Thursday, August 19, 2004

JB15522-Rob #5: Word order (cont.) 

(15522) Jason BeDuhn [Thu Aug 19, 2004 3:11 pm] (Re: John 8:58 - Rob #5: Word order (cont.)) [Jason #6A]

Thank you for your latest post. It seems to me there are only a couple matters that require a response from me.

You say:

You are right that the study of grammar is descriptive, though we must not ignore the prescriptive dimension of how language is learned. To the best of my knowledge, in all languages and throughout recorded history, parents and teachers have corrected the grammar of the young.

Yes, they do. And they correct any novice in English if they utter a sentence such as "Before Abraham was born, I am." You know it, and I know it. This is "Yoda English," if I may borrow a phrase from a correspondent, and is put into Yoda's mouth in the Star Wars movies precisely to make him quaintly alien.

You say:

The third "anomaly," namely, the use of unusual capitalization--"I AM" or "I Am"--applies to only a few English versions. Moreover, in this case one can hardly blame the KJV, since it does not employ such unusual capitalization at John 8:58. I agree that the versions using such capitalization have tipped their hand; or, to put it more neutrally, they have made their understanding of the text more explicit.

So we have agreed that they are erroneous translations. The next question, then, which I have asked before, is what other basis is there for the "unusual" and "rare" (if you like) word order of those translations that are more careful not to "tip their hands"? I do not know for a fact that the KJV translators adhered to the interpretation that connects John 8:58 to Exodus 3:14. They could simply have been, as they often were, leaning a bit too heavily on the Vulgate.

You cite me as saying:

If we were serious about translating the _cogito_ today, we would render it, "I think, therefore I exist."

Then say:

Here, I must confess that I am unclear as to what you mean by "its classical form." Are you referring to the Latin or to the conventional English translation? It would seem that you must mean the English translation, but I may be mistaken. If you do mean the English translation, then you seem to be suggesting that the translation "I think, therefore I am" was acceptable English centuries ago but is no longer good English. I am unsure if English has changed in this respect since, say, 1700.

Sure it has. Haven't you read Shakespeare lately?

You say:

If we move forward to the contemporary period, I think we can find examples of the "be" verb without an expressed complement that cannot qualify as mere "artifacts." The famous Beatles' song, "Let It Be," which features a line that ends with those words, comes to mind. Should the line have been better expressed in English with the words, "Let it exist"?

(1) It's an imperative clause, not an indicative one; (2) it's poetry, not prose, and has the wording it does to blur the boundary between the idea "Let it come to be" or "Let it exist" and "Leave it alone," if, as a life-long Beatle fan, I understand the song correctly. But I don't want to claim any special "insider" status. ;) For both reasons, it does not help us with the kind of English sentence we see in John 8:58.

You next pointed out the qualified language of the Cambridge Grammar: "almost always," "relatively unusual." If you've read the Cambridge Grammar, you know how revolutionary it is in the direction of descriptive, not prescriptive analysis of the language, how it accepts what people do as the grammar of the language, despite its violation of many of the "rules" you and I were taught as kids (rules that our publishers still adhere to, I may add), and how the authors phrase all of their descriptions of what we used to call the rules of the language in this qualified, cautious manner.

You say:

I would be happy with an assessment of the wording of the traditional translation of John 8:58 that described it as unusual or even odd.

Good. We agree. Then the burden is on you to give a strong reason for adopting wording that is "unusual or even odd" here.

You seem to add a tentative reason:

The reason I could accept such an assessment is that I think the wording of the original text is also unusual. In the end, how we resolve the issue of the propriety of the English rendering depends on how we understand the original language text. You think that the Greek wording of John 8:58 follows a perfectly normal Greek idiom. I do not, and that is the root of our real difference over this text.

Yes it is, because there is nothing at all unusual or abnormal about the Greek here. Please be precise: what is it that you consider out of the ordinary for Greek grammar here?

You note that at the end of a paragraph on English grammar, I refer back to the Greek of John 8:58. I am sorry if this confused you. I have gotten so use to the shorthand of "the prin clause" and "eimi" that I simply reverted to these labels to refer to the two parts of the sentence. My point was about the English sentence.

So since we now agree that the English word order commonly found in translations of John 8:58 would require unusual justification, we can move on to probing what that justification might be, presumably in the Greek. I think it would also be helpful for you to answer the question from my previous post as to what specific meaning you find in "Before Abraham was born, I am," that is not present in "I have existed since before Abraham was born." I will then, of course, expect you to demonstrate that that meaning is the only valid one for the Greek of John 8:58.

best wishes,

Jason B.

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