Response to Daniel Streett

Here’s our first response, which has been offered as a comment on his blog, to Daniel Streett’s recent post arguing for a communicative pedagogy for Koine. If you have not yet subscribed to his blog, go do it now.


Thanks for your post. Mike Aubrey and I have gone back and forth a bunch on this. I’d like to interact with your some of your thoughts. Let me say up front that I am currently approaching language description and pedagogy in my classes from a (neuro) cognitive linguistic perspective. Some of this has been dealt with on our blog.

1. Greek is not a dead language. It was spoken long before Dionysus Thraxe first described it in humanity’s first grammar (Tekne Grammatike) and is still spoken today all over the world. Objections to a communicative pedagogy of Greek are silly because there’s probably a native Greek speaker near you with whom you could speak. In fact its for this reason that I have long considered communicative approaches of a reconstructed Koine a waste of time. There’s no need to make-up Greek. Just go to Greece and while you’re there, learn to “read” Homer and the NT.

2. Reading… the process is much more complex than we might think. One term that does not describe it for humans is “easy”. Reading is an enormously complex cognitive skill that literally changes the brains of the literate. For an introduction (without technical literature), see the Brain Science Podcast. The interview with Maryanne Wolf (#29) is a great episode on this topic, but all the episodes are relevant to language students and scholars.

One thing I’ve gleaned from the short list of neurological literature I’ve read- Language acquisition happens early in childhood and no other time. Unless one acquires multiple languages as a child, which is very possible, every second-language (L2) experience one has must be viewed as learning and not acquisition. Once one is past the age of acquisition, L2 learning becomes extremely tough (but the human brain is very plastic and old dogs can indeed learn new tricks) and new L2s are not learned as one’s mother tongue was acquired. Thus, L2 users are using different neurological processes than when they use their native language. As such, it seems that as an L2 user I will never read the GNT as I read the Houston Chronicle. Neurologically, engaging the two will always be different processes.

3. Meaning – From a cognitive perspective, meaning is embodied. It is emotionally driven perception, conception, and memory expressed in symbols: phonological and even orthographical in some cultures. As modern English speakers removed by language, time, and culture, we cannot directly engage the embodied meaning of the Bible as the original audience did, not to mention that of its authors. We are not them and have not lived their experiences. The most we can do is pour over every scrap of data we can get our hands on: textual and archaeological alike. From this, we may attempt to describe what is going on linguistically in the NT, but to say that one can be comprehend Koine as one does a native language is not neurologically or psychologically plausible. First, you have to invent a time machine. Then you’ve still the got battle of L2 neurology.

4. Pedagogy –  At Stellenbosch, we teach students to understand the Hebrew or Greek text in Hebrew or Greek by using the best tools available. This includes reference grammars, lexica, encyclopedias, and even the tools of modern linguistics. Once this is done, then we talk about translation, which is a completely different ball game. Translation theory is its own discipline and quick target language glosses cannot be conflated with source language meaning. You are right that too many language teachers confuse the meaning of an original text with a translation.

The immediate benefit I see (and have experienced in a Hebrew ulpan) with biblical language students who learn the modern form of the respective language or otherwise learn communicatively is that of vocab mastery. Using your vocab in communicative situations will cement those lexemes in your memory like flashcards cannot. However, a communicative approach to Koine cannot give you a Koine mind.



BH-Afrikaans Vocab Videos

The Afrikaans vocab videos for BH 178 are available.

iTunes U exclusion

So we’ve recently found out that academics in African universities are excluded from contributing to iTunes U. As it is now, only institutions located in the USA, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and United Kingdom may participate in iTunes U.

In addition to many other countries with universities that have contributions to offer, this list excludes the entire African continent.

We realize that iTunes U is tied to iTunes and not all countries are licensed to with an iTunes store, but iTunes U is free. Why is Africa excluded from this free, online community of scholarly resources? Apple presently offers no explanation. How may excluded countries become contributors to iTunes? Apple presently offers no answer.

BH 178 Vocab on YouTube Done!

All 60 biblical Hebrew vocabulary units for BH 178 at U. Stellenbosch are now available on YouTube. The intended arrangement is 1 unit (of 7 words) per day, 4 days per week, plus a review on the fifth day of the week. This is based on Jeremy’s research into second-language vocabulary learning. Jeremy also has a set of the same words made for the ANKI application, which works on everything including iOS and Android. So annoy Jeremy with your emails and tell him you want the BH 178 vocab on your iPhone. Until then, its all on YouTube.

