Friday, July 13, 2007,8:07 PM
Linguistic History and Biblical Interpretation
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, sated
Girl – child, youth (of either sex) (it wasn’t until the 14th century that it came to refer to a female child).
Town – homestead, enclosed farm
Wife – woman
Meat – food (as contrasted with drink)
Liquor – liquid
Corn – grain
Starved – die (the sense of die from hunger didn’t exist until the 16th century)
Deer – general animal or beast
Apple – generic fruit
Silly – 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 farmer
Knave – young male servant
Villain – farmhand
Lewd – a lay person (not clergy) (Sense of "unlettered, uneducated" (1225) descended to "coarse, vile, lustful" by 1386.)
Censure – judgement

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: , ,

posted by Julie at 8:07 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 7/13/2007 11:34:00 PM, Blogger Katherine

    Thanks, Julie--I LOVE this post! I have done a fair bit of linguistic study, and all aspects of communication fascinate me in general. I figure if I did nothing else but help people understand more about how language, communication and translation work--and give a sense of just how HARD it is--it would not have been a wasted life.

    Another example is the word nice. Going back in English history, it meant foolish or stupid, and, further back, came from a Latin word meaning ignorant.

  • At 7/14/2007 01:41:00 AM, Blogger Erin

    Fan-frickin'-tastic post Julie - thanks!

    I just now read it but it's late and I'm tired. Will comment tomorrow.

  • At 7/14/2007 05:23:00 AM, Anonymous sonja

    Amazing! I haven't had any coffee yet. So I can't string any intelligent words together. But this is an AMAZING post.

  • At 7/14/2007 10:46:00 AM, Blogger Erin

    Little un-edumatcated me who hasn't been to college appreciates this post because it says what is in my heart but what I don't possess the knowledge to articulate.

    This is a very clear and helpful post. If we even look at how American English has evolved over maybe 50 years we will see this.

    Even in the last 5 years.

    Aside from a spelling variation - a few years ago I would have railed at being called *fat*. Now I'm glad to be called *phat*. For a lame-o urban example.

  • At 7/14/2007 11:38:00 AM, Blogger Brook

    Great post...very interesting study. Do you have any sources/resources you could cite or recommend on this sort of thing? (much as I like your blog, I'd like to refer back to something a bit more "authoritative" on the subject of, say, "girl" referring to a male youth than "I read it on a blog...") Books, that sort of thing? Thanks!

  • At 7/14/2007 03:35:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    thanks all.

    Brook - the easiest way to find word histories is to look in an Etymology dictionary. The Online Etymology Dictionary is pretty good, and even has decent word history sources. The best of course is the Oxford English Dictionary. It gives complete histories of words including the reference for the first time it appears in written form. your best bet is to find a university library that has the complete 40 volume collection. You can buy it for around $1000 (the concise version for around $300) or pay for an online subscription for $250 a year.

    I think C.S. Lewis book "On Words" talks a bit about this topic.

  • At 7/16/2007 05:27:00 PM, Blogger rachel

    thanks for very interesting post. and i enjoyed your thoughts on last harry book too!

  • At 7/28/2007 05:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

    Interesting. English is a Germanic language, and many of these words have German cognates. In many cases, the German meaning hasn't changed as much as the English meaning.

    Wife – German Weib still means woman or female person

    Starved – German Sterben still means simply to die

    Deer – general animal or beast Still true for German Tier

    Silly – I love this one. The German cognate, selig, still means 'blessed.' Luther's translation of the Beatitudes begin with "Selig sind ..." (Blessed are ...).

    Boor – German Bauer (related to Dutch Boer--important in South African history) means 'farmer.'

    Knave – German Knabe means 'boy.'


Links to this post:

Create a Link