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Posts Tagged ‘language’

One of the tasks of a fiction writer is to decide what to name his or her characters. I’ve had to think carefully about how to handle that in the Edhai historical-fiction series I’m working on.

The series begins in the time before the Biblical Deluge and thus in a period when all the world spoke a single language. In more recent times — meaning the past few thousand years — people have been shorter-lived, so languages have been more apt to change. But in the pre-flood period, people lived much longer — Adam for 930 years, Seth for 912 years, Enosh for 905 years, and so on (see Gen 5:3-11). Given such longer lifetimes and the overlap among generations, I surmise that there would have been more stability in language. It would have changed less.

Even after the Flood, humans lived for a relatively long period of time, Noah living to 950 years and his son Shem to 600 years (see Gen 9:29 and 11:10, 11). This would likely also contribute to linguistic stability until the confusion of human languages at Babel sometime between 2269 and 2030 BCE during the lifetime of Peleg (Gen 10:25, 11:1-9).

What I’m getting at here is that for the first couple of thousand years of human existence all humans would likely have spoken the same language — Hebrew or something like it — and might never even have conceived of the idea of a foreign tongue. This would affect all names of humans and places, which would have been based on words and their meanings, rather than just on family traditions or the sound of the name — ‘my grandfather’s name was Robert, let’s name the baby after him’ or ‘I like the way “Chelsea” sounds.’

Tetragrammaton

The Tetragrammaton as it appears on a church window in Decorah, Iowa. via Wikimedia.

So in The Cursed Ground, the initial novel in the series, I’m choosing names with real English meanings. For example, the two main characters are named Boon and Temper. The story doesn’t deal much with historical characters like Noah and Lamech, but even when they are mentioned, I try to employ English equivalents, such as Soothe and Plainspeaker.

This is an interesting problem, but not as easily solved as you might think. Not all English words really sound that great if you try to use them as proper names — calling someone “Smart” or “Friendly” or “Robust” just doesn’t have quite the right ring to it.

What to call the true God presented an especial challenge when I was trying to decide how the characters would refer to him in the story. Ancient people who knew the name of God would have pronounced it in their own language, using something like “Yehewah” or “Jehovah” or “Yahweh.” But in the story, I wanted to have the characters speaking of God with consciousness of the meaning of his name.

The name JHVH or YHWH (a.k.a., the Tetragrammaton) in Hebrew expresses the causative form and imperfect state of the verb ha-wah’, or “become.” The divine name, then, basically means “He Causes to Become,” in that Jehovah causes himself to become whatever he wishes in order to fulfill his purposes. Thus I decided that in The Cursed Ground and in the sequels to follow, the characters who know this God would refer to him as “He Who Causes to Become,” or, more often “the Becomer.”

Anyhow, I thought I would share my thought process leading to the way names are devised in the Edhai series, in case this might be of interest to readers.

ARK — 22 October 2014

 

 

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I’ve been slowly working my way through the Hebrew Scriptures, reading the Hebrew and English in parallel so as to read with understanding — I described my process previously in my article “How I’m Learning to Read Biblical Hebrew.”

Years ago when I started reading the Bible (online access to the Bible here), I found it a real chore to get through books two through five of the Pentateuch — Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy —  because of the focus on the details of the Law and the Israelite genealogy, and especially the repetitiveness of the text.

But now that I’m using that text to learn the original language, I’m finding that the repetitiveness is a learning aid. For example, I’m now reading Numbers 7, in which chieftains of each of the 12 tribes bring in one-by-one the same offering of dishes and flour and bulls and rams and so on. The repetition in the text is actually helping me to learn the Hebrew words for these things. And rather than boring me, that repetition is helping me to engage more deeply with the text.

I don’t know whether other students have had the same experience, and I have no idea whether the text was structured that way partly on purpose. But I can say that it’s working out that way for me.

ARK — 26 August 2014

 

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This article in Archaeology includes sound files of linguists telling brief stories in the reconstructed hypothetical Proto-Indo-European language.

Here’s one of the sound files — take a listen:

The story is called “The Sheep and the Horses,” which in English goes like this:

A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: “My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.” The horses said: “Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.” Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

Although his work is not well-regarded among linguists, Merritt Ruhlen has done some interesting work with tracing the origins of modern languages. His book, which I mentioned in this previous post, has some useful tables that show how languages are reconstructed by historical linguists.

