Is Greek more precise than English?

Discussion in 'Languages' started by Ben Zartman, Aug 12, 2019.

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  1. JP Wallace

    JP Wallace Puritan Board Sophomore

    I'm not even sure what "more precise" means! Does it mean no ambiguity" ? But surely every language, at least when referring to Scripture, with a little work can be made to communicate the truth of Scripture, and do so faithfully and accurately - "accuracy" is the issue, not some intangible level of "precision".

    "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved" is as accurate (precisily the same!!) to God's message to mankind as is "(Acts 16:31 NA28) πίστευσον ἐπὶ τὸν κύριον Ἰησοῦν καὶ σωθήσῃ" I don't think there is any added precision in one of the other. You have the imperative, a preposition, the articule, the accusative/object, the conjunction "and" and a passive verb. They are the grammatically identical.

    I'm firmly committed to ministers learning, knowing and using the original languages (though I think it hardly essential to being a faithful pastor and preacher). There are times when the original languages are harder (but not impossible) to represent in English; one example that springs to mind is the fact that in Greek you have two negation words used in questions one which indicates the questioner was expecting a "No" for an answer (really or rhetorically - but that's a different discussion) while the other shows an expectaion of a positive answer. Again it can be represented in translation, but it's not so obvious sometimes. Sometimes (actually possibly only thrice) the two negatives appear togther which communicates something that sometimes the translations don't fully represent.

    Any way regardless of that - I think the English translations in the main do an excellent job, the languages can sometimes reveal subtle things, but most of the time I'd say it's emphasis, or an interesting use of particular words - i.e not really a matter of precision, whatever that is.

    I think if there is any lack of precision it is related to the receptor language translation, and not to the inherent precision of the original.

    In relation to the OP I don't believe any minister should be spending 15 minutes explaining any grammatical or linguistic component to the congregation - its unnecessary, not useful or profitable and runs the risk of appearing like arrogance and superiority. In my opinion where the Greek has significance in the main mention it very briefly if you want, and then just preach the text on the basis of what the Greek says - when we go to a car showroom the salesman doesn't spend 20 minutes telling you how they designed and made the car in the factory, he just points out the sleek lines, and tells you how it performs.
  2. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    I would agree that it's desirable for ministers of the Gospel to be able to read the Scriptures in the original languages. But certainly circumstances might not always allow for that. But ideally, yeah they should have a working knowledge of the language. As to elders and deacons- even those who would be called upon to expound the Word- I don't see that it is a requirement.

    Speaking more generally I think English is becoming devalued as a language. Familiarity breeds contempt. I detect a tendency in our societies to view English as the "lowest common denominator" language because it is the default language of Western civilisation (I would argue of the world). This is certainly not true. The fact that so many people today have such a poor command of English- including our journalists, academics, politicans (most especially them)- they think the problem lies in the language and not them. The fact is English is a beautiful, powerful, vibrant and versatile language. Sure there will be words in koine Greek which don't have a direct correlative in English; there are English words and phrases which won't translate well into other languages.
  3. Ben Zartman

    Ben Zartman Puritan Board Sophomore

    I too see no reason why pastors shouldn't have thorough training where it's available--the more the better, within reason. But I wonder if a disservice is being done to those in poorer countries when American ministers travel there for a conference and tell pastoral hopefuls that they absolutely MUST NOT enter the ministry without proficiency in the biblical languages. These are guys who simply could never afford an interlinear, supposing one were available in their native language, and who could not afford to go to seminary even if there were one to go to. These sorts of places are rather the rule than the exception, when you get out of the first world.
  4. Ben Zartman

    Ben Zartman Puritan Board Sophomore

    Hi Ron,
    There was a statement conjoined to an unrelated question. The statement was that I do think that those doing scholarly work ought to be proficient in Greek. Those seeking to study the works of Homer or Sophocles likewise ought to know their Greek. So I'm not denying that Greek is necessary for some areas of study. Then the question was: compared side-by-side, is Greek more precise and expressive than English, as some Greek enthusiasts claim? Are there ideas that the Greek can express that English simply cannot?
    At issue here is not whether God should have inspired the NT in a different language--He does all things well--but whether that language is better able to communicate ideas than another.
  5. Taylor Sexton

    Taylor Sexton Puritan Board Junior

    If this is being told to ministerial hopefuls of very poor countries, then it is probably unwise. But, I’ve never heard of this actually being done. Have you?
  6. RPEphesian

    RPEphesian Puritan Board Junior

    I would think that Aboriginal languages would be pretty poor for academic papers, and German has always added a rough tincture to opera compared to Italian (can you imagine Andrea Bocelli singing in German?... didn't think so). Depends on the purpose and literature.

