Let’s have some fun with this blog post while still making a serious point. English can be a frustrating language because it has so many exceptions to its numerous rules. Remember, I before E except after C or when sounded like A as in neighbor or weigh. That’s helpful, unless you want to spell words like foreign, counterfeit, feisty, and caffeine. Weird, isn’t it?
English can also be a lot of fun, particularly when you pay attention to how people from various locales say certain words. For example, say Louisville out loud. The way it is pronounced is a big deal in northern Kentucky. Around here, people generally say something like, “Luh-vuhl,” and it sounds like they are swallowing their tongue with each syllable. Those who articulate it differently are often “corrected.” Most of the English-speaking world says, “Loo-ee-ville” or “Loo-uh-ville,” realizing that it is named for France’s King Louis (Loo-ee) XVI, or perhaps known from the popular baseball brand, Louisville Slugger. And some of those who say “Luh-vuhl” carry their twisting of “ville” into other city names, so Nashville becomes “Nash-vuhl” and Greenville becomes “Green-vuhl.”
Part of the reason for these local-specific pronunciations is due to familiarity and the tendency to save time. We use contractions to shorten the amount of time it takes to say certain things (“cannot” becomes “can’t”). Similarly, people from a given area tend to shorten the way some local place names are said. For example, many people in my home state of Wisconsin call their largest city “Mu-wau-kee” rather than “Mil-wau-kee.” By dropping the “l” they essentially cut about half of a syllable. “Two Rivers” loses a whole syllable and is pronounced “Trih-vers.” My wife grew up in southeastern Minnesota where “Ro-ches-ter” becomes “Ro-chster” (try saying it with just a tiny hint of a vowel in the second syllable) and “Stew-art-ville” becomes “Sturt-ville” (thankfully, not “Sturt-vuhl”).
Regional accents often lead to words being spoken differently. In the United States, a person from Boston will likely sound very different than someone from southern Louisiana. And if it weren’t for radio and television helping to standardize our language, these two accents would likely become entirely different languages before too long.
Moving outside of the United States can lead to even greater differences in accents. Listen to the way New Zealanders pronounce many of their words. It seems like they don’t really like certain vowels, because they say them as quickly as possible, with the frequent exception of the long A and O sounds. Here’s a clip of Beauden Barrett, two-time world rugby player of the year and my favorite player, and two of his brothers discussing what it’s like to play together on the All Blacks. Pay attention to the way they say (or almost don’t say) many of the vowels.
Although Americans often confuse the New Zealand and Australian accents, Aussies tend to drag out many vowel sounds. Was there anyone more fun to watch and listen to than the late Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter? Listen how he drags out many of his vowels.
Ironically, perhaps no English-speaking people shorten their words as much as Australians do. Check out this video guide to Australian slang.
Bear with me for two more paragraphs with rugby examples before we get to the point. These language differences are some of the many reasons I enjoy watching rugby. Not only is it a great sport, but I get to hear announcers from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. I enjoy hearing their accents, particularly Australia and New Zealand (although I especially like one of the Irish announcers because he sounds like a pirate). But even more entertaining than the accents is hearing the words they choose to use that are different than how Americans would generally speak. A player who runs fast has “heaps of pace,” according to the Australian and New Zealand commentators. Instead of a “little bit” they often say a “wee bit” and “straight away” instead of “right away.” We can easily figure out what they mean because the words mean the same thing here in America, but we choose different phrases to convey the same idea.
The differences within a given language are not confined to simple pronunciations and the use of similar words. Idioms often develop in different regions that make little sense to outsiders who don’t take the time to learn something about that culture. Sticking with rugby lingo, if a player “throws a dummy” it doesn’t mean that he tossed a ventriloquist doll or a stupid person. It means that he faked a pass to fool the defender and actually never threw the ball at all. A “lovely ball” is a great pass rather than a ball that looks really nice. And if the commentator says, “lovely hands,” he is not saying that the big brute has beautiful hands, but he generally means that the player caught the ball and deftly passed it to a teammate before the defender(s) could react. Moving beyond rugby but sticking with Australia and New Zealand, if someone is “gutted,” it does not mean that they have been disemboweled, but that they are extremely disappointed. And if they are “feeling crook” it does not mean that they feel like a criminal but that they are ill.
Importance of Recognizing Language Oddities
These differences can be a lot of fun to discuss. In fact, feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments below (or favourites if you’re from the U.K. or Australia). I do have a deeper reason for bringing these issues up though. The changes to a language did not begin with English. In fact, these types of modifications have happened throughout history to countless languages, and they can impact the way we understand our Bibles.
