gentleness, moderation, softness

One of the readings at church last Sunday was from Philippians 4, starting Rejoice in the Lord always, and continuing Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The preacher spoke mainly on the idea of gentleness. 

As a choral singer, I know two anthems on that text, one by Henry Purcell (which my number one commenter of recent times, Batchman, mentioned in a recent comment) and the other by Anon or John Redford. The first uses the text Let your moderation be known and the second Let your softness be known, so obviously there are different translations out there. In fact, Bible Gateway has 25 overlapping translations of these words in 62 versions. These can be divided into noun( phrase)s (typically Let your N be known, or Let everyone see your N) and adjectives (typically Let everyone see that you are Adj). 

gentleness 20
gentle spirit 3
gentle spirit [your graciousness, unselfishness, mercy, tolerance, and patience] 
gentle attitude
gentle nature 
moderation 5
forbearance 4
kindness 3 
graciousness 2
gracious attitude  
reasonableness 2 
chassidus (piety) 1
modesty 1
patience 1
patient mind 1
unselfishness (your considerateness, your forbearing spirit) 1

gentle 3
gentle and kind 3
gentle and gracious 
gentle [kind; considerate; patient]
considerate 3
reasonable and gentle 
unselfish and considerate 

Two are very different: the Message version, which has Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them and the Worldwide English version, which has Let everyone know that you think kindly of others before yourselves.

The Greek word behind all these English translations is ἐπιεικής, epieikés, from epí upon and eikos equitable, fair. It is an adjective; the equivalent noun is epieíkeia. Bible Hub explains: epieikḗs (“justice beyond ordinary justice”) builds on the real intent (purpose) of what is really at stake … and hence, is true equity that appropriately fulfils the spirit (not just the letter) of the law. 

I first said to the preacher that the best word out of all those seems to be moderation, but I later thought of the rather cumbersome equitability  and equitableness, which, not surprisingly, none of the translations uses.

If any Greek (or Hebrew) word has 25 different (but overlapping) meanings in English (or any other language), can we say what the bible says (or even means)? I’m sure it is possible to worry too much about this, as I have probably just done.  

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More biblical Greek

About six weeks ago I wrote about four words in biblical Greek, namely μαθητής mathetes (singular), μᾰθηταί mathetai (plural), usually translated as disciple (from Latin discipulus), απόστολος apostolos (singular), απόστολοι apostoloi (plural), usually apostle, γραμματέας grammateas (singular), γραμματείς grammateis (plural), usually scribe, and ῥαββί rhabbí, rabbi.

About a week ago there was a post on Language log about “A revolutionary, new translation of the gospels” by Sarah Ruden. It links to the Kindle sample of her book, including an extensive introduction in which she explains some of the principles she developed to guide her work (among them “to deal with the Gospels more straightforwardly than is customary”), and “A discursive glossary of unfamiliar word choices in English”, including the four words I wrote about.

One noticeable choice she made is to render the names of people and places as straight transliterations of the Greek, so she has Iēsous travelling from Galilaia through Ioudaia to Ierousalēm with Simōn Petros, Andreas, Iakōbos and Iōannēs (and others), making them all sound rather more Greek than they actually were.

Some people may find her translation too straightforward, but they should not let that stop them from reading and reflecting.

Biblical gramma

I occasionally attempt to learn some biblical Greek. During my last burst, I spotted three slightly related words. 

The first is μαθητής mathetes (singular), μᾰθηταί mathetai (plural). In any other context, this would be translated as learner, student, follower or adherent, usually of a philosopher or rhetorician, but in biblical translations, it is usually translated as disciple (from Latin discipulus).  

The second is απόστολος apostolos (singular), απόστολοι apostoloi (plural); not surprisingly, apostle. This means one who is sent (ἀπό-, apó-, from + στέλλω, stéllō, I send). The closest Latin word is delegate (dē-, from + lēgātus chosen, selected, appointed), and I can’t think of any Germanic word except sendee, which Pages for Mac and WordPress both red-underline. (There is an old joke that an epistle is the wife of an apostle. One of my first linguistic musings was why epistle had an ‘i’ while apostle had an ‘o’. I later found out that the words are not e + pistle and a + postle but epi + stle and apo + stle.)   

The third is γραμματέας grammateas (singular), γραμματείς grammateis (plural), which is not related to grammar in the modern sense but to writing (γράμμα grámma) (compare Latin scrībō). Originally, it was anyone who wrote for a living, but in biblical terms is a scribe of the religious law (Hebrew סוֹפֵר sofér).

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If ye love me

If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another comforter, that he may bide with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.

One staple in the repertoire of the kinds of church or community choirs I sing in is If ye love me, by Thomas Tallis. Note ye and you, will and shall and pray the Father

Some people decry any change in language as the first step to incoherent grunting, but language has always changed and always will. Example 1: ye and you. Until about 400 years ago, (most) English speakers observed the distinction between the subject form ye (ye love me) and the object form you (give you, bide with you), and also the singular and/or intimate thee/thou/thy/thine and the plural and/or polite ye/you/your/yours. These all collapsed onto all-purpose you/your/yours, and almost no-one cared. (Art, wast and wert disappeared around the same time.)

