Little drum rolls

Katy Payne was standing in the Metro Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon in 1984, watching the elephants.  She’s a Bioacoustics researcher, and she noticed something unusual.  Everyone else missed it.  In fact, everyone else always missed it.  Or, if they did notice it, they dismissed it.  ‘Dis’ or just ‘missed’, it was all the same thing.  Unseen.  Well, unheard, actually.  Unnoticed.  Definitely unnoticed.  But, she asked herself, “why is it here?”

The air would sometimes throb.  That’s a deep in the gut, gosh that’s weird, sort of thing.  Throbbing air is a bit unusual.  Most people don’t hear it.  In fact, no one hears it.  It’s more like no one feels it.  What people do see is filtered.  And what they don’t see is filtered out.  Thrown away.  Dismissed.  What’s thrown out is sometimes important.  She needed to ask.  So, she did.

Why was it throbbing?  Like a dull, resonant “hmmmmmm.”

Being trained in Bioaccoustics–in fact, in many ways, she has helped define the science–Katy Payne had honed certain skills which she uses to notice the acoustic things most people simply dismiss, if they see them, well, hear them, at all.  She noticed infrasound, sound with pitch too low for the normal human being to hear.  She had learned to not filter.  That’s hard.  But, as a good scientist, she had learned to “see” what most people throw away.  As they say, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

This elephantine discovery led to more research into how these grand, intelligent, beasts communicate and into their ability to communicate over long distances.  Elephant talk is really, really, like you ain’t heard nothin’ yet, really deep.  So, it travels quite well through the air.  It’s like elephant-sized bass, projecting a two or more mile bass melody to the not-so-near elephant friends.

If you can grasp the weight of what I’m saying.  Isn’t all discovery the seeing of what isn’t seen?  I think a truer statement has rarely been spoken.  And yet, weighty, if you think about it.

We have to learn to notice.

Discourse markers are weighty little things that so few people notice.  They’re like a bass carrier signal that carries the message forward.  Like a resonate hum that ties the text together into a cohesive unit, even spanning large textual (discourse) distances.

As a simple example (this is a blog post, after all), Steve Runge points to Matthew 9:37.  It illustrates a discourse marker which is apparently difficult to translate.  Perhaps we can do better.

τότε λέγει τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ ὁ μὲν θερισμὸς πολύς οἱ δὲ ἐργάται ὀλίγοι

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” [NIV2010]

How is μὲν being used?  Obviously, it’s part of a μὲν…δὲ pair.  But, Jesus could have simply said,

ὁ θερισμὸς πολύς οἱ δὲ ἐργάται ὀλίγοι

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”

Imagine that!  Same translation.

But, there’s a μὲν here!!!  I can put my finger on it.

Hmmmmmmm.  That’s a deep in the gut, gosh that’s weird, sort of thing.

Maybe I can find a way of conveying the meaning without using a word; but, I can’t just filter it out.  I have to have a rational, sensible, linguistic reason for transferring the meaning into my language.  The original author had a rational, sensible, linguistic reason for including it in his text given his language!! What was it?

Why is the μὲν here?

Steve points out that μὲν is a forward-pointing device that works like a speed bump.  It’s designed to slow the reader down.  I’ve thought of it as a little, tiny drum roll, leading up to something big.  Quiet now…[the barely perceptible, low bass, throb, that only the trained seem to hear]…listen…here it comes.  The speed bump and the little drum roll cause the reader to slow down and focus.  It’s that sort of thing.

How do you translate that?

It’s a device that increases the intensity of both clauses since it signals anticipation.  It causes you to drive slowly over the text since something important is happening.  In this case, the μὲν clause and the δὲ clause become semantically bigger.  What device does that in English?

And notice what I’m asking.  I’m not asking, “How do you translate μὲν?”  I’m asking, “How do you translate the discourse function being performed by the word μὲν?”  The original author chose the word μὲν on purpose, in order to perform a particular discourse function.  How do we make that same thing happen in English, in this context, within this sentence?

