Monday, August 16, 2010

Has Hebrew gender usage influenced English?

Jim Hamilton asks this question in his post, Was Gender Usage in the English Language Shaped by the Old Testament in Hebrew?

I am quite open to considering that biblical usage has affected our language so I am willing to consider this. Jim opens his post with this context,
I’m not presenting a thesis here, just making some observations and posing a question. In the guidelines for a dictionary article I’m in the process of writing, I read this:

    In particular, articles should avoid referring to “man” (likewise “mankind,” “men,” “he,” “his” and so on) generically. Language often regarded as patriarchal should be modified to avoid giving wrong impressions.
Jim then discusses the use of the Hebrew word adam in Gen. 1 - 5, where it is used to refer to both men and women, to refer to the human race, and to refer to an individual person. (I have to ask, at this point, if the Hebrew word adam can refer to "a man" as a single male human being? If anyone can offer an example, that would be great.)

Next, he presents some thinking out loud on this topic. He makes some good points.

So let me rehearse some things we know, and then I’ll me ask my question: We know that William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible profoundly shaped the English language. We know that many, many users of the English language—people whose use of it is/was widely imitated by others, authors, poets, and such—were profoundly shaped by the use of the English language in the Bible, not least the stately King James. Knowing these things, here’s my question:

Was the generic use of the masculine (man, he, him, etc.) urged against in the quote above something that entered the English language because man is spoken of this way in the Hebrew of Genesis 1–2?

And having asked my question, I have another observation. Earle Ellis once explained that he quit the NRSV translation team once he realized that the translation was being driven by an egalitarian agenda. He noted that more literal translation philosophy results in the thought patterns and language uses employed in the Bible shaping the language of the target-culture, whereas more dynamic equivalent translations risk the target culture setting undue boundaries around the renderings of Bible translators.[1]

How shall a man respond to these things? He can be shaped by his culture, or he can speak and write the way the biblical authors did. If it was good enough for them . . .

Regarding the influence of Tyndale's translation, I would agree that it has had enormous influence, but I have also found that in certain cases, it has not had the influence that some people attribute to it. For example, an editor of the ESV told me that "propitiation" was in the Tyndale translation. However, it is fairly common knowledge that Tyndale created the word "atonement" to translate those Greek words that are normally translated as "propitiation" in the King James Bible. The use of the word "propitiation" was wrongly attributed to Tyndale's translation.

So, I am curious to see how Tyndale translated the Hebrew word adam. Usually, it is translated as "man" or "Adam." However, in Numbers 31 adam is translated as "women" because it refers to a group of all females. In the King James Version and subsequent Bibles, adam is translated as "persons" in Numbers 31.

Just this brief discussion provides some data. I will summarize as much relevant information as I can from this and other language resources.

The Hebrew word adam can be translated into English as

- a man
- Adam
- a human life
- persons
- women

I assume that it can also refer to a group of men, but I cannot come up with a reference for this.

The English word "man" can translate the following Hebrew words,

- adam
- enosh
- geber
- ish

So, right away, one can see that there is enormous difficulty in mapping Hebrew into English.

I believe the following is also useful information. In Hebrew, Greek, Latin and German, there were different words for "man" referring to human beings, and "man," a male/citizen. I personally think that we are better off in modern English with both "human being" and "man.."

Hebrew - adam/ish, geber
Greek - anthropos/aner
Latin - homo/vir
German - Mensch/Mann
Finally, I personally would go first to German and Middle English to find out the precedent of the word "man" in Tyndale's translation. In Luther's translation, of course, adam is translated by the word Mensch. I know that it might seem that the English word "man" is closest to the German word Mann, a male. However, that is not the case. In German, the word for "someone" is quite simply man, a person, a human being, a somebody, an indefinite pronoun referring to a person.

And in Middle English, of course, there is man, also "someone," an indefinite pronoun, as in German. For a male person, there is the word wer/were. And that is how we know that a werewolf is a male human being who transforms into a wolf at night.