    Still, we have Germanic opera, though it just takes another flavor. And Navajo languages ended up being the basis of an uncrackable war code. Languages are versatile. Who would have thought of that? That's an amazing transformation.

    And if need be, just make up new words. Historically people either borrow words or make them up from old ones. Languages can grow in richness.
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2019
  7. Tom Hart

    Tom Hart Puritan Board Senior

    Whoa there. Wagner, dude. Wagner.
  8. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    Indeed. Italian frippery is nothing in comparison.
  9. JimmyH

    JimmyH Puritan Board Junior

    In 5 years of practicing the M'Cheyne 1 Year Bible Reading Plan I've used a different English translation each year as the main reader. I supplement that with another translation, and this past year I've been reading the same Scriptures in as many as three or four. If nothing else this has demonstrated to me that all of the translations I've been perusing are, a large percentage of the time, reliably saying the same thing.

    As for ministers learning the original languages, hasn't that been the prerequisite for graduation from seminary from time immemorial ?
  10. RPEphesian

    RPEphesian Puritan Board Junior

    Which proves my point: our evaluation of the capabilities of different languages in different functions is probably more subjective than we think. However, you can get any language to do what you want if you know how to work with it. So, suppose Greek were the most superior language on earth, you can get another language to rise to the level needed to effectively communicate the meaning contained in it.

    My German opera exposure is more to Mozart. It works out well, but Italian is more pleasing to my own ears. I don't think the Germanic is bad, though the phonetic styles of the languages means that they'll take on different characters from one another. Germanic sounds sharper and rougher to me than Italian, and I do know the two operatic styles tend to be distinct.

    I can't imagine Bocelli doing "Die Zauberflote". However is he going to do Pa pa pa Papageno? Der Holle Roche?

    Anyway, side issue.
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2019
  11. RWD

    RWD Puritan Board Freshman

    You’re asking at least two things here. Is Greek more precise and expressive, and (b) are there ideas (or concepts) that Greek can capture that other languages cannot. Certainly one language may on the whole be more precise and expressive than another, but that wouldn’t preclude the less nuanced language having words to express certain concepts or ideas, particular to a culture, that aren’t adequately captured by a generally more precise and expressive language used in a different culture or cultures. But that’s not my concern.

    The first time you asserted that proficiency in Greek was necessary for writing commentaries and sermon preparation. I guess I can assume for relevance sake that your use of Homer and other scholarly work in your response includes not just commentaries but sermon preparation. Regardless, I’d like to stick to sermon preparation.

    It seems to me that the necessity (or usefulness) of Greek in this regard does not logically imply the greater precision of Greek. How could it? Even if Greek were less precise, there’d be value in consulting the original. Agreed? But, if Greek were less precise, then I’d think that value would be greatly diminished in consulting the original.

    So, back to my original question. If Greek wasn’t more precise and expressive, then why would you affirm the necessity of Greek proficiency for writing commentaries and preparing sermons? At base, why do you affirm the necessity of Greek for sermon prep? (Not playing gotcha. Just trying to grasp your understanding as to why Greek is important for sermon prep.)
  12. Ben Zartman

    Ben Zartman Puritan Board Sophomore

    Yes, I have. Very recently. Which is why I'm beginning to explore this topic here.
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  13. Ben Zartman