Then speaking slowly to his disciples, he said, “The harvest is large…The workers are few.”

19 thoughts on “Little drum rolls

  1. iverlarsen says:


    You said:

    And notice what I’m asking. I’m not asking, “How do you translate μὲν?” I’m asking, “How do you translate the discourse function being performed by the word μὲν?”

    I like that and I think it is very important. In the more traditional word-for-word Bible translation practice, the question is almost always: “How do you translate this word?” In the more linguistically informed translation practice, the question is: “How do you get an equivalent effect in the new language?” Or you could say: “How do you translate the whole unit in such a way that the new audience will get the same understanding, emphasis and feeling as the original audience did?” While that is a more difficult question to grapple with, it is also more rewarding. (A μὲν … δὲ might work here in Greek.)

    Coming back to Mat 9:37, Wallace says:
    ὁ μὲν θερισμὸς πολύς, οἱ δὲ ἐργάται ὀλίγοι

    On the one hand, the harvest is plentiful, but on the other hand, the laborers are few.

    A smoother translation should normally be used: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” The above was given to show the contrast in balance that the μέν … δέ construction suggests. (p. 672)
    End quote.

    Wallace deliberately ignores discourse studies and therefore does not properly describe the function of μέν and other discourse particles. He is also thinking in terms of “How do you translate this word?” Yes, you might say “on the one hand” for μὲν and “on the other hand” for δὲ, but that is too clumsy, so let us just ignore those particles.

    Steve Runge cites Levinsohn, and I think that is important, too:

    In many cases, the element introduced by μέν functions as a concession, just as the use of although, inasmuch as, on the one hand, or more colloquially while in English. Levinsohn states,

    The presence of μέν not only anticipates a corresponding sentence containing δέ but frequently, in narrative, it also downgrades the importance of the sentence containing μέν. In particular, the information introduced with μέν is often of a secondary importance in comparison with that introduced with δέ. (Runge, p. 73-74).
    End quote.

    This is part of what is going on in Mat 9:37. The first clause is downgraded. It is more or less a given. Yes, you probably know that the harvest is large. However, the problem is that there are too few workers to bring in the harvest. Therefore, pray for more workers, as the next sentence says. How best to convey that in English, I don’t know.

    Mike added “speaking slowly” as a reflection of the drum roll. Sounds like a good idea to me. This can be supported by observing that the Greek text uses the historic present tense λέγει – he says. The function of the historic present is to mark as highly important the following speech. Within the speech, μὲν downgrades the first clause and δὲ highlights the second.

  2. Bob MacDonald says:

    It’s a lovely story – One can slow people down by being awkward. Nice to be accurately awkward I suppose.

    Our problem with the Bible, and I suspect it is true of other traditions as well, is that the believers are too used to it and they don’t know there is more to it than the surface propositions they have so far memorized.

    Changing one’s mind takes time of course…

  3. Donna says:

    I agree that “while the harvest is great, the workers are few” is a good translation in English, it does both the slowing down function you referred to, and focuses on the second clause. It also points backwards to the previous sentence, implying (correctly it seems) that the “harvest” which Jesus is talking about are the people he the narrator has just described “like sheep without a shepherd”.

    Maybe this translation is not used in English translations because of the confusion with a different sense of “while”. (Without using a dictionary, nor remembering the correct words to describe this other sense) I imagine that it could be read as a conditional “only while the harvest is great are the workers few” – which of course doesn’t make sense!

    Since I imagine Jesus saying this as he and his disciples are encountering some of these shepherd-less people. So another idea I had for a natural English translation is “As you can see, the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few”. That also places the focus on the second half of the construction.

    I must admit I’m not a big fan of the “speaking slowly” idea. The effect seems to be ambiguous to me, why did he speak slowly? Was it noisy? Was he saying difficult words? Was it very important? And it also doesn’t downgrade the first clause, in fact, it seems to place more importance on the first clause than the second, if anything.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    So another idea I had for a natural English translation is “As you can see, the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few”

    I can’t get “the harvest is plentiful” to sound like English to my ears. Actually, I don’t know if I have ever used the word “plentiful.” Also, “the workers are few” is something I would never say. Perhaps others would.