If God had wanted to call the human race after male human beings, he would have needed to use a word designating maleness in Hebrew, and this might have been translated as were by Tyndale in an effort to be specific. We might have retained the word were in English, if the attribute of maleness had been considered important to the early translators. The human race might have been called were, which is just a little bit better than being called has been.

Somehow, I am in favour of asking the kind of questions that Jim Hamilton asks, but I find the research does not lead to simple answers. Or does it? Am I a man? Yes, I am a "somebody." Am I a woman? Yes, a stereotypic woman, in fact. Am I a were or a has been? No, but I will be some day, in the manner of all human beings.

Update: This is my response to Denny Burk's response to Jim Hamilton's discussion. I don't know whether Jim will publish my comments but this is what I posted on his blog.

Next, I would like to respond to these points of Denny Burk,

Usually, a linguistic justification goes something like this. “We can’t use generic masculines because language has changed, and we don’t want to confuse readers. Modern readers are likely to mistake generic “he” as a signifying only males. Therefore, we cannot use it.”

This justification at least has the merit of being linguistic, though I think it is profoundly wrong.


My research indicates to me that the following men mistook the generic "he" pronoun in 1 Tim. 5:8 for a reference to males only - Dennis Rainey, Russell Moore, Robert Sagers, Stuart Scott, John McArthur and Owen Strachan. It appears not only readers of the Bible are confused but also expounders of the Bible are confused.

I think feminists were right to argue that patriarchy is embedded in language (though I think they were wrong to attempt an artificial expunging of the usage). Masculine terms are routinely used in a generic sense in scores of languages, and I think the usage probably stems from a patriarchal impulse that originally informed the language. It’s ish then a derivative ishah. It’s man then a derivative womanor (womb-man).

To be parallel to Hebrew, we would need to see adam and adama as a parallel to "man" and "woman". However, adam and adama, are parallel to "human" and "humus", as Robert Alter translates them, in order to perserve the literalness of the Hebrew. Alter is commited to translating literally in order to reveal the meaning and the form of Hebrew, its poetry and rhythm.

I wouldn’t press any deep anthropological points as if men are therefore the “default” sex. But I do think that the name and its derivative reflects a patriarchal sense. That adam would stand for both man and woman is not surprising in this kind of a linguistic world. But it’s not just Hebrew. The phenomenon occurs in numerous languages.

Hebrew has four words which English translates as "man" and Greek, German and Latin have two words. English is much better able to indicate the Hebrew pattern if we use "human being" for adam, and "man" for ish. It is not a perfect match, but closer than simply using "man" for four distinct Hebrew words.

3 comments:

Don said...

Adam is the name of the man and woman in the garden, Gen 5:2. Some do not teach the 3 origins accounts in Genesis, just the first 2.

Before the Adam/human is split, the person is just called an Adam/human. Only after the split are the terms, ish/man and ishah/woman used.

And there are word plays going on, adam and adamah along with ish and ishah, where "ah" is the Hebrew way of making a noun grammatically feminine, even if in the latter case it only works when pronouncing the words (and not strictly when writing them), as the Torah was to be read out loud.

Another aspect is that God meets people and peoples where they are at, using terms they understand. We should not make too much nor too little of the fact that grammatical masculine terms are used for females; this was the way the language was, not the way God is.

Charis said...

Although I don't always leave a comment, I read and deeply appreciate your careful research and insight, Suzanne! I don't think the exact Hebrew words used are accidental on God's part.

Keep up the good work!

Muff Potter said...

Good point Don about the God of the Bible vs. the God in the Bible. It's so easy to get the two muddled.

I understand fully that Burk has a vested interest in maintaining the stay-tus kwoe and symbiosis of patriarchy within modern reformed thought. He has new young pastors to train and carry on the tradition.

But patriarchy is dying out. The internet is doing to it what moveable type presses and the Venetian booksellers did to the strangle-hold the Catholic Church had over the minds of Europeans in the 16th cent.

This is all on the one hand, and I agree that patriarchy should go on the dung hill of history. But on the other hand, will new translations of the Bible become so polarized gender wise that they resemble Mao's little red book more than a beautiful artform?