Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Generic Pronoun 'he' II

I am studying the generic pronoun 'he' in order to better understand The TNIV and the Gender Neutral Bible Controversy. Last week I opened my study of the generic pronoun 'he' with this remark.

    There are now two distinct views on the generic pronoun 'he'. One is that it "refers to a person whose gender is unspecified" and the other is that it "refers to a male who is to be taken as the representative member of the group referred to by its antecedent." The first of these two definitions is the classic understanding. However, it appears the 'he' has been redefined.
In Poythress and Grudem's book, mentioned above, they insist that the generic pronoun 'he' refers to a male who represents the group, and that meaning is lost if it is not translated as 'he' in English. At this point one might assume that the generic pronoun 'he' exists in Greek. You would take that for granted. Why else make such a fuss about it?

I only own Greek-English Dictionaries, since I don't usually work from English back into Greek. So I went to the online Greek dictionary here. I then tried to input the word 'he'. There were no results. I have used this search tool extensively so I know that it is not defective. I have also looked up 'he' in many English dictionaries and indeed it always works.

Does this mean that there is no word for 'he' in Greek? Yes, that is, in fact, correct. And the authors of this book don't know that? No, they don't. How did that happen? I don't know.

I do know what the word is that is usually translated as 'he' in English. It is the word for 'self,' 'the same', or the third person singular pronoun. There is no lexical entry for 'he' but there is a word which, if conjugated in a certain way, can be used to refer to a masculine antecedent. However, it has no semantic content for 'he'. It means "the same one that we were just talking about" and can have grammatical marking for the masculine, feminine or neuter. It comes in four cases, three genders and two numbers, singular and plural. (also dual) In the dictionary this word αυτος is given the meaning, "he, she, it" as one possible meaning.

Since grammatical endings by themselves are not considered to relate to sex in reality, but occur for every noun, i.e. table, book, pen, etc., no one really thinks that they conjure up images of a certain sex ie. the male. They are grammatical markings that connect pronouns to antecedents.

Αυτος with the masculine ending might just as well refer to a book or a stone as a man.

Let me repeat, 'he' is not an entry in the English - Greek dictionary and it is not a lexical unit. I can't explain why Poythress and Grudem think that it is. I have written more about The TNIV and the Gender Neutral Bible Controversy here.

I can only guess that if you don't already know that there is an English-Greek dictionary for classical Greek you can't actually use it. Yet these men were entrusted with the oversight of a English Bible translation project.

The TNIV and the Gender Neutral Bible Controversy is on the topic of the generic pronoun 'he' in Bible translation, but all argumentation surrounds the English pronoun 'he' not the Greek pronoun, 'he, she, it.' The authors state that the omission of 'he' in the TNIV accounts for several thousand 'inaccuracies' in this translation.


Anonymous said...

Hi Suzanne, an online friend referred me to your blog and I have enjoyed it.

I have to say I found the idea of the Greek language not having a word for "he" to be a bit bizzare, so I clicked the link you provided to the online Greek dictionary. I noticed it includes a list of "stop words" it identifies as "words considered too common to be indexed." I clicked the link to the list, and it includes "he." If I understand correctly, that means that you didn't find the word "he" in the dictionary because it is exceedingly common, not because it doesn't exist. This still does not address its use as a generic pronoun, and I don't know whether or not it affects your comments about the "word usually translated as 'he.'"

I'd appreciate hearing any further thoughts you have on this. (I am NOT trying to pick a fight -- just trying to understand this. And I have no background in Greek. I am egalitarian, so I am no fan of Grudem's POV on gender, but I do want to be sure of the accuracy of any arguments I may use to refute his claims!)


Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks, yes, part of putting something out on the internet is to be corrected, so I will try the dictionary again as you say.

Now, of course, αυτος, autos is a masculine form of the pronoun. However, lexically it means 'the same one', and then with a masculine grammatical ending, it means 'he'.

However, is this a good argument against using 'he' is English. Not necessarily, accept that it is an argument against saying that it must be 'he'. If you change 'he' to 'they' you are not losing lexical content, but grammatical gender, and this is done all the time. So this is an argument against proving that the TNIV is "untrustworthy".

Suzanne McCarthy said...


I have looked at the stop words and see what you mean. But this does not change my basic argument, that the gender occurs at the grammatical level, not at the lexical or semantic level. There is no equivalence between the two terms.

Since this is a blog, I shall continue and try to add links to articles which serve as better resources. See also the discussion on the Better Bibles Blog.

Anonymous said...

Cool. I really appreciate your answer. Thanks, Suzanne, for taking the time to clarify this for me!