    Anyway, how about this which is something I myself would say:

    “As you can see, there’s a bumper crop but not nearly enough workers to harvest it.”

  5. Mike Sangrey says:

    I like what Donna has said. I think she’s more right than I am when she says [my translation] also doesn’t downgrade the first clause. ‘Down’ and ‘up’ are relative; but she makes a good point.

    Also, along with Wayne, I haven’t been very comfortable with the harvest is plentiful. To me, the harvest isn’t a harvest until it’s harvested. I used ‘large’, but I didn’t like it, either.

    As Steve Runge has pointed out the μὲν … δὲ combination is meant to slow the reader down and to upgrade the δὲ clause. So, I tend to think two separate sentences are better than one.

    I like “As you can see…” That slows down the reader. I think it’s accurate. And there’s no propositional content compromised by those English words.

    I hesitate accepting the enlargement of the meaning with, “not nearly enough.” It wins on emphasis, but it says more propositional content than what I think it should. Notice what the next 5 verses do. Jesus gets some workers together. But, only 12! That’s not many! So, it’s still not nearly enough.

    However, even then, there’s something else going on here. I’d like to write a followup blog post (if I can find a bit of time). There might be a better answer which would benefit from “not nearly enough.” For now, I’ve thought about using “so very few.”

    How about:
    As you can see, there’s a bumper crop. But, there are so very few workers.

  6. Dannii says:

    This has been a very interesting post, but I’m struggling. You say that μὲν is like a speed bump, used to slow the reader/listener down, but I can’t connect that to anything in my linguistic education. An element to trip up the listener? It doesn’t make sense to me.

    But you also mentioned “focus”, if only in passing. So is μὲν relevant then for information structure?

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    Dannii wondered:

    You say that μὲν is like a speed bump, used to slow the reader/listener down, but I can’t connect that to anything in my linguistic education.

    Unfortunately, many university linguistic program(me)s do not include this important area of language that Mike has referred to. Sometimes it is called rate of information flow. The English of literal Bible translations is too dense, too tight, for most English speakers. Most native English speakers spread out the rate of information flow so it comes at the hearer/reader slowly enough to process well. The speed “bumps” are not intended to trip you up, but, as speed bumps in the physical world, to slow you down. We’re going to have to do further study in this important area of language study and come up with more examples. I’m glad you asked your question, Dannii, since if you haven’t been exposed to information flow, then it is likely that many other BBB readers haven’t.

  8. Donna says:

    Wayne: Yes, I agree that the rest of my suggestion was biblish (it was my latent NIV memory just filling in the rest, I wanted the focus to be on the first part of the sentence really).

  9. Dannii says:

    Looking around the net it looks like this information flow broadly comes under the umbrella of cognitive linguistics, which would explain why I haven’t come across it as they weren’t offering any cognitive subjects when I was there.

    It still seems very strange that something to slow down the rate of information flow would have been grammaticalised. Do you have any examples from English of this occurring? That might help me (and others) understand what’s going on. IMO the contrasting examples that have been given so far are not purely contrasts of flow rate, but instead have other things going on, such as differences in semantics or discourse pragmatics.

  10. David Frank says:

    Dannii, if you are having to do a search on this, you might look at “information rate” as well as “rate of information flow”. Where I got this in school (many years ago), was in classes on discourse linguistics, particularly under Robert Longacre. This might relate to cognitive linguistics, but particularly to textlinguistics.

  11. Wayne Leman says:

    Gary suggested:

    Although there’s a bountiful harvest, workers are in short supply.

    Works for me, Gary, although I don’t know how many current English speaking farmers would use the word “bountiful.” It’s in a higher register of English. But it is natural English (in its register) unlike “plentiful” which I think is not natural in any register.

    Good job!

  12. Wayne Leman says:

    David wrote:

    This might relate to cognitive linguistics, but particularly to textlinguistics.