The people who rail against singular they rarely mention singular you, which must have been just as shocking at the time, and the people who use non-standard plural forms such as y’all,* all y’all or yous(e) are railed at for being non-standard. (Note that you started off as plural anyway. If anything, we need a ‘singular you’.) (*I originally included you all, but the more I thought about it, the more I became sure that plural you all is standard: compare “I am very pleased to welcome you all here today” and “I am very pleased to welcome y’all here today”. (Also all of you.))

Because most people encounter thee/thou/thy/thine in Shakespeare, the King James/Authorised version of the bible or the Book of Common Prayer, or musical settings of texts from those sources, they imagine that these are formal/polite, and use them in conscious but often mistaken imitation. Leigh Brackett and/or Lawrence Kasdan, the scriptwriters of The Empire Strikes Back, has/have Darth Vader asking the emperor “What is thy bidding, my master?”. 

(Wikipedia has more about the T-V distinction (from Latin tu and vos).)

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begat

Lying awake in the middle of the night, I suddenly thought of the older, mostly biblical word beget. This was originally be + get, similar to be + come and be + have. It is irregular, originally beget, begat, begot and later beget, begot, begotten (cf get, got, gotten (for some people) and forget, forgot, forgotten). It is most famously used in the King James/Authorised version of the bible (1611), specifically in chapter 1 of the gospel according to Matthew, where “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas [Judah] and his brethren” and so on.

This translates the Greek word ἐγέννησεν, egénnēsen, the third-person singular aorist active indicative of γεννᾰ́ω, gennáō, 1. to beget, give birth to 2. to bring forth, produce, generate. We can hardly say that Abraham gave birth to Isaac, but we could easily say that Sarah did, except that the word is almost always used in relation to men. At the other end of Matthew’s genealogy, it does not say that Mary begat Jesus, but rather that Jesus was born of Mary, using the passive voice of the same Greek verb. (Compare 1 Chron 3, where “the sons of David, which were born unto him” are listed.)

Later versions use either begot or was the father of. The Good news bible/Today’s English version avoids the problem by using “the following ancestors are listed: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and his brothers” and so on. Other possibilities are the very un-biblical father and sire (both of which started as nouns).

Google Ngrams shows that the heyday of beget in all its forms was the 1650s, after which there was a slow decline to modern times. Surprisingly, though, there has been a rise in usage (especially of begat) since the 1980s, which I can’t find or think of any reason for. 

While researching for this post, I found a book by David Crystal titled Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. Note that much of the language of the KJV comes from Tyndale (1526-30) and Coverdale (1535), and even the KJV’s original phraseology is in conscious imitation of the earlier style (and English had changed a lot in that almost a century.

Angels

One Christmas Eve many years ago, I attended a party in the early evening before going to church for the midnight service. When I told another party-goer this, he huffily said that he didn’t believe in anything the church taught because it is impossible for human-shaped angels to have bird-shaped wings because of musculature and the size of the breast bone. Random social conversations often flummox me, this one more than most. I can’t remember what I said or did in reply. Probably excused myself very soon after.

The only references to heavenly creatures having wings come in visions (Isaiah, Ezekiel, John are probably the best known), and those are never called angels, and none of the creatures called angels which interact with humans on earth are described as having wings. Isaiah calls them seraphim and only describes them as having faces, feet and six wings which operate in three pairs independently. Ezekiel calls them “living creatures … Their form was that of a man”, but they otherwise had four faces, four wings and various other obviously non-human features. John also refers to “living creatures” with six wings, one of which had “a face like a man”. Clearly, earthly laws of biology and physics do not apply to visions of heaven.

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Words from paradise

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a work consisting of five movements each setting one word from the Bible. The words – holy, hallelujah, selah, hosanna and amen – are from Germanic, Hebrew, Greek and/or Latin, and are now different degrees of ‘English’.

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The first post for a while

I haven’t posted much recently for several reasons. In September my new job (as a magazine subeditor) unexpectedly came to an end. On my way home, I contacted the academic manager of my previous English language college, who said she’d arrange some classes for me, but that took some time. That afternoon, I looked at job advertisements, saw one for a subeditor position with another magazine, and applied. That also took some time, but I have now done two days casually, with a view to part-time ongoing then full-time permanent from next year. 

Around the same time, we were in the process of selling our existing house and buying a new one, which we have now done.

Then last week, my father died, so there were many things to be organised, most of which were done by my two sisters who live in that city. My wife and I, and another sister and her family, flew to that city for the funeral on Wednesday. 

I got a lot of my interest in English from my father. He was a regular crossword puzzle doer, preached in church almost every week, and would often go and get the dictionary if we challenged him over Sunday lunch about something he’d said. This did not extend to other languages, though; he failed Biblical Greek multiple times. One of his grand-daughters/my nieces has great interest in and aptitude for languages, but that might be through her father, not our side of the family. Continue reading