Pie is not always good for you, even when Logos is the baker [[UPDATED]]

pie-009.jpg

So, I’m new to Logos. About a month in. I used to only have and use Accordance but I recently decided to swap. I’ve been really pleased so far with the software. It’s certainly a new interface to grapple with, but there's many features I already really appreciate (e.g. the pre-packaged searches, the extensive hyper-linked material). However, one of the features that initially impressed me, has honestly become more of a debbie-downer the more I think about it. Mainly because of how much potential there is in its resourcefulness, and the unfortunate way I think it plays—negatively—to your typical "lay Bible student's" weaknesses.

Well, I get right to it: it's the pie chart that shows up when you perform a “Bible Word Study”. What you do is right click the word you’d like to research, opt for the “Bible Word Study” and then presto! A complete analysis of the selected lexeme is offered to you. Here is a picture of the collapsed headings which signify the type of information presented (more pictures of expanded headings will be given below).

Collapsed headings of "Bible Word Study" tool

 

So as you can see, a number of features are highlighted concerning the word you’re investigating. No qualms here. The knots come when I open up the “Translation” heading. It reveals a trendy looking display of color categorized translation values that are associated with the target word of any Bible translation you've select. Here’s a picture.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 4.58.57 PM

 

And then—I’m guessing this is how the designers expect it to work—if I see a translation that might fit the text I’m looking at, I can click on that English gloss and every occurrence is then listed below (all according, of course, to however your chosen Bible translation has rendered the target lexeme, viz. different versions may translate the same word differently). From here, I can piddle around and see how different versions handle the selected lexeme. Similarly, once a translation value is selected, that piece of the pie becomes separated from the rest. Here’s what it looks like (I selected περι :: "about").

peri after

So far so good, right? Well, not so much. One of the downsides, in my opinion, is that within these selected pieces of pie (i.e. glosses) there may be a number of different meanings expressed through the same translation. While this can be a bit harder to illustrate with words like verbs,[1] this point can particularly be made with particles—so that's the primary angle we'll come from for now.

As an example, I've taken a screenshot below of a selection that represents three different meanings that are associated with the preposition μετα—Manner (Mt 13.20), Means (Mt 14.7), and Association (Mt 15.30)—but the target language translation (English, in this case) doesn’t necessarily have to represent any one of these particular usages.

Manner. Means. Association.

So in other words, translations are not meaning specific; they do not point to a particular or singular meaning. Rather, they point to many meanings, and convey multiple scenarios.

But, you ask, should we expect anything more from a translation or gloss? Great question. My answer: I sure hope not! But unfortunately, many of us—whether we’d like to admit it or not—do. We kinda lazily content ourselves with going no further than matching a good English gloss up with the target text we’re looking at. Rarely do we dig into what’s really being communicated by a particle, or what concept is being related through an adjective.

[[ I know this might not describe you, but I also know it did me for quite some time (and many other Hebrew and Greek babies that I’ve grown up with). But in case you’re still not buying, I’ll back up my assessment with the following concern that dovetails with the previous. ]]

The other downside is more of a cautionary concern I have with how other users may interact with this aspect of the “Bible Word Study”. I think for many students of the Bible who are vaguely familiar with the biblical languages it is easy to assume that a word like עִם or κοινωνἰα means with or fellowship because that’s what the lexicon says. In other words, that the meaning(s) of a given Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic) word can be found by seeing what target language gloss the lexicographers have provided in a selected entry. I know this because this is how I thought (and my friends thought) before and during my first couple years of being introduced to these languages. What I didn’t realize—and what I think many others still don’t—is that this is the wrong way to dance with a lexicon.

Back in 1973, James Barr laid down the law, saying:

“It is probably the popular impression of the dictionary that in furnishing this brief indication the lexicographer is “telling us the meaning”. This however is hardly so. These simple equivalents can hardly be dignified with the term ‘meanings’; they are rather glosses, rough indications, sufficient to furnish an approximate impression of what word it is and how it functions. They are useful in a number of ways: in a learning situation, they enable the learner to assimilate the new words more easily; in cases of homonymy and other ambiguities, they provide convenient labels [… b]ut they are not themselves meanings nor do they tell us the meanings; the meanings reside in the actual Hebrew usage, and for real semantic analysis the glosses have no greater value than that of indicators or labels for a meaning which resides in the Hebrew itself and which depends on the prior experience of the scholar (or, in ancient times, of the actual speaker of Hebrew).” (Barr 1973:120; italics original; bold added)

So, when I open up my “Bible Word Study” and the first thing that my eyes are drawn to is a hip looking pie chart, I’m saddened when I see that the ingredients consist of various translation values or glosses. Isn't there a better recipe?

