Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Exegeting humble pie

Many amateur linguists use John’s gospel as their first extended text in a target language. John’s imagery is concrete, the language simple, and the repetitive, poetic style makes it easier to master new vocabulary words. You reach the end of Yuhanna, finding yourself able to comprehend more and more entire sentences, and pat yourself on the back. "Wow! I’m actually able to read this new language!"

For a dose of reality, turn the page. Luke, native speaker of Greek, master stylist, author of the longest gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, and perhaps of the Epistle to the Hebrews, promptly punctures pretensions. The percentage of readable sentences plummets, the dictionary gets a workout, and all the new words create severe speed bumps.

Why does Luke have to use so many synonyms?

Then, there’s the problem of word usage across three languages (Luke’s Greek, your English, and the target language). For example, in Acts 18:26, we encounter the word biçim, which is defined as "form, shape, manner, way." Then, in Acts 18:28 we meet şekil, which is defined as "form, shape, diagram, illustration."

Say what?

A quick look at the original text reveals that, in both cases, the word in question needs to be combined in thought with the verb immediately following it to approximate the meaning of a single Greek verb.

Oh. Young reader, you have much further to go than you had planned on!

Bit of trivia thrown in just for fun. There is only one Malay word that got adopted into English. It has two correct spellings, and is always combined with the English verb run.

The word? amok/amuck.

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