We’re planning on doing the same with Greek 178.


Embodied Meaning

Meaning is embodied. It is perception, conception, and memory. While philologists, linguists, and other scholars can identify trends in what a particular sound might symbolize in a particular language, such scholarly identification does not prescribe anything onto those language speakers.

Why not? Because- to quote De Blois (2001)- words don’t have meanings, meanings have words. Perceptions, conceptions, and memories are given phonetic and (sometimes) orthographic symbols by people who experience reality, including each other, via the body connected to the brain.

For describing the language of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, this view of meaning has at least 2 criticisms.

1) Source language meanings are not equivalent with target language tags/translations. Consider מֶלֶךְ and king. While we may postulate a definition something like “male ruler of a monarchy” in order to get a handle as second-language onlookers, an embodied/encyclopedic view of meaning is much more complex. To many speakers for whom king is a native symbol, it often instantiates an old European scene of a man with certain clothes in a certain type of dwelling (maybe even with a mote and drawbridge!) and perhaps even a round table with the king‘s knights seated in a circle. No ancient speaker who used the symbol מלך ever conceived such things. That is not to say that מלך shouldn’t be translated as king. It is simply to point out that equivalence between languages (especially between ancient and modern ones!) cannot be assumed. Translation theory is another topic.

Also, consider בַּרְזֶל and axe. While the English word is often used as a tag for the Hebrew (check out Isa 10.34 in the NRSV along side your BHS), the two are non-equivalent. בַּרְזֶל is symbol for a kind of metal (iron). Sure it was sometimes used to cut wood, like an axe, but the concepts that each symbol points to are quite different. An axe is a helpfully shaped tool (generally a long wood handle with a wedge-shaped hunk of metal sharpened on the edge) that one can buy at a hardware store. A wood-cutting בַּרְזֶל would have been one big chunk of iron. No helpful, sanded-down wooden handle and no Home Depot. While some object to such an encyclopedic/maximal approach to semantic description (I can understand why- its hard work), it is how meaning works in humans (See Coulson 2001, Ingram 2007). Linguistic theories that reject such maximal approaches are becoming more-and-more unscientific as they are incommensurate with neurology and the cognitive sciences.

2) Lists of linguistic phenomenon (like lists of translation values in a lexicon or lists of syntactic phenomenon in a reference grammar) are incommensurate with neurological/cognitive organization. The best tool that the theoretical cognitivists (like Rosch and Langacker) have developed to organize information is the prototype (see Taylor 2003). To over-simplify-  we humans make sense of our perceptions, conceptions, and memories with fuzzy categories. So, even though not a real feline, we can call a child in a costume on Halloween a cat. How? There is enough similarity with the cat prototype (precisely how that is established among linguists is for another post) to justify inclusion in the category. What does cat mean? Nothing. It is a symbol bound by context. In one context, it can be your pet, in another, a lion at the zoo, and yet another, a forklift. If a linguist 2,000 years from now wanted to know what we ancient language users meant by cat, rather than a list of occurrences, it would be helpful to have explanations of how one usage is a metaphorical step from another.

Thinking now about “grammar”- what if instead of lists of usages for the BH qatal and yiqtol, etc., we instead had explanations of how the perceptions, conceptions, and memories of BH speakers could be symbolized by various grams? Maybe instead of saying- qatal can do x, y, and z, we could say- past actions can be symbolized by qatal and vayyiqtol; habitual past actions can be symbolized by yiqtol and veqatal. How did this develop? What’s the difference in the way a meaning (perception, conception, and memory) is construed? Alex Andrason’s (2010) thoughts have moved the discussion forward.

To sum up and restate this thesis- an embodied view of meaning challenges 2 practices for those laboring to read ancient texts like the Bible. 1) Target language translation values cannot be conflated with the source language meaning. 2) Lists are only half the job in explaining how ancient people  used words and grams. These lists must be explained and principled. The prototype model is helpful in this regard.


Andrason, A. 2010. “The Panchronic Yiqtol: Functionally Consistent and Cognitively Plausible”. JHS, Vol. 10, Article 10.