— ARK — 30 September 2013

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I ran across the following passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1999), a passage which in turn is from a letter Vonnegut wrote to someone who objected to one of his novels:

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

I see some good reasoning here. Recently, someone took offense because a racist character in one of my stories used a racial slur. I was puzzled as to what else I could have done, as the scene in question took place among a group of young white boys in the southern U.S. in the mid-1960s, and there is no doubt that a racist teenager would have used a racial slur, however reprehensible that might have been.

For me as a writer, though, the issue of profanity presents a dilemma — I mean profanity that relates to sex and other bodily functions. I want my stories to be believable, but I don’t use profanity in my daily life (well, ‘hardly ever,’ as the Captain of the Pinafore might say) and neither do my Christian friends or family members. I don’t wish to influence anyone else to use profanity and I don’t wish to be influenced to use profanity by the content I consume. So for the most part, I prefer to use strategies that allow me to write fictional accounts that don’t (or hardly ever) involve profanity.

As far as what I read, I have read Vonnegut in the past, as well as many other popular and literary authors. I read fiction every day and love it. I have frequently abandoned a novel because of the profanity of the narrator or a character. On the other hand, I have sometimes tolerated a certain level of coarse language in order to benefit from an otherwise excellent piece of fiction.

ARK — 22 September 2013

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Over the past year and a half, I’ve been learning to read Biblical Hebrew. I should say that I don’t think anyone has to learn the original languages to benefit from the Scriptures — nearly everyone in the world now has the Bible available in his or her own language, either the whole Bible or part of it. A good translation, especially one that includes the Divine Name, should be sufficient for a sincere person to understand the written Word.

However, in connection with the Edhai project, I wanted to have a good feel for how people spoke in Bible times. While eventually Akkadian, Aramaic, and Greek will no doubt be valuable, I thought Biblical Hebrew would be a good place to start.

To learn the language, I’ve been using a similar process that I used some years ago to learn to read Spanish. My basic process is to first read the passage in English, then read the same passage in the new language, but taking the time to analyze the passage until I can actually read it out loud with understanding.

Biblical Hebrew presents some special problems that I didn’t have with Spanish — that is, the alphabet and the vowel points. I have some linguistic training, which has helped me to figure out the pronunciation of the consonants and vowels.

However, I found that I needed to add some other aids beyond a Hebrew Bible. By far the most valuable resource has been the superb Interlinear Scripture Analyzer (ISA) software available free from Scripture 4 All. The application provides a literal word-by-word interlinear translation, as you can see from the sample shown here.

 

ISA software screen shot

 

As you can see, in the Hebrew text and in the interlinear translation, the authors have faithfully included God’s name; they have used the common formulation “Yahweh” in their English interlinear rendering.

ISA is the most important additional tool I’m using for my project, but I’ve also found it useful to listen to the Hebrew Audio Bible available from the Academy of Ancient Languages. I also have a Hebrew primer, which has been useful for understanding grammar; a Hebrew lexicon that I use occasionally to research words, and a set of flash cards from Zondervan to help build vocabulary.

At first, I found I had to struggle for 10 or 15 minutes just to puzzle out a single word. However, now in that same amount of time I can read seven or eight verses with understanding. In some cases, I don’t even need anymore to refer to the interlinear.

I’m now up to Exodus 19 in this exciting Bible reading project.

ARK — 20 March 2012

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I’ve been intrigued by Biblical Hebrew’s lack of verb tenses (past, present, future) and what it might have to say about the psychology of the people who originally spoke it.

Considering the Bible account, it seems likely that Hebrew or something like it was the original human language. According to one way of thinking, the worshipers of the true God would not have gotten involved in the rebellious centralization and tower-building project of Nimrod and his cohorts, so presumably their language would not have been confused (see Gen 11:1-9). So the language of Jehovah’s true worshipers would have been preserved, and this would be the one in which the Bible got written.

Although the Bible writers were able to express ideas of past, present, and future, time as a factor in Hebrew verb expression has a relatively low priority. Rather, Hebrew verbs are expressed in two states, perfect (action completed) and imperfect (incomplete action).

