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Nov 12 / Steve Runge

Choice and meaning

I am posting a portion of the introduction found in the glossary to provide better background for the post tomorrow. Generally speaking, your analysis of a passage will only be as sound as your theoretical framework. If you invest in your framework, and it will pay dividends.

 One of the key presuppositions of my approach is that choice implies meaning. For instance, if a writer chooses an adverbial participle to describe an action, then theoretically there is some meaning associated with its use that using an indicative verb would not have communicated. Words mean things, and different words mean different things. This is a fundamentally different issue than assigning a syntactic force to a word, or determining an appropriate translation. Let’s unpack this idea a bit more.

If I choose to do X when y and z are also available options, this means that I have at the same time chosen not to do Y or Z.  In similar ways, we are constantly faced with decisions about how to phrase things, how to best organize what we want to say.  Most of these decisions are made without much thought, subconsciously. As native speakers of the language, we just do what ‘fits best’ based on what we want to communicate in the context.  Though we may not think consciously about these decisions, we are nonetheless making them.

Linguists have found that although there is tremendous diversity among languages, every language has to accomplish the same basic tasks. For instance, if I want to tell you a story about the first time I went rock climbing, I need to accomplish several tasks, like

  • introducing the people who are involved in the story,
  • setting the time, place and situation in which the story occurs,
  • providing background information that I  think you might need to understand the story (that I have a fear of heights, perhaps).

Once the scene is set and I am telling the story, I also need to do other things, like:

  • helping you track who is doing what to whom,
  • clearly communicating changes in time, place or participants,
  • deciding what information I want to group together in a single sentence, and what I want to break into separate sentences,
  • choosing which part of the story is the climax, and using the appropriate signals to communicate that to you.

Regardless of whether I am speaking or writing, I still need some means of accomplishing all of these tasks, besides many others.  Since there is a common set of tasks that all languages need to be accomplish, we can use these tasks as a descriptive framework to describe what each different grammatical device accomplishes. They can provide an organizational framework for description, helping us understand the meaningful difference between choosing x versus y.

The devices that I describe in the Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament are organized by task, not by morphology or syntax. One of these tasks is ‘forward-pointing’, where a device is used to create anticipation about something before the ’something’ is actually mentioned. Though there are several different forward-pointing devices (e.g. meta-comments), each one accomplishes a slightly different task than the other, or is used in a different kind of context. They also use different grammatical devices: some use particles, others use pronouns, but they all accomplish the same basic task of pointing forward to somthing surprising or important.

Describing devices by the task they accomplish allows us to see both the similarities and the differences. Using this task-based framework also allows us to make apples-to-apples comparisons with English by talking about how the comparable forward-pointing task is accomplished in English that we are studying in Greek.

There are a number of ways that Greek and English differ, making it difficult to understand Greek using an English-based descriptive framework. At times it can be like putting the proverbial square peg in a round hole. A function-based approach enables us to understand Greek on its own terms as Greek. At the same time, it also provides a framework for making analogy to English based on how the comparable task is accomplished, regardless of  whether the same grammatical device is used or not. This function-based grammatical approach what I mean by discourse grammar.

This post outlines one of the “prime directives” (for you Trekkies out there) that under-girds my approach to discourse analysis. I did a project that annotates the most significant discourse features found in the Greek NT. The annotated features are displayed on an interlinear text that has been block-outlined to provide a propositional breakdown of the text’s flows. Click the link to learn more about the LDGNT and HDNT, its English-based counterpart. Tune in tomorrow for a second installment on meta-comments, focusing on Galatians 1. If you want to know more about me, read my first post for some background.

Remember what they say, “Opera philologorum non effeminatis sunt.” Ideas on the translation?

2 Comments

  1. Rick Brannan / Nov 12 2008

    Oooh, I know. But I won’t spoil it. I’ll only say it is a Latin translation of something attributed to Fred Danker.

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