At this point you may (rightly) push back and say, “Well Kris, what about the ‘Sense’ category I saw above in the collapsed heading? Why knock the translation based pie chart when they have a section dedicated to describing the “senses” of a lexeme?”

To this I would love to say “touché”, but unfortunately the majority of the sections titled “Senses” were filled in with the simple remark “no results”.

Screen Shot 2013-08-27 at 9.56.35 PM

I checked a number of Greek and Hebrew lexemes to see if this one lexeme (i.e. μετἀ)  was just an exception. What I found was that it seemed that open class lexemes (e.g. nouns and verbs) were in fact filled in by a number of different senses, but that closed class lexemes (e.g. particles) were largely void of any content (e.g. Hebrew: לְ ,אֵל ,עַד ,אַך ,בְּ  and Greek: αλλα, εν, οτι, εαν, απο, προς, ηδη). And honestly, worst case scenario, we could possibly settle for the nouns or adjectives merely being represented by a simple variety of glosses (cf. fn 1), but it’s the particles that are the most crucial to have this information provided—and this is where there is a shortage the most.

[[ See UPDATE(d) comments below on my remarks, here. ]]

Yikes.

There seems to be a juggernaut of glosses that can’t be beat when it comes to lexicographical and lexicological work. This tradition of gloss-dependence goes back many moons. Imbayarwo (2008:27) remarks that

“in Europe, ‘glosses’ seem to have been the earliest versions of dictionaries compiled to help monks read important texts written in languages that they could no longer understand, e.g. Latin, Greek or Hebrew.”

In fact, Lübbe (1990:1) goes so far as to say that there’s a 1,000 year old tradition that’s dominated the scene concerning how to make a lexicon.

“From surveys describing the devlopment of Hebrew lexicography, from the first known Hebrew dictionary of Saadia Gaon to the most recent revisions of Koehler–Baumgartner, it appears that little has changed regarding methods of arranging the entries and determining and reflecting meaning.” (bold added)

1901099-juggernaut

So with this unhealthy default tendency (viz. to expect more from a translational gloss than we should), why not—in an age where lexical semantics has made great strides—why not be mindful of our bent[2] ways and take advantage of the lexicological harvest, and re-prioritize the content that we choose to present to original language students?

If we dared, what would this look like? Personally, I think if Logos simply swapped—for even just the particles—the translation based ingredients for the more substantive “sense” designations, we would be miles ahead of where standard lexica can take us.[3]

[[ UPDATE: I was fortunate enough to have the "Director of Content Innovation" from Logos respond to a question I had via email in relation to my remarks above about what types of words are treated as far as their "senses" are concerned, and what are not. Basically, he said that postposition-like-particles probably won't be covered anytime soon in the Bible Sense Lexicon, and that a different software tool/venue is likely to be called upon for that venture. At the same time, he affirmed my previous conclusions that (non-proper) nouns are completed (viz. they have their "Senses" worked out), and that a beta version of the verbs was issued yesterday (9/13/13), and that the senses of adjectives and adverbs will debut around late October. It's still a bummer to me that that prepositions and sundries won't be treated anytime soon (if at all). But maybe I'm bias—I did after all write my thesis on these little things. Yep, I am. Nonetheless, on the back-burner these little words shall remain; but don't forget dear reader: it is these that tie all our thoughts together. They'll have their moment one day, after all, the least will be the greatest! ;)  ]]


[1] It is difficult to illustrate since one can never tag a type of activity with a single word; instead, full blown descriptions (i.e. definitions) are needed to accurately communicate the various senses of the lexeme. On the other hand, the same might not be said for nouns, since often times there is a target language gloss that can be associated with the source language concept (though, let there be no doubt, nouns—like any other lexeme—are best described through definitions, not glosses). 

[2] Thanks Clive; and yes this is tantamount to sin.

[3] This would of course entail 1) the researcher(s) to have a methodology in play that helps them identify distinct senses and it would mean 2) that a lot of grunt work must be done, that databases not be constructed from existing translations (pardon me, but a piece of cake, compared to the legwork behind independent, criteria constrained analysis of every occurrence of every particle).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barr, J 1973. Hebrew lexicography, in: Fronzaroli, P (ed.) 1973. Studies on Semitic Lexicography (Quaderni di Semitistica 2). Firenze: Istituto di Linguistica e di Lingue Orientali, Universitá di Firenze, 103-126.

Imbayarwo, T. 2008. "A Biblical Hebrew lexicon for translators based on recent developments in theoretical lexicography." University of Stellenbosch (PhD dissertation).

Lübbe, JC. 1990. Hebrew lexicography: a new approach. Journal for Semitics 2/1, 1-15.