Kyle M. Yates, in The Essentials of Biblical Hebrew, writes:

The time as understood in most modern languages is not the same as that of the Semitic mind. The discernment of the time of an action is not of vital importance to the Hebrew thought pattern. It is necessary for the Indo-germanic thinker only to fit the action into his overemphasized estimation of time. The understanding of the condition of the action as to its completeness or incompleteness was sufficient generally to the Semite and if not, there was some word of temporal or historical significance which would bring time into focus.

So the question is, what does this indicate about the psychology of the original speakers of this language? Did they have a different view of time from modern humans, because they had a longer lifespan (and originally the prospect of living forever)? Interestingly, the Bible encyclopedia Insight on the Scriptures (Vol. 1, Watchtower, 1988) follows this line of thinking:

If, as the Bible indicates, Hebrew was the original tongue used in Eden, this lack of emphasis on verbal time may reflect the outlook of man in his perfection, when the prospect of everlasting life was before Adam and when life had not been reduced to a mere 70 or 80 years.

— ARK, 3 Dec. 2010

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Ad in Biblical Archaeology Review for HCSBI was impressed recently to see the ad shown to the right from Biblical Archaeology Review for May/June of 2010. In an age where most churchgoers effectively don’t even know the name of the God they profess to worship, it is impressive that translators would have the courage to include the name of the Bible’s divine Author in its text.

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is published by B&H Publishing Group, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources. The organization has an earlier version of the HCSB available for free at MyStudyBible.com. This online version has some great study features. If you hover over key words in the text, you get a rollover displaying things like the word and pronunciation in the original language, definition, and information about how the HCSB renders that word in English throughout the text.

On playing around with the online version, one thing I noticed immediately was that in Gen. 2:4, the first place where the Tetragrammaton (YHWH or JHVH) appears in the Hebrew text, the HCSB disappointingly renders it “LORD,” as you would find in the King James version and its many derivatives. Hovering over “LORD” in that verse reveals that the online HCSB translates the name of God as a real name only 484 times, whereas it use the title “LORD” 5,925 times and “God” twice.

Online version of HCSB showing study features

So the HCSB translators know how the original text reads, but they made a conscious decision to stick to the practice of post-Biblical Judaism and Christendom of using a euphemism most of the time and including God’s name fewer than 8 percent of the 6,413 times it appears in the Hebrew scriptures.

This was surprisingly to me, especially in light of the strong message conveyed in the Biblical Archaeology Review ad. So I sent a feedback message on the MyStudyBible Web site asking for their reasoning. I was happy to receive a very nice message from E. Ray Clendenen, associate editor and one of the HCSB translators.

Ray tells me that the online version of the translation is an older one and that the newer version of the translation uses Yahweh over 600 times and that the translation team intends to increase the divine Name’s usage more over time.

Ray says the team used the following guidelines for rendering the Tetragrammaton as Yahweh:

We use it as the rendering of YHWH (which the Hebrew Bible editors first rendered as Adonai, “Lord”) whenever God’s “name” is being given (either explicitly, using the word “name,” or implicitly), when He is being identified (“I am Yahweh”), when He is being contrasted to other gods such as Baal, in certain repeated phrases such as “Yahweh the God of your fathers,” or when YHWH has been rendered by Yahweh in the immediate context.

He admits that the translators have probably been inconsistent in some cases, but provides an interesting insight into why they thought it wiser to continue the practice of substituting “LORD” most of the time:

… our objective is to introduce to the contemporary church what is the most likely pronunciation of the divine name YHWH in the Hebrew Bible. We did not render the majority of occurrences of YHWH as Yahweh because our goal is not only to be accurate but to use an English style that is most familiar to people. Since most Christians today probably do not commonly speak of “Yahweh,” but rather of “the Lord,” we felt it would be insensitive to use Yahweh for YHWH in every case and would make the Bible seem too uncomfortable for most people.

I thought this was a frank and humble admission from someone with extensive credentials as a Biblical scholar, acknowledging the limitations of his fellow believers. He tells me that “We hope that the name will grow on people and that we can expand the uses of Yahweh in future editions.”

At the same time, there is something sad about this confession — that eminent Bible translators feel that they have to hold back the truth because their readers would feel uncomfortable with the name of the true God.

[Update from 16 August 2014:] This engaging video was just released, presenting some good reasoning why the name of God should be included in the Bible: http://www.jw.org/en/publications/books/good-news-from-god/who-is-god/video-gods-name/

ARK — 23 Nov. 2010

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