    Ben Zartman Puritan Board Sophomore

    The reason Greek is important for commentaries (and less so for sermon prep, but I added it because I do see the usefulness for preachers of digging into a text), is because the NT was written in that language; hard to do rigorous scholarship without it. But that in itself doesn't make Greek itself more precise in communicating ideas, and that's the question: does the Greek language communicate ideas better than English does? And a related question: can not English be parsed and picked apart and diagrammed the same way as Greek is? My enthusiast friends contend that because of the way Greek can be parsed and diagrammed etc., it is inherently a more precise and expressive language than English.
    I have not yet encountered an idea that cannot be accurately expressed in English, and my primary question, again, is: are there ideas than Greek can communicate that English cannot?
    Thanks for your time in replying.
  14. Ben Zartman

    Ben Zartman Puritan Board Sophomore

    I can't stand Wagner. Give me Italian frippery all day. I am fond of Bellini just now. But why on earth couldn't Bocelli sing Zauberflote? He could do Tamino as well as anyone, I'll bet.
  15. RPEphesian

    RPEphesian Puritan Board Junior

    I'm sure he could, if he could get that gritty German accent.
  16. RWD

    RWD Puritan Board Freshman

    When you say it’s good to know Greek because the NT was written in that language and it’s hard to do rigorous scholarship without a working knowledge of Greek - that doesn’t tell me why it’s good to know Greek. Is it because Greek conveys meaning that word for word English might miss apart from elaboration?

    You said commentators benefit from a knowledge of Greek. But why is that? To say that rigorous scholarship needs a working knowledge of the original seems to beg the question. That answer leaves all possible reasons up for grabs. If it’s not the precision, then what are the benefits of knowing Greek? To say scholarship requires it doesn’t help me understand.
  17. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    You guys, stop trying to get me to take the opera bait. That's off topic.

    It would be off topic to note things like there are only two German Mozart operas in the standard repertoire (you mentioned one of them, Jake). All the others are in Italian. And you haven't even mentioned the particular genius of 19th French opera. Some signers can sing well in multiple languages; others, not so much (Pavarotti would never sing German, but he would French, another Romance language--though his French diction was nothing to write home about!).

    And I won't get into the absurdity of calling Verdi, Puccini, and verismo frippery, never mind how wrongly perceived bel canto must be to make that judgment at all (good for you, Ben)! Not to mention that late Verdi and certainly Puccini benefited from the revolution that the music drama of Richard Wagner wrought.

    Some of us like it all, but that's all off-topic, as is Mahler's 2nd that will cap the Grant Park Music Festival on Friday and Saturday. See you there if you can make it! But I would never say any of that as it's all off topic.

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  18. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    There is Wagner and there is everything else (far behind).
  19. RWD

    RWD Puritan Board Freshman

    Ben, Alan and the rest...

    I think it would be a mistake to suggest that English is equally precise and expressive as Greek simply on the basis that ideas from Greek can be adequately expressed in English. I’m uncomfortable with “equally precise” because the notion of “more precise and more expressive” is I think vague and needs clarification. More precise and more expressive in what way? Please walk with me here...

    Even aside from a language to language translation, that Jones even using the same language can express Smith’s exact ideas (but in many more words than Smith requires) cannot somehow make Jones equally “precise and expressive” as Smith. In fact, it seems intuitive that if more words are needed, then Jones is less precise than Smith!

    Similarly, that English is precise enough to (eventually) express the meaning of a Greek text (using more words in order to parse out the same precise meaning) does not suggest to me that Greek is not “more precise and more expressive language than English.”

    The distinction I’ve been hoping to tease out is whether there’s a relative difference between (a) translating Greek into English with many words (such as with commentaries) and (b) translating Greek into our English Bibles. In such cases, the less precise translation of the Greek would still function as the word of God(!) whereas the more precise elaboration would not. (Commentaries are neither preaching nor the Word.) However, can’t an English commentary capture the precise meaning of the Greek in ways that an English Bible might not?

    Bringing this down to earth, a good preacher will not always feel the need to rehearse his research in defense of his exposition. He’ll simply preach the text. Notwithstanding, his preaching of the Word, which when faithful to the Word is the Word, will be quick and powerful, sharper than any two edged sword. But rarely does a commentary divide asunder my soul and spirit, let alone discern the thoughts and intents of my heart. I must reflect and “preach” the commentary to myself in order to ingest the Word.

