Thursday, February 26, 2009

Word and Etymology-- An Ancient Landmark

14(L) "You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.” (Deuteronomy 19:14, ESV)

I picked up a new book to read recently called “Exegetical Fallacies” (Second Edition) by D.A. Carson. Carson calls this book “an amateur’s collection of exegetical fallacies” (pg.26), and he isn’t joking—at the outset, that is what this book seems to be. I’ve only ready about 30 pages (maybe a little more) and I’m about ready to call this book a “laugher.” He starts his book out with word-study fallacies. The first fallacy Carson addresses is “the root fallacy”:

“One of the most enduring of errors, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually HAS A MEANING BOUND UP WITH ITS SHAPE OR COMPONENTS. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word. How many times have we been told that because the verbal cognate of ‘apostolos’ (Greek for ‘apostle’) is ‘apostello’ (I send), the root meaning of ‘apostle’ is ‘one who is sent’? often do preachers refer to the verb ‘agapao’ (to love), contrast it with ‘phileo’ (to love), and deduce that the text is saying something about a special kind of loving, for no other reason than that ‘agapao’ is used?” (28)

I find Carson’s opening statement regarding the root fallacy a bit disturbing. I mean, every word doesn’t have a meaning bound within itself? Are you kidding me? If words don’t have an inherent meaning, if a compound word isn’t made up of two or more words (that have a definite meaning), then how is language formed? How can humans communicate?

Let’s go on to see Carson’s argument regarding ‘apostello’ and ‘apostolos’:

“It is arguable that although ‘apostolos’ (apostle) is cognate with ‘apostello’ (I send), New Testament use of the noun does not center on the meaning ‘the one sent’ but on ‘messenger’. Now a messenger is usually sent; but the word ‘messenger’ also calls to mind the message the person carries, and suggests he represents the one who sent him. In other words, actual usage in the New Testament suggests that ‘apostolos’ commonly bears the meaning ‘a special representative’ or a ‘special messenger’ rather than ‘someone sent out’” (30).

I don’t see how “special messenger” and “someone sent out” are different. I mean, how many people are just naturally sent to run errands for the sake of running errands? That doesn’t make any sense. Usually when someone is “sent out,” they have a special message or specific message to deliver. If ‘apostello’ (what happens to the apostle, the verb) cannot be similar to ‘apostolos’ (the apostle, the noun), then our English words “driver” and “drive” do not belong to each other as well. If this is so, then the English language has just been destroyed in a day!!

Carson attempts to redeem himself in the same section but only sticks out even more like a sore thumb:

“I am not saying that any word can mean anything. Normally we observe that any individual word has a certain limited semantic range, and the context may therefore modify or shape the meaning of a word only within certain boundaries. The total SEMANTIC RANGE IS NOT PERMANENTLY FIXED, OF COURSE; WITH TIME AND NOVEL USAGE, IT MAY SHIFT CONSIDERABLY…even so, I am not suggesting that words are infinitely plastic. I am simply saying that the MEANING OF A WORD CANNOT BE RELIABLY DETERMINED BY ETYMOLOGY, OR THAT A ROOT, ONCE DISCOVERED, ALWAYS PROJECTS A CERTAIN SEMANTIC LOAD ONTO ANY WORD THAT INCORPORATES THAT ROOT…LINGUISTICALLY, MEANING IS NOT AN INTRINSIC POSSESSION OF A WORD; rather, ‘it is a set of relations for which a verbal symbol is a sign’” (32).

First he says, words can’t mean anything; but then he says that the semantic range changes over time. Then, he says that words are always flexible, that they do have fixed meanings. He seems to float somewhere in-between the inherent meaning of words and the plasticity of them; But the dagger thrown at the heart of language itself comes in Carson’s last words from the passage above:

“Linguistically, meaning is not an INTRINSIC POSSESSION of a word; rather, it is a set of relations for which a verbal symbol is a sign.”

What Carson is saying here, in so many words, is that words themselves do not carry an inherent meaning—a fixed definition that does not change over time. If this line of logic is taken to its full extent, the word “is” will no longer identify objects anymore—it could mean they are similar to it or appear to be similar to it. He said that words were not “infinitely plastic,” but neither do they have “an intrinsic possession” of meaning. I would object to Carson on the basis that word cognates serve as a reference point for which we can understand other words that may seem foreign to us.

Returning to Carson's comments about "apostello" and "apostolos," word cognates are a “foundation” for language. Think of a foundation of a house, for example. Without that strong, sturdy underlining of a house, the house could not stand. Jesus used the idea of foundations in a familiar passage about hearing His words and obeying them:

24(AL) "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like(AM) a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like(AN) a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it." (Matthew 7:24-27, ESV)

To the Lord Jesus Christ, foundation was important because the foundation would determine the endurance of the house built (in this case, listening to Christ’s words and obeying them would determine the success of a person in life). And I believe that foundations are central to everything we do. As I am learning in epistemology, knowing, for example, that the physical world is a component of reality keeps me from becoming a complete skeptic and adopting an idea that all the world is an illusion. If the physical, tangible objects around me are not reality, what is? And if I don’t have something such as the physical by which to weigh reality, then how do I KNOW that reality even EXISTS? I don’t.

Richard Weaver writes a great chapter in his book “Ideas Have Consequences” regarding the meaning behind words—a chapter called “The Power of the Word.” Here Weaver demonstrates the necessity of the Word in everyday language:

“As myth gives way to philosophy in the normal sequences we have noted, the tendency to see A PRINCIPLE OF DIVINITY in language endures. Thus we learn that in the late ancient world the Hebrew ‘mamra’ and the Greek ‘logos’ merged, and in the Gospel of John we find an explicit identification: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.’…a following verse declares that ‘logos’ as god lies behind the design of the cosmos, for ‘without him was not anything made that was made.’ Speech begins to appear the principle of intelligibility. So when wisdom came to man in Christ, in continuation of this story, ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ The allegory need give no difficulty; KNOWLEDGE OF THE PRIME REALITY COMES TO MAN THROUGH THE WORD; THE WORD IS A SORT OF DELIVERANCE FROM THE SHIFTING WORLD OF APPEARANCES” (149).

Go back to Genesis 1. What did God do when He decided to create the world?
“3And God said,(
C) "Let there be light," and there was light.”
The first thing God did was SPEAK light into existence. Notice that one of Adam’s tasks in the Garden was to name all the animals (Genesis 2:19). God gave man such power that the very words he spoke (in this case, the naming of the animals) was done—whatever Adam called them, whether “frog” or “dog,” that was their name. When Adam SPOKE a name, the name was “set in stone.” The name Adam gave was the name the creature held, no matter what it was.

Words, from the beginning, have been vital to human understanding of life. To put it briefly, they are “an ancient landmark”; and as the above verses from Deuteronomy 19 tell us, the ancient landmarks were not to be removed. While the context of Deuteronomy 19 pertains to property, I believe these words can describe the modern-day situation with words. There is a battle today going on between those who cherish the meaning of words vs. those who choose to strip every word down to nothing. To remove etymology (the study of word history) and “the ancient landmark” of the word from human language is to do humanity a major disgrace—for removing the word could also amount to removing “The Word,” Christ Jesus.

For the reader who desires to read more, I will examine more material from Richard Weaver’s chapter called “The Power of the Word” in the coming days. Stay tuned…

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