Language &
LinguisticsThe existence of the creation is proof that there is a Creator. “For every house is builded by some man; but he that built all things is God” (Hebrews 3:4).

by Daniel Botkin


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     If there is a house, it is obvious that someone built it. Only a fool would look at a house and say, “Nobody built that. There is no builder.” How much more foolish it is to look at the universe with all its marvels and say, “Nobody made that. There is no Creator.”  This is the reason the Bible calls atheists fools.  “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalm 14:1).

     “The heavens reveal the glory of God; and the firmament showeth His handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard” (Psalm 19:1-3).

     The creation speaks in a voice which can be understood by anyone, regardless of the language they speak.  The creation declares to all men that the Creator exists and that the Creator is glorious.

     The creation declares the Creator’s existence and the Creator’s glory. However, the creation does not declare the Creator’s will for men. The creation does not tell us how to be justified with God, nor does the creation tell us how God wants justified people to live. As Job’s friend Bildad said, “How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?  Behold even to the moon, and it shineth not; yea, the stars are not pure in His sight. How much less man, that is a worm? and the son of man, which is a worm?” (Job 25:4ff).

     We can scan the heavens for the answer to Bildad’s question, but the heavens will remain silent. We can gaze at the glory of the full moon suspended in a star-lit sky above the mountains and we will see the glory of God, but we will not see the will of God. The heavens declare God’s glory to us, but they do not tell us how God wants us to live. For that information, we must look to a different source:

The Holy Scriptures of God.

     The creation declares the existence of God and the glory of God, but we need the Holy Scriptures to tell us the will of God. Psalm 19 demonstrates this two-fold revelation of God. The first half of Psalm 19 speaks about the glory of God which is revealed in the dumb elements of the creation. Then suddenly the psalmist changes the subject in the middle of the psalm, and starts talking about the law of the LORD and His testimonies and statutes and command-ments.  Why the sudden mid-psalm change? Because we are progressing from a revelation of God’s glory to a revelation of God’s will, and the revelation of His will is found in the pages of the Sacred Text that we call the Bible.

     God reveals His glory in His creation, but He chose to communicate His will and His desires linguistically, through language. Language consists of words and phrases which represent various things in the world and things beyond the world. These words and phrases combine with one another to express ideas which the speaker (or writer) wishes to communicate to the hearer (or reader).

     Because the Bible is God’s linguistic revelation of His will, it is of the utmost importance that we approach it with a sincere desire to understand and interpret it in the way He intended it to be understood and interpreted. In other words, we need to understand and interpret God’s linguistic revelation as a linguistic revelation. To properly do that, it helps to be aware of some linguistic principles and phenomena.

     When I was in graduate school in 1985, I took courses in linguistics and language learning. This was at a secular state university, yet much of what I learned in these courses helped me in my study of the Scriptures. Why was it helpful? Because the Scriptures are God’s linguistic revelation and because this linguistic revelation is written in languages which are foreign to nearly all Americans. Unless you were raised in a tri-lingual family and grew up fluently speaking ancient Greek, Aramaic, and Biblical Hebrew, the Bible is written in languages which are foreign to you. Therefore it can be helpful to know some things about foreign language learning and linguistics.

     Some people might say, “But we have lots of good English translations. Why do we need to be aware of linguistic stuff?”

     For two reasons. First, because language is far more complex than most people realize. When I took courses in linguistics and language learning in graduate school, I was amazed to learn how clueless I was about language. And I was not some uneducated redneck moron. I had graduated from university, and I had studied  a few foreign languages: two years of Spanish in high school; ten months of intensive full-time Hebrew classes in Israel; a semester of Biblical Greek at a Christian college; continued independent studies of Hebrew and Greek. But even with my experience and knowledge, I did not realize how complex language is. Through this exposure to the complexity of language, I came to realize that God’s linguistic revelation, the Bible, includes all the linguistic complexities that exist in language. I realized that linguistic phenomena have to be taken into consideration when attempting to understand and interpret God’s linguistic revelation to man.

     A second reason linguistics is helpful for understanding and interpreting the Bible is because the Bible, as stated earlier, is written in foreign languages. Yes, we have English translations. And we should thank the Lord for good translators, especially for those early English translators like Wyclif and Tyndale who risked their lives (and in the case of Tyndale, lost his life) to translate the Bible into English for the English-speaking world. But even if the Bible had originally been written in English, some knowledge of linguistics would be necessary to correctly understand and interpret the text, because English is no less complex than other languages. In some ways it is more complex.

     We look at a simple word like get and we think we know what it means.  We might tell a foreign student who is trying to learn English that get means “to obtain, to acquire.”  That’s generally true, but then we have all sorts of ways that the word get is combined with other words, resulting in very different meanings.  Just a few examples:

get out = go

get in = come

get going = start

get through = finish

get over = recover

get back = return

get it = understand

get by = survive

get off = remove oneself

get a grip = control oneself

get with it = cooperate

get my goat = annoy me

Just as the English word get can have many different meanings which are determined by the context, so there are words in other languages that can have various meanings which are determined by the context. I taught English as a Second Language to foreign students for seven years. Through this experience I became even more aware of how complex and complicated language learning and languages are, especially English.

