Monday, April 20, 2009

Linguistics and Nominalism

I have long had something of an interest in Bible translation. At one time I seriously considered a career as a Bible translator. For reasons I don't remember now that notion pretty much died on the vine, but not before I had done a fair amount of study on the subject. I will never forget the article in a respected journal that defended the translation "Pig of God" for a people group who had never seen sheep and had no word for "Lamb". I was outraged. I still get upset about it when I think about it :-)

The root of the problem was of course in the philosophy of Bible translation that informed such a decision. It was grounded in modern linguistics. I've read guys like Eugene Nida and Jan de Waard, and I've read stuff by Moises Silva, among others, and they all make a reasonable argument for a dynamic equivalence philosophy of translation. I'm not saying that they're dummies: they're certainly not. But because their conclusions followed so naturally and reasonably from their premises, and because "Pig of God" was always a most foul stench in my nostrils, I felt compelled to conclude that the problem isn't with the reasoning; it has to be with the philosophy or theology of language beneath the translation philosophy, and beneath the linguistic theory. Unfortunately I'm not a philosopher or theologian of language (nor a linguist, nor a philosopher nor theologian of any other stripe, for that matter).

So I had a problem: a thing with what I consider to be noxious effects, but which was coherent as far as I could tell, and whose presuppositions I could not get at. I asked my Greek instructor about this matter when I was in graduate school, and he said that to his knowledge no one had done any work on a theology of language. So my problem seemed intractable, my formal education came to a conclusion, and my prospects for resolving the matter were dreadful.

And then along came David Knowles and his book The Evolution of Medieval Thought. Towards the end of the book, he writes of Nominalism:
A given thing, a dog or rose, evokes in the human mind a mental 'sign' ... which is the same in all men, as is a laugh or a cry; each race of men then gives to this sign a verbal sign or term or name in its own language, which we attach to our mental image and which recalls that image to our mind. [p. 322]
Bingo! This is exactly the way, as far as my linguistic "knowledge" goes, that linguists and translators talk about language!

This seems to me and my limited understanding of things to suggest a link between Nominalism and modern linguistics (and consequently with modern theories of Bible translation as well). I don't have any kind of resolution of this problem yet, but at least I have a direction to go when I get round to the thing again.


Mike Burgess said...

Long ago, in a galxy far, far away, I studied philosophy, with an emphasis on "Classical American Philosophy," particularly that of Charles Sanders Peirce. Of the various aspects of his thought, I most enjoyed his semeiotics. It's worth a Wiki, if you ask me. Peirce was, as far as I know, expressly Trinitarian in the midst of a bunch of burbling Unitarians and Deists and agnostics and Transcendentalists and such. So he's got that going for him.

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for the tip. I'll take a look.


Mike Burgess said...

Dr. Liccione has referred me to Joao Poinsot, better known as John of St. Thomas, as a forerunner (and an orthodox Dominican one, at that!) to Peirce's groundbreaking work in semeiotics (or any of the various alternate spellings people choose). I smell a project!!

Martin said...

Ok, I may botch this in my rush to be on doing other things, or in my failed memory but:

I was listening to "Fresh Air" that noxious overly liberal NPR program and was about to change the channel when she announced she was talking to a professor of a Protestant Theology school. I don't remember what the point of the interview was, it may well have been Linguistics as that was what I remembered.

She asked him a question that went something like, "Isn't it great and necessary that we change all that stupid old stuff in the bible so we can understand it? You know, like saying 'Our Mother in Heaven'"?

"NO" in a heavy voice from the liberal theologian. There was about 10 seconds of radio silence as she tried to pull herself together.

"Whatever do you mean"? She finally asked.

In short he explained there are two ways you can pass knowledge from one generation to the next. One is to use the words as written. "Our Father..." and then try to understand, interpret what the previous generation really meant. The advantage of this method is that it leaves each generation open to understanding what the words may mean.

The other way is to decide the concept, not the word is the important thing. Perhaps, he said, you might decide that feminism is the overreaching idea that must be communicated. But then any text is judged according to how well it communicates that feminism.

Disaster, in his mind, was trying to mix the two methods. Constantly changing the words each generation AND constantly changing what concept you are trying to communicate. that way you end up having no idea what the previous generations held to be important and were trying to pass on to you.

Relevant here, I think, is the "pig of god". Instead of simply leaving the words untouched as they could not communicate the idea, they chose to change the words and the idea at the same time. Everything was lost. Sort of like throwing out the pig with the bathwater, ya know.