An American Editor

January 5, 2010

On Books: Words, Language, and Understanding

I know that many of the world’s controversies can find their root in the original book, the Bible. But what makes the Bible the definitive source of God’s words?

I don’t ask this irreverently; rather, I wonder how we, thousands of years after the Bible was first written, know what is the true word of God and what isn’t. What brings this to mind was my recent reading of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler (available in print but not in ebook). Just reading the prologue to this book, which discusses the exchange between Cortes and Montezuma during Cortes’ conquest of Mexico, was sufficient to raise questions. Further reading of the text merely emphasizes the wonderment of languages.

Language is much more than strokes on a tablet. There are subtleties in phrasing, in meaning, in choice of gender (and what about those languages that do not have gender forms?), in tense, in numbers, and so on that translation from one language to another is rarely precise. In America, where we supposedly speak the same version of English, there are regionalisms that can alter meaning. China has hundreds of dialects.

So how do we get from the original Bible to today’s Bible with uniform meaning in all languages and dialects. The St. James version was created by committee, members of which argued over translation and meaning and choosing the correct word in English. And languages change over time; the English of Shakespeare is not the English of Hemingway or King, and certainly not the English (or its derivative) that was spoken at the time that Aramaic was dominant in the Middle East.

If the original Bible was truly God’s word, I must assume that it was dictated, letter by letter, word by word, comma by comma, but not taken in some form of shorthand. Otherwise it would not be God’s word but the scribe’s interpretation of God’s word. The concepts are captured but not the words. When God said 7 days, did God really say 7 days or was that the scribe’s interpretation?

This questioning doesn’t detract from the importance of the Bible as a guiding document in human lives and history. Rather, it illustrates the problems of language and words and grammar and understanding, and emphasizes the importance of a good editor who has a grasp of these problems.

Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World is a book that should be read by every lover of language for the insight it gives on the development of languages and why some succeed, such as English, and some do not, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, and for the insight it gives into how difficult it is for modern man to discern ancient truths.

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