     Of course the Bible was not originally written in English, so it had to be translated for English-speaking people. As any serious translator knows, you always lose something in a translation, even if the translation is good and correct. A good translation will not give you a wrong understanding of the text, but it often will give you a limited and incomplete understanding. If you are not reading the text in its original language, you will often be deprived of subtle nuances of certain words, or of plays on words, or of alliteration, or of other alternative meanings possible in the text. A Jewish writer once remarked that reading a translation of the Hebrew Bible is like kissing a beautiful woman with a veil over her face. It’s enjoyable, but not nearly as good as kissing her unveiled mouth.

     “But Daniel, I have my Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. I can use that to look up the meanings of words in Hebrew and Greek.” That’s fine. I believe that Strong’s is probably the most useful study tool that exists for English-speaking people. However, keep in mind that the Hebrew and Greek lexicons in Strong’s give you only very brief, basic definitions of words, and they do not show you the words in all their possible forms. As stated earlier, language is far more complex than most people realize. And translation is even more complex. Consider the following quote from Introduction to Language by Victoria Fromkin:

     “Translation is more than word-for-word replacement. Often there is no equivalent word in the target language, and the order of words may differ, as in translating from a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) language like English to a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) language like Japanese. There is also difficulty in translating idioms, metaphors, jargon, and so on. These problems are dealt with by human translators because they know the grammars of the two languages and draw on general knowledge of the subject matter and the world to arrive at the intended meaning” (p. 374f).

     People who mistakenly assume that translation from one language to another is nothing more than word-for-word replacement come up with some rather bizarre (and often funny) translations.  Such translations can often be seen in foreign countries on signs that are printed and posted to “help” English-speaking tourists.  Fromkin lists a few examples in her book:

u  “Utmost of chicken with smashed pot” (restaurant in Greece)

u “Nervous meatballs” (Restaurant in Bulgaria)

u “The nuns harbor all diseases and have no respect for religion” (Swiss nunnery hospital)

u “Certified midwife: entrance sideways (Jerusalem)

     Here are several more examples, compiled by Nino L. Bella, an Associated Press writer:

u “Come inside and have a fit” (Brussels clothing store)

u “Special today - no ice cream” (Swiss mountain inn)

u “Dreaded veal cutlet” (Moroccan restaurant)

u “Specialist in women and other diseases” (Roman doctor)

u “As for the trout served at the hotel Monopol, you will be singing its praises to your grandchildren as you lie on your deathbed” (Polish hotel restaurant)

u “To make to advance the up or the down movement please depressing the button for the desirable floor. If is not advancement, please scream for assistance, and it surely will be forthcoming. Blessings on you” (Bangkok elevator)

     I have the packaging from a set of “Children Chopsticks,” which, according to the front of the package, are “Conducive to the Intelligent Development.”  On the back of the package are the instructions, which are called “Decomposition method.”  The Decomposition method is printed as follows:


1.  which one chopstick in the jaws of death, ring finger and little finger in the following withstood the middle on the middle of the two chopsticks, training below;

2.  the thumb and middle finger side of the clamped second chopsticks, chopstick stability index finger caught in the middle two fingers;

3.  use the bottom of the chopsticks to move the index finger and middle finger to pick up a movement above;

4.  when the grip of food, the thumb firmly lock the two chopsticks, then success of the dish;

5.  Training is effective in preventing the chopsticks tamper with, auxiliary clip fresh.

Made in China”

     On the positive side, I did not see any spelling errors.  On the negative side, I cannot understand their description of this Decomposition method.  It reminds me of a packet of sauce for Chinese food that I once saw.  One of the ingredients listed on the packet was “green stuff.”  If President Trump can’t make America great again by bringing jobs back here from China, maybe he can at least send some native English speakers to China to help the Chinese with their translating.

     We can shake our heads and smile and enjoy a good laugh from seeing these poor attempts to translate things into English. But it makes me wonder: Do the angels and the Lord shake their heads and laugh at our pathetic attempts to explain spiritual truths?

     “We know in part, we prophesy in part,” the Bible says (1 Cor. 13:9). God’s ways and thoughts are much higher than ours. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8f).

     With our partial knowledge, and our limited linguistic abilities, and our own thoughts and ways that interfere with our understanding of the Lord’s thoughts and ways, I wonder how intelligible and accurate our “prophesying in part” sounds to the angels and to the Lord. I suspect it sounds much like some of those “English” signs in foreign countries sound to us. But the Lord loves us. Even if our prophesying in part miscommunicates what the Lord really wants to say, He knows our hearts. If our miscommunication does not do any serious harm, maybe it provides a good laugh for the angels.