A conversation with friends the other night on the nature of Biblical interpretation and the evolving nature of language led me to this linguistic activity. Of course I had to play along, looking up the etymologies of the words –
"The following paragraph is logically incoherent if all the words are understood in their current meanings. But if we take each of the italicized words in a sense it once had at an earlier stage of English, the paragraph has no inconsistencies at all. Your job is to determine an earlier meaning for each of the following italicized words that would remove the logical contradictions created by the current meaning. "
He was a happy and sad girl
who lived in a town
40 miles from the closest neighbor. His unmarried sister, a wife
who was a vegetarian member of the women’s Christian Temperance Union, ate meat
and drank liquor
three times a day. She was fond of oatmeal bread made from corn
her brother grew, that one night, when it was dark, she starved
from overeating. He fed nuts to the deer
who lived in the branches of an apple
tree that bore pears. He was a silly
and wise boor
, a knave
and a villain
, and everyone liked him. Moreover, he was a lewd
man whom the general censure
held to be a model of chastity.
Historical meanings of the words in question –Sad
– full, satedGirl
– child, youth (of either sex) (it wasn’t until the 14th century that it came to refer to a female child).Town
– homestead, enclosed farmWife
– food (as contrasted with drink)Liquor
– die (the sense of die from hunger didn’t exist until the 16th century)Deer
– general animal or beastApple
– generic fruitSilly
– good/pious (The word's considerable sense development moved from "blessed" to "pious," to "innocent" (1200), to "harmless," to "pitiable" (c.1280), to "weak" (c.1300), to "feeble in mind, lacking in reason, foolish" (1576).)Boor
– peasant farmerKnave
– young male servantVillain
– a lay person (not clergy) (Sense of "unlettered, uneducated" (1225) descended to "coarse, vile, lustful" by 1386.)Censure
So to re-write the paragraph –
He was a happy and sated youth who lived in a homestead 40 miles from the closest neighbor. His unmarried sister, a woman who was a vegetarian member of the women’s Christian Temperance Union, ate food and drank liquid three times a day. She was fond of oatmeal bread made from grain her brother grew, that one night, when it was dark, she died from overeating. He fed nuts to the animal who lived in the branches of a fruit tree that bore pears. He was a pious and wise farmer, a servant and a farmhand, and everyone liked him. Moreover, he was a lay man whom the general judgment held to be a model of chastity.
I find the history of language fascinating. I discussed here recently
how most of our taboo curse words were just the common speech of the vulgar (poor) folk (and not magical sinful spells). So many of the words we give negative connotations to were just originally simple words to describe the poor and uneducated. There was so much derision for such folks that the words used to describe them became pejorative words used to ridicule and condemn those who are different (such as vulgar, pagan (country dweller), lewd (lay person), and heathen (one who lived on the heath).) To use those words as negative descriptors just reinforces centuries of socioeconomic prejudice.
In this exercise what is commonly demonstrated is how words that once held a broad or general meaning have over time developed into only having a specific meaning. So these days “meat” does not include vegetables nor does “girl” refer to males. One can even see from this example how this could affect biblical interpretation. The generic “apple” which once referred to all fruit was used to describe the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, which has led to the specific fruit “apple” being what most people assume Eve took a bite of. That is a simple and in most ways harmless example, but it demonstrates how the evolving nature of our language affects how we understand the Bible (especially when it is only read only in 500 year old English). We read the passages with our modern cultural assumptions and vocabulary, but often the very words in English do not mean the same thing now as they did 500 (or 100, or 50…) years ago.
For example, “Suffer little children…to come unto me” (Matt 19:14). In KJV English “suffer” means “to allow, or permit” as opposed to the modern meaning of “to endure pain.” Most modern translations have done away with the use of the term “suffer” in favor of more common terms like “allow,” but there are large segments of Christians who only read the Bible in the older language (interestingly, many modern translations say "let the children come." But originally in English "let" meant "to hinder" not "to permit). I assume that most people are aware enough of the older usage of terms to understand that passage, but there are scary and twisted exceptions. There are groups that insist that for a child to be saved (come to Jesus) they must be made to suffer (endure pain). For them, it is only through beatings (of various kinds) that these children will repent, subject themselves to authority, and be saved from sin. That is messed up.
And this is just English. This doesn’t take into account translating from languages for which we don’t even know the definitions of all the words (and so make educated guesses). Once again, I really don’t get how anyone could possibly believe that there is no layer of interpretation that goes into how we understand the Bible. Or that all people at all times in every culture and language have the exact same (correct) understanding of scripture. There is no way that I have enough faith to believe that. There's too much evidence to the contrary.
Labels: Bible, History, Theology