Coulson, S. 2001. Semantic Leaps: Frame-Shifting and Conceptual Blending in Meaning Construction. Cambridge: CUP.

De Blois, R. 2001. Towards a New Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies.

Ingram, J. 2007. Neurolinguistics: An Introduction to Spoken Language Processing and its Disorders. Cambridge: CUP.

Taylor, J. 2003. Linguistic Categorization, Third Edition. Oxford: OUP.

What the…..?

Thanks to Suzanne’s Bookshelf  I came across this little gem by Dan Wallace. I must say I was shocked and a little repulsed. While it sounds like (due to his own explanation) he has used the term ‘gynecology’ correctly as the ‘study of women’ he has in fact, not. ‘Gynecology’ actually does mean what everyone, besides Dan Wallace, thinks it means. It is a term specific to a field of medicine concerned with the function and health of women’s and girls’ reproductive systems. That’s why, as Dan Wallace so eloquently put it, “Some readers, however, found the term ‘gynecology’ offensive when used in the sense of ‘the study of women’ theologically or biblically.” You think???

I resoundingly agree with Suzanne that it is repulsive for someone to speak so casually about the study of women’s reproductive systems, especially when such speech immediately brings to mind the image of a woman lying on a table with her legs spread open for inspection, especially when that image is linked to theology and doctrine.

Finally, all I have to say about this statement by Dan Wallace:

“Although I do not agree with the basis of their argumentation about its inappropriateness, I also do not want to put up walls before discussion can occur. Hence, I will not use the term ‘gynecology’ in this or the next essay except as a way to refer to the original postings.” (emphasis mine)

is FAIL.

While I have to admit the concerns he expressed later in his ‘study’ are encouraging, I can’t get over the way I have been made to feel even more vulnerable and detached from the wider world of Biblical studies by his post. If you’ve absolutely got to give it a label how about “A Feminist Perspective” or “A Womanist Reading” or better yet “Updating our Perceptions of Ancient Writings in the 21st Century”. Or are those just not clear enough for you?  Talk about male privilege… Thanks J.K. Gaylefor that one.


Tell Me What You Really Think

This post (though specifically about blogging) inspired me to share some thoughts about something I was told (again at SBL) by a professor who had newly been hired to the undergraduate program I had just graduated from.  Specifically, this quote: “There are nasty things said about our status and right to exist and function alongside the ‘real men’ all the time.”

After said professor was introduced to me and I had been informed of his new appointment, I responded with my congratulations. I then turned to the professor who was (at least partly) responsible for hiring him and asked him, in the kindest manner possible for me, when HBU would hire a female professor in its Biblical Languages & Christianity department.

The response I received from the newly hired (and newly met) professor (note: not the person I asked) was that there were no women qualified for the position he had just been hired for. “What do you mean?” I asked and then informed him that I had just left a room full of woman who were, in fact, qualified. His response to me was that they were most likely not conservative or evangelical enough to work in the department at HBU, to which everyone, excepting myself, nodded agreement and the conversation was over (some of whom have since changed their mind, but this has had no effect on the hiring of women in that department).

Apparently, if you are a female in Houston, TX, then how conservative you are and your views about a woman’s role as defined by God (read: defined by the conservative church) are a factor in your qualifications for teaching in a Biblical Languages program at HBU. But if you’re a male they are not. Let me explain. Many of my  professors, all of them male, had informed me (and other students) during my studies that my being a woman had nothing to do with my role in the church or academia. They informed me, and their classes, that the training we received would prepare us all equally, whether we were male or female, for the ministry and/or academic jobs, whichever we chose to do next. They very explicitly informed us that gender divisions were a creation of man, in their opinion, and women could and should be pastors. Some (not many) even went so far as to cast doubt on the ‘factualness’ of the Bible. Saying things like, even though it’s not historically true in the way we (21st century people) think of history we still find truth in the scriptures. Wow, doesn’t sound very conservative to me…

So, what’s the deal? Why are women who hold those views not ‘qualified’ to teach at a Baptist University while these men are? And most importantly, how would this negatively impact your ability to teach Hebrew or Greek in such a way as to disqualify you? I can’t help but think: Does that make me unqualified to even be considered for a job at my own undergraduate university? Did these esteemed men somehow fail to prepare me for the workforce I was now getting ready to enter? And if that’s the case, we’ve got a problem.