Many Christians have assumed that translators can and should simply translate the Bible from the original languages on a word-for-word basis. That is, one word in Hebrew should be translated into its equivalent word in English. But such an approach is impossible and would make it hard to understand the Bible. It’s impossible since there simply is not a one-to-one correlation between many Hebrew and English words or between many Greek and English words. Also, these languages use different conventions than English. For example, Greek frequently uses the definite article before proper names, so if we translated every word it would be very odd to read about “the Michael and the his angels” in Revelation 12:7 (or to keep the word order the same as the Greek, “the Michael and the angels his”).
Many verses would also read quite strangely because Hebrew and Greek have idioms that the biblical writers employed. To accurately interpret these colloquialisms, we need to recognize these for what they are. Let’s look at a few examples.
After Nabal foolishly rejected David’s request for assistance, David stated, “May God do so, and more also, to the enemies of David, if I leave one male of all who belong to him by morning light” (1 Samuel 25:22, NKJV, emphasis added). The translators of the NKJV have assisted the readers in two ways regarding the italicized words. First, they have helped us understand an idiom that could be confusing. Second, they have softened some crude language in that idiom. Here is how the KJV translates the same verse: “So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.” This strange phrase is a very literal translation of the Hebrew text and appears six times in the Old Testament. The first time I saw it, I thought it referred to a stupid person, similar to how Americans might refer to someone who spits into the wind. But that is not its meaning. Instead, it was just a strange way to refer to men, since men frequently stand while urinating.
Psalm 10:15 uses an idiom that is much easier to understand. Here the psalmist asks the Lord to “break the arm” of the wicked person. But the psalmist isn’t asking the Lord to literally break the person’s physical arm. Instead, “arm” is used metaphorically for a person’s strength, so the psalmist is asking the Lord to break the strength of the evil man so that he cannot oppress the weak any longer.
In the New Testament, prior to being cast out of a man by Jesus, a demon told Jesus to “Let us alone!” (Mark 1:24). Easy enough, right? Well, not if you interpreted the Greek phrase literally, which would read something like, “What to us and to you?” This is a Greek idiom that means something like, “Why are you bothering me since we have nothing to do with each other?” or to quote one of our own idioms, “Take a hike!”
The issue of accents comes up in the Bible as well. According to Judges, many people lost their lives in Jephthah’s day because they couldn’t pronounce a word in a certain way.
The Gileadites seized the fords of the Jordan before the Ephraimites arrived. And when any Ephraimite who escaped said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” then they would say to him, “Then say, ‘Shibboleth’!” And he would say, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they would take him and kill him at the fords of the Jordan. There fell at that time forty-two thousand Ephraimites. (Judges 12:5–6, NKJV)
Imagine if every person from England who traveled to the United States was immediately questioned about how to pronounce schedule. And then we decided to kill them if they said “she-jule” instead of “ske-jule,” because we Americans know that “sch” makes a “sk” sound like in school, schooner, scheme, schism, and schizophrenia. But what about schmooze, schnauzer, schwa, and schlock? Perhaps the English shouldn’t die for not knowing how to properly pronounce English words. (Yes, my tongue was firmly planted in my cheek while typing that.)
Accents can account for variants in spelling, particularly when no standard dictionary is available for that language. It’s easy to see how a D can eventually be pronounced as a T, and vice versa. Think about how people say important. Is it im-por-tant or im-pour-dent? Look at some English from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and you’ll see what I mean. Authors often wrote phonetically, meaning that they spelled their words the way they sounded. Here are the first two verses of the Bible from the Tyndale Bible (1534):
In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth. The erth was voyde and emptie ad darcknesse was vpon the depe and the spirite of god moved vpon the water. (Genesis 1:1–2)
The same thing has happened in Hebrew and Greek. Textual scholar Daniel Wallace calls the Apostle John a creative speller because he spelled the same Greek word three different ways in the same passage. Also, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew over a thousand-year period. And during that time the language underwent changes. It even changed how it was written, switching from the proto-Sinaitic script to the Aramaic script around or during the Babylonian Exile. In fact, about half of the book of Daniel and a few chapters in Ezra were written in Aramaic.
There are many other issues involved in properly interpreting and translating the biblical languages. This article was intended to provide a fun background for starting the discussion on these important issues by comparing similar situations in English from our own time.
The various changes that have taken place in biblical languages do not detract from the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy. The Holy Spirit superintended the writing of Scripture so that it would be infallible in its original autographs, but He allowed the writers to use their grasp of a given language and its conventions. He did not dictate word-for-word to the biblical writer every single letter that ended up on the page. Instead, He prepared the writers and guided the process so that what they wrote accurately conveyed the precise message God intended us to have.