poetry.

    Sure, it seems redundant in a back translation to English, but the original Greek duplicates and intensifies the idea for a valid reason. My assumption would be the direct Chinese translation makes more sense than the back translation. If the words translated to the English “language” in some way intensify, then they’re accomplishing their intent.

    Making the whole OT sound like natural English might be going a tad too far. 🙂

  4. John Radcliffe says:

    Well I did say: “I might be entirely wrong” …

    but I still don’t think I was.

    Now “tongue” can be used literally to refer to that thing in my month; it can also = “language”. On the other hand, while “lips” can refer to the act of speaking as well as the things around my mouth (so that e.g. “honour me with their lips” = “honour me by what they say”), on a quick scan I can’t see anywhere in OT or NT where “lips” = “language(s)”. As I see it, that even applies to Isaiah 28:11.

    Yes, Hebrew poetry does use “a pattern of repetition with intensification during the movement from statement to repetition”, but that isn’t the only form of “parallelism” found in it. I’d say the two statements here provide complementary information about means (“tongues” or “languages”) and agents (“foreigners”) rather than saying the same thing twice in different words.

    But my main point was that I don’t consider it wrong here to translate “kai” as “and” (which I’m guessing is the issue Wayne had in mind). If I say: “see a large red ball, and a big scarlet globe”, then the “and” implies that I’m talking about two objects rather one. In this case, though, I don’t think that concept applies because, as I’ve said, I don’t think the two clauses are actually synonymous.

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    Nice comments, everyone. Thanks. The Greek here would literally be translated as:

    “By other tongues and by lips of others I will speak to this people.” (interestingly, the NLT comes closest to this)

    The UBS Handbook for Bible translators states, for this verse:

    “Paul quotes a piece of Old Testament poetry in which the same thing is said twice in different words in successive lines. This is called “parallelism.” RSV reproduces it, but TEV shows that it is not necessary to reproduce it in languages that do not have this kind of poetry. The quotation in this verse does not correspond exactly either to the Hebrew or to the Septuagint and may be based on another Greek translation. Here as elsewhere, translators should avoid adapting the New Testament quotation to fit in with the Old Testament text. The meaning of the quotation is different from the thought in earlier verses. The Old Testament text means that Israel will not listen obediently to God, even when God sends an invader against them who speaks a foreign language.”

    John Radcliffe is right that the wordings referring to languages and that which produces language is not exactly parallel, but Hebraic parallelism often is not exactly parallel or synonymous. Often there is what analysts of Hebraic poetry call “near synonymy.” I would lean toward agreeing with the conclusion of the UBS Handbook here and concluding that this is a case of Hebraic poetic parallelism.

    And John is right that I would, then, be calling into question use of English “and” which blocks interpretation of synonymy. We don’t know, until we hear back from the translation team in Asia, if their language allows their equivalent of English “and” (and Greek “kai”) to conjoin (near) synonymous entities. Hebrew does; English does not. For English, if we want translation users to get an accurate understanding of the meaning of the parallel synonymy from the translation itself, we have to find English forms which allow that. The closest English form (if we want to be as formally equivalent as possible) would the the English appositive syntactic form, which asyndeton, as does Chinese (thanks to Lue-Yee Tsang for noting that). This means, for English, using a comma instead of the word “and”.

  6. John Radcliffe says:

    Thanks Wayne

    I agree with you completely regarding the principle you expound (you had me convinced first time round, whenever that was). However, I still don’t think it applies here, so on this particular passage I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree. (I can be a stubborn pupil, I’m afraid.)

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    This discussion on “tongues” and “lips” in the Bible reminds me of Suzanne’s wonderful insights in this post:

    (and also of one of the newest English appropriations of Paul’s word to the Greeks in Corinth, ἑτερογλώσσοις [heteroglossis]:

    “The term heteroglossia describes the coexistence of distinct varieties within a single ‘linguistic code’. The term translates the Russian разноречие [raznorechie] (literally ‘different-speech-ness’), which was introduced by the Russian linguinist Mikhail Bakhtin in his 1934 paper Слово в романе [Slovo v romane], published in English as ‘Discourse in the Novel’.”
    — from wikipedia)

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks, Kurk. Suzanne’s post confirms the idea that lip can refer to a language, as can tongue. I wonder what kind of language would be referred to if someone threatened to give me a “fat lip”?! 🙂

  9. John Radcliffe says:

    Excellent. Thank you, one and all.

    “If it please the Court, m’Lud, my client wishes to withdraw his action without further ado.”

    I now note that Isaiah 28:11 has “lip” (so NRSV, “Truly, with stammering lip and with alien tongue he will speak to this people”) rather than “lips”.

    I wonder if in Hebrew the singular “lip” always refers to a language or to speech (except, of course, where it refers to the edge of something, such as the rim of a container), while the dual(?) is used literally of the human lips (and of other “things with edges”). Any thoughts on that, JK?

  10. J. K. Gayle says:

    Interesting question, John. Great examples, Joel. NRSV has “talk” (as in many words and babble) for Job 11:2 and “mere words” for Isaiah 36:5, the latter in Hebrew seems literally something like “word lips” or “working lips.”

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