Are Grammar and Thought Inherently Related

6:45 AM Last night I was prepping for our LXX class in the spring semester (which I’m co-teaching with my esteemed Old Testament colleague, Chip Hardy), and I thought to myself, “Our once casual relationship with Greek and Hebrew is about to transition to ‘It’s complicated.'” I honestly don’t remember how I decided to offer this course years ago. I think I just sent an email to my dean saying, “I want to do one. Haha.” You know, like how Sir Edmund Hillary informed his friends he wanted to climb Mount Everest. “Summiting the world’s highest mountain. I may want to do that. Haha.” Well, we pushed the button, and the rest is history. This is now the fourth (or fifth) time we’ve done this. There are plenty of obstacles to keep us busy. The first fallacy we have to deal with is the supposed difference between Hebrew and Greek thought. Hebrew, we are told, is obviously good. Greek is irretrievably bad. Hebrew thought is better because it is holistic, concrete, and dynamic. We are told, furthermore, that the whole Bible, including the New Testament (written in Greek), is based on the Hebrew attitude and approach. We are reminded that the aim of the Hebrew system is da’ath Elohim (“Know God”), whereas the Greeks emphasized gnothi seauton (“Know thyself”). Thus in the Greek system, knowledge is emphasized; in the Hebrew system, the goal is to shape the character of the student. It’s Athens versus Jerusalem all over again. Listen, it’s all very simple. The Hebrew language was used by God to deliver His truth to Hebrew speakers. The Greek language was used by the same God to deliver His truth to Greek speakers. A “Christian” worldview bestrides them both.

I recall someone arguing that Hebrew is action-oriented because of its unmarked word order: verb, then subject. In English we say, “God created.” In Hebrew we say, “He created, God.” This is said to reveal ” … the dynamic variety of the Hebrew’s thinking” (Thorlief Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, p. 28). Ergo, Hebrew thinking is dynamic; Greek thinking is static. What, then, do you do with languages like Korean, where the verb comes at the end of the sentence? Or German, which has a mish-mash of word order depending on whether the clause is a main clause or a subordinate clause: “I know that the student is good because he has studied” = “Ich weiss dass der Student gut ist weil er studiert hat” (lit., “I know that the student good is because he studied has”). Speak like Yoda I can! Woohoo!

And then there’s the question, “Which language is easier to learn: Hebrew or Greek?” Some say that Greek grammar is more complex than Hebrew. Others argue that Hebrew grammar is more complicated than Greek. After all, “Hebrew often lacks a verb in its sentence!” Huh? Of course there’s a verb there. It’s just implied, as in the Greek sentence Ho anthropos agathos, “The man is good.” This phenomenon even occurs in English: “KNX News Radio time, 10:30.” My opinion is that if you enjoy learning languages, you’ll find neither Greek nor Hebrew to be very difficult. You’ll probably have to work harder at your Hebrew vocabulary simply because Greek shares more cognates with English. But vocabulary acquisition is simply a matter of rote memory.

The bottom line: I think it’s a bit misleading to insist that grammar and thought are inherently related. There are just too many philosophical difficulties inherent in any theory of mental representations. Human language is an adequate vehicle to communicate divine truth. Every human language. Just ask Wycliffe Bible Translators.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

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