    So, as Alan stated, “We have good translations.” But also, “We need men trained in all the theological disciplines (including the biblical languages) to preach it faithfully and without compromise.”

    But let’s not suggest to quickly that Greek is not more precise than English. When we make the two equivalent in this regard, we run the risk of placing English commentaries, that unpack the precise Greek-Word, on the same level of as our English Bibles. Again, the less precise and less expressive remains the Word, but nonetheless it still can be less precise and less expressive than the original; whereas the more precise and more expressive English commentaries are not the Word. So, how blessed are the feet!
  20. Ben Zartman

    Ben Zartman Puritan Board Sophomore

    I would say that anyone writing commentaries on any literature would need (and preferably be fluent) in the original language of the text in question. If I didn't know Russian and tried to write a commentary on "War and Peace," I'd probably come across as a clown. If I didn't know Spanish and wrote papers about "Don Quixote" get the idea. So I'm not asking whether knowing Greek will allow you to more precisely understand the Greek texts--to be sure it will; I'm asking whether, compared to English, Greek expresses ideas that English cannot. The concensus so far on this thread is that anything expressible in Greek can be expressed in English as well. What do you think?

    Oops, I see we were typing at the same time! sorry for the overpost...
  21. Ben Zartman

    Ben Zartman Puritan Board Sophomore

    Thank you for this, Ron. I find it very helpful.
  22. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    I never took the original post to mean anything other than "everyone must study Greek and read the NT in it, because Greek as a language enjoys a precision that English doesn't." That was, and is, a fatuous, misguided, non-academic claim that no linguist would ever make. That's making a claim about the nature of the two languages that is just silly.

    That's not the same as saying that nothing can replace reading and studying the NT in Greek, because when one works intelligently with the original language one maximally profits. Or at least stands to do so if done with the illumination of the self-same Spirit who inspired it.

    There is, of course, benefit in reading any work that one intends seriously to study or to expurgate in its original language. This is why we teach seminarians to read the Bible in its original tongues (and we still do this, unlike many seminaries that make only a passing glance at language study).

    Let's move the discussion out of Bible translation for a second. I've friends fluent in Russian that insist Tolstoy or Dostoevsky must be read in that language, that nuances are missed in translation. Undoubtedly. But it's not that the Russian language is more precise than English: it's just that anything written in a particular tongue was written in that tongue and may, arguably, lose something in translation. BTW, I don't read Russian but find the Russians among some of the best reads. There's nothing quite like, for a number of reasons, the two writers I cited herein.

    I will say this also. I mentioned something being lost in translation. I think that we have to be very careful when saying that about the Bible. Though this may be true in a technical sense (since true of any translation), I firmly believe that because the Bible is unlike any other book in the world--it enjoys verbal, plenary inspiration and is the very Word of God--we need to observe this caution: Unlike other books, the Bible was given to God's people to be understood by the illumination of the same Spirit who inspired it. Given not to individuals, but, as I said earlier, in community, to be received and understood in the ecclesial context.

    And, it was given to be preached, with the understanding that maximal understanding will be achieved in its preaching. And those preachers should ideally know the languages so that they can be alert to the linguistic nuances as they bring forth its riches to God's people. (Always being aware of the error "every laymen should know Greek so as to eliminate the need for the preacher." We've been afflicted with this anti-ministerial thinking of the Anabaptists, Restorationists, etc. especially in America). This is the integrated approach that I was seeking to bring out in this thread.

    Last edited: Aug 14, 2019
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  23. RWD

    RWD Puritan Board Freshman


    I’m glad for that! In the end I thought it was better to just “elaborate” my concerns more “precisely” with a “greater number of words” than to ask diagnostic questions that were “vague” and confusing!
  24. RPEphesian

    RPEphesian Puritan Board Junior

    A thought on all of this... when it comes to historical, academic, philosophical or scientific literature then precision is high priority. If we are talking doctrinal expositions then precision is an important key.