    Definitely cognitive linguistics. My last linguistics dept. was near the cog. science dept. and there was interdept. work. Much of cognitive science can shed empirical light upon linguistic mysteries, as linguistic processing times and performance are objectively measured. Information rate is an area that can be measured with subject performance test results. The insights from such studies are of important to Bible translators who need to follow the natural rates of information flow in the target languages.

  13. Wayne Leman says:

    Dannii asked:

    Do you have any examples from English of this occurring? That might help me (and others) understand what’s going on.

    “Well, you know, as I was saying, …”
    “Autonomous syntax, so to speak, …”
    “(In response to a question) Well, that’s an interesting question…” (it gives the speaker time to think of a response)
    “Hmm, let me think about that one.”
    “There was this guy …” (instead of starting with “A guy”)

  14. Dannii says:

    Hmm, thanks for those examples Wayne, although I still don’t think they really indicate attempts to change the information flow rate for listeners. As in, I think they’re interesting factors related to communication and discourse, but not so much cognition. Or at least not for the listeners – #3 and 4 look like attempts to reserve a conversational turn while stalling to form a response, to slow the output rate, but that’s for the sake of the speaker, not the listener. This is really outside my education, but I still feel like a skeptic. ;P

  15. Wayne Leman says:

    Dannii responded:

    Hmm, thanks for those examples Wayne, although I still don’t think they really indicate attempts to change the information flow rate for listeners.

    Rate of information flow can be for the benefit of either speaker or hearer or both. In other words, slowing down or speeding up the info rate has an effect on the communication process. Sometimes that effect is fairly benign, such as making it easier for a speaker to gather their thoughts, and, uh, like, express them, you know, while trying to think some more while also producing speech sounds. Sometimes it’s to benefit the hearer. Rate of info flow can be more meaningful, such as communicating intensity, climax, suspense, and, ooooooooohhhhhhh, shhhhh, be careful, oh, what was that?! even s o m e t h i n g SCARY.

    You’re right, Dannii, my examples were off the top of my head (and there’s not as much there as there used to be). They are probably not the best examples. And they need to be organized according to some kind of taxonomy of functions for rate of information flow.

  16. Mike Sangrey says:

    I think ‘Information Flow’ is more obvious in speaking than in writing. If you watch a talented speaker some time, you’ll hear the rate of information flow change as the speaking progresses.

    It’s a simple step, in my opinion, to think that this communication feature would also occur in written text. That is, there’s got to be textual markers for this sort of thing.

    I think another fascinating example of Information Flow can be found in John 1:50-51. I think the NIV took a little step in the right direction with it’s translation of a key phrase.

    ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ ὅτι εἶπόν σοι ὅτι εἶδόν σε ὑποκάτω τῆς συκῆς πιστεύεις μείζω τούτων ὄψῃ καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὄψεσθε τὸν οὐρανὸν ἀνεῳγότα καὶ τοὺς ἀγγέλους τοῦ θεοῦ ἀναβαίνοντας καὶ καταβαίνοντας ἐπὶ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου

    Both καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ (Lit: “and he said to them”) and ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν (Lit: “Amen. Amen. I say to you[pl]”) are important.

    Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”

    The NIV translates, καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ as “He then added”. Why did John pull the two sentences apart with those three little words? It’s an information flow technique to allow the reader to clear their mind, to shift gears, to process what’s gone before and get ready to process what comes after. John goes further by semantically focusing attention using the words ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν. (I think this is pretty close to “Speaking as I Rabbi, I say…”). So, it’s shift gears, now listen very closely.

    I personally believe that in verse 50 Jesus is speaking ironically. The “He then added” is a way of signaling the change from irony to deadly serious. The irony comes from the fact that being under a fig tree was a common practice for any pious Jew and Nathaniel was introduced into the discourse as a cynic. There’s quite a bit more to this, but that’s the gist of it.

    In any case, there’s some kind of pause going on between verse 50 and 51.

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