[b-hebrew] Re: nephesh mot

furuli at online.no furuli at online.no
Tue Aug 26 01:59:40 EDT 2003

Dear Peter,

You wrote:

>>Dear Peter,
>>I note that you do not entirely agree with the saying that a word 
>>has no meaning without a context. But you did not answer my 
>>questions regarding the three Hebrew words I mentioned. Such an 
>>answer could reveal the degree of your agreement/disagreement with 
>>the mentioned saying.
>I did answer your question, at least implicitly. No words, including 
>the three you asked about, are entirely meaningless out of context, 
>though the sense in which a grammatical particle can be said to have 
>a meaning out of context is debatable. Well, you make things easier 
>below by restricting this to substantives (nouns).

Now we are approaching a stage where we can get some substance out of 
this discussion. You state correctly, though in the negative, that no 
words are entirely meaningless out of context. But still you have not 
said what you put in the word "meaning".  And this is the basic 
weakness of most discussions regarding the question "What does this 
word mean". What do we mean by "mean"?

A common fallacy is to think that the *meaning* of a Hebrew word is 
found in  Hebrew/English lexicons. What we find there are *glosses* - 
English words that have been used to translate this particular Hebrew 
word - and not *word meaning* (I know you agree regarding this).

The fallacy on which the "lexicon-fallacy" builds, is that a 
situation of translation (which is communication) is handled as if it 
were a situation of non-translation (communication inside the source 
language).  A "presupposition pool" is the common knowledge and 
understanding of the world which a particular group has built on 
their language, their culture, their religion, and everyday life". 
There is one situation of communication between individuals having 
the same presupposition pool (e.g. a native Hebrew seeing the word 
NEPESH in different contexts) and a complete different situation when 
communication between individuals having different presupposition 
pools is sought (e.g. translation from Hebrew to English).  If this 
is not appreciated -  and it seldom is -  the result of one's quest 
for meaning will be hopelessly inadequate.

In a situation of translation it is true that "a word does not have a 
meaning without a context".  Modern Hebrew/English lexicons are built 
on the principle of induction (and much theology).  To find the 
Hebrew glosses to use for a particular Hebrew word, the authors had 
to look at the contexts where the word was used.  What they found was 
not "the lexical meaning" of the word but the "translational 
meaning". In contrast, when we deal with a situation of communication 
inside one presupposition pool, it is utterly false to say that "a 
word does not have a meaning without a context".  Such a saying would 
imply that "lexical meaning" is found in a written document or in the 
sounds of speech - but this is a third fallacy!  Lexical meaning 
("lexical semantics") is found in the *minds* of living people -those 
who have the same presupposition pool.

The native Hebrew had already a lexical entry in his or her mind 
which was triggered when NEPE$  was seen or heard. He or she did not 
need a lexicon or a context for this entry to be triggered.  Exactly 
the same is the case when we read or hear "snow", "man" or " kill" - 
or perhaps better - when we hear the word "meaning" (we have a notion 
when we hear this word, although specification is highlyneeded). We 
do not need a lexicon or a context to get a particular notion - it 
comes instantly. True,  by just hearing the words, we know nothing 
about "the reference", nor are we aware of any stress or 
specification. But the "meaning" of the *words* - and word meaning is 
what we are speaking about - are triggered in our minds. Therefore, I 
would say that the entry in the "mental lexicon" is THE MEANING of 
the word, from the point of view of lexical semantics (not from the 
point of view of translation). So your saying that  "No words... are 
entirely meaningless out of context" is an understatement. The 
context is not needed at all in connection with the *lexical meaning* 
of a  Hebrew word, because this meaning is found in the Hebrew mind. 
But for the purpose of reference, of modification, specification, 
stress etc the context is needed, but in this connection we should 
not speak of lexical semantics (lexical meaning).

There are many advantages with modern theories of Bible translation - 
and these are all the time changing and being more refined. One basic 
weakness, however, in most of these theories (as I see it) is the 
lack of stress of the role of the native human mind in connection 
with word meaning (Psycho-linguistics). In an attempt to clothe the 
message in modern words that the readers can understand, the role of 
the context is highly exaggerated. And little or no attempt is made 
to let the reader have a part in the translation process, by choosing 
renderings that let the readers do the final interpretation rather 
than the translator. The food is completely chewed by the 
translators! I see the advantages of modern translations that 
"specify" the uses of Nepe$ - interpreting its uses for the reader - 
by using many different words.  However, it does not serve the 
interests of the readers that they are not told that by this approach 
some of the original meaning (yes, I say "meaning") is lost and other 
meaning is added - to the point where there is much "noise" in the 
communication (the communication of NEPE$ to the modern reader is 
somewhat distorted).  This unhappy side-effect is unavoidable and 
should not prevent the making of meaning-based translations. However 
- and this is very important - meaning-based translations should be 
complemented by literal translations! Because these have both 
advantages and disadvantages that meaning-based translations do not 
have, and can help the readers to see texts from different angles.

The advantage of the literal translation is that lexical meaning 
(connected with the mind) is directly communicated between the author 
in the source language and the recipient in the target language (e.g. 
NEPE$  triggered one concept in the mind of the native speaker, and 
one word "soul" can be used to trigger one concept in the modern 
mind).  The disadvantage is that many modern persons already has, 
because of religious dogma, a concept of "soul" which is very far 
from the original NEPE$. This means that the challenge of the modern 
reader of the literal translation is to purge his or her mental 
concept "soul" by looking at the contexts where "soul " occurs in the 
Tanakh. In this way the reader will have a part in the very 
translation process, because looking at a word in context is 

It is a pity that modern textbooks and courses for Bible translators 
teach that functional equivalence and meaning-based translation  are 
the only viable methods of translation. These are fine methods 
serving good purposes, but the exclusion of the literal approach 
leads Bible readers in a direction which prevents them from 
understanding what lexical meaning really is.

>Peter Kirk
>peter at qaya.org (personal)
>peterkirk at qaya.org (work)

Best regards

Rolf Furuli

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