    However, the Bible is more than historical accounts, and more than doctrinal/practical instructions. We also have genres like poetry, song, and apocalyptic literature. In these you want to be faithful to the subject matter you are bringing out--and the Bible is, perfectly and inerrantly--, but "precise" is hardly a goal you would think of in poetry. In such literature like the Psalms, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, the goal is more directly to stir up, to cause you to feel, to give you a felt heart language about God, His works, and your relationship to Him.

    So when we say "precise", we might still ask, "What's the goal of precision in the genre itself?" What's meant by precision is not going to be universal, nor will it be applied in the same way.

    Maybe better said, it's always going to look different.

    In the Pentateuch, precision is the difference between pleasing worship and being cut off, clean and unclean--true and strange fire, chewing the cud, splitting the hoof, skin spots, hair colors, how to prepare the lamb, etc.

    In Song of Solomon, it's enhancing, expanding, and taming our communion language appropriately. "Precise" doesn't feel like the right word for this, though this book gives the expansion and boundaries of the pasture of communion.
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2019
  25. RWD

    RWD Puritan Board Freshman


    I was dealing singularly with this:
    “is it correct to insist that Greek is a more precise and more expressive language than English?”

    And then this:

    “Then the question was: compared side-by-side, is Greek more precise and expressive than English, as some Greek enthusiasts claim? Are there ideas that the Greek can express that English simply cannot?”

    That English can express the Greek import does not suggest to me that Greek isn’t more precise than English. Yet “precision” turned on an ambiguity regarding the relevancy of conciseness, hence my Jones / Smith and Commentaries/ English Bible examples.
  26. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    It isn't, brother. It's different. And it's the language in which the NT comes and thus merits the closest and most careful attention of those who would be its scholars and preachers.

    Everyone is not gifted to read it in its original tongue and I will not assert or imply that English readers of the Bible are missing something because they can't read it in the Greek. The Bible is not chiefly to be privately read, at any rate, but to be publicly proclaimed by those gifted and called to do so.

    That all having been said, fatuous linguistic claims about the uniqueness of Greek are untrue and unhelpful.

  27. RWD

    RWD Puritan Board Freshman


    Just to be clear, I’ve asserted no position and consequently assumed no burden of proof. Yet I believe you just took issue with:

    That English can express the Greek import does not suggest to me that Greek isn’t more precise than English.
    All that means is that one does not establish precision-equivalency between Greek and English (or that English is more precise than Greek) merely on the basis that English can express what’s communicated in Greek.

    Assuming that same neutral posture, I also said this: “It seems to me that the necessity (or usefulness) of Greek in this regard does not logically imply the greater precision of Greek. How could it?”

    I wrote this as well: “But let’s not suggest too quickly that Greek is not more precise than English.”

    Again, I’m intentionally holding to neutrality, while still looking for someone to defend the notion of precision equivalency. In other words, what I’m after is a defense of the proffered positive-position that Greek is not more precise than English.

    That the languages are different is obviously true, but surely we can’t use that as our basis to discount Greek as more precise than English. Likewise, that Greek is the language by which the NT comes to us isn’t sufficient to discount Greek’s alleged precision over English. Finally, that the Word is to be preached and that most aren’t proficient in Greek are inadequate reasons to lead us to conclude that Greek cannot be more precise than English. The reason being, none of those observations are mutually exclusive to the premise that Greek is more precise than English. Accordingly, those observations of yours, which I share, aren’t the basis by which anyone may rationally infer precision-equivalency between the two languages.

    As I noted, “I’m uncomfortable with ‘equally precise’ because the notion of ‘more precise and more expressive’ is I think vague and needs clarification. More precise and more expressive in what way?”

    So, if one is willing to positively assert that English is equally precise (i.e. no less precise) or even more precise than Greek, I’d like to understand what definition of “precise” is being assumed. That’s all.

    Best wishes,

  28. Ben Zartman

    Ben Zartman Puritan Board Sophomore

    It was a wise choice in my opinion, since I was beginning to feel that the diagnostic questions were taking me in circles, but your explanation was very good, and much appreciated.
  29. Dachaser

    Dachaser Puritan Board Doctor

    The minister should strive to become skilled in the original languages if at all possible, but far more important us to be called by God to be a minister, to have a heart of a Shepherd, and to practice what one preaches.
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