Syntax and Thinking in the Study of Language

Before I express my thoughts, I should provide my background. First of all, I haven’t had the opportunity to read much literature about linguistic theory. So, while I may be touching upon ideas present within linguistics, I am not aware of how I am doing so. Secondly, I have taken a year a biblical Hebrew. Third, I am actively learning Germany via Fluenz and Greek via Decker’s Reading Koine Greek (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014). Greek, though, has been a struggle to keep up with because I’ve been so busy.

Anyway, as I worked through my German today, I began to consider the relationship between the syntax and how I actually think through information. For example, German places the infinitive verb at the end of the phrase:

German: Ich möchte eine rote Tasche kaufen.

English literal: I want a red bag to buy.

English: I want to buy a red bag.

Such differences intrigue me because the German sentence must be approached totally differently from how one would approach the English sentenced due to the syntax. That said, how might I prepare myself to not only read a different language and think in a different language, but to alter my approach to language all together?

After all, language is not a static entity; rather, language is living and dynamic, infiltrating every aspect of human life. Taking into account the issue of approach to language and dynamic nature of language, the vastness of human culture is illustrated. It is done so only by recognizing that language is, in many respects, defined by its own culture, that in which it is utilized.

With this understanding, biblical studies, my own especially, should always take into account that simple things, such as how a native American English speaker approaches Hebrew, Greek, or German, make huge differences as to how it is read and interpreted. When one takes the leap from Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic to an English translation, there are then two cultures to take into account.

Thoughts, questions, or advice? I’d love to hear your response!

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5 thoughts on “Syntax and Thinking in the Study of Language

  1. German is a good intro into the concept of case languages. French, Spanish, and English mostly lost their case endings. German retained them. Greek, as an older form of the I-E subfamily, retains them to a much higher degree than German. Given this, sentence structure is very…free-form in Greek, especially Classical Greek. One of my favourite grammatical patterns was the concentric circle construction, where the first word in the sentence is modified by the last word. And the second word connects to the penultimate, and so forth. And the subject, or the main verb, sits somewhere in the middle. While beautiful and incredibly poetic, it’s really daunting for the neophyte. Fortunately, NT Greek has a much more linear sentence structure, so it runs much more like German, or even English. In doing my translation, I kept to the literal meaning and sentence structure as much as possible so that the translation can serve as a crib for new learners. Of course, you’ll be able to find all the mistakes I’ve doubtless made! Good luck. Reading Greek is a fabulous end-in-itself.

  2. Sorry about the delay in responding. I get distracted with two kids and a day job. In short, the biggest difference between Classical and koine Greek is just the complexity of the sentence structure. If you anything about Latin grammar in relation to French or Spanish you’d get a really clear idea of what I mean. Even if you’ve done some German and compared it to Romance grammar, you’d get an idea. Classical Greek is extremely non-linear; you can’t follow word-by-word and get it. Most of the time you have to step back and look a the sentence as a whole and start piecing things together according to case endings. There is some of this in koine, but a large part of it is translation into Greek rather than the writing of a native speaker.

    Does that help? Let’s put it this way: I started reading the NT as a warm-up to get back to Classical Greek. I don’t mean that to sound snobbish or anything. Koine Greek is a fascinating subject on its own. And the other thing is to be wary of dictionaries of NT Greek. I work from Liddell & Scott which largely focuses on Classical usages. There are some times when the NT dictionary gives a pretty loose translation.

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