Discourse Matters: It's gonna be legend... (2 Macc 12:1)

1. There comes a time in life...


2. Last night I was watching a funny youtube video; and as I was watching it...
3. This was the last message he got from her: ...


Do you see the common thread in these sentences? Each leads you to believe that something more is to be said; and not just something more but something relevant, something important.

  1. For some, this is communicated through the general semantics of what's being said (e.g. one would expect whatever follows the first saying to be important just by nature of a single time period in a person's life being set out from the rest).
  2. Others build anticipation or point to something more by repetition (i.e. the repetition delays the disclosure of some important piece of information).
  3. Finally, there remain other instances where the "looking forward" is triggered by a word that actually (or explicitly) points the addressee's attention to some yet-to-be-revealed piece of information. For example, in the last example the word "this" represents the actual content of what the message was, but has replaced where the information could go, and thus points forward to the time when it will be revealed).

There's plenty more ways people can direct their audience's attention onwards, but in Greek there's a special way that's often overlooked in English translations since it's not translation friendly. Let's take a look at 2 Maccabees 12:1 to see this device in action.

Γενομένων δὲ τῶν συνθηκῶν τούτων ὁ μὲν Λυσίας ἀπῄει πρὸς τὸν βασιλέα, οἱ δὲ Ιουδαῖοι περὶ τὴν γεωργίαν ἐγίνοντο.

When this agreement had been reached, Lysias returned to the king, and the Jews went about their farming. (NRSV)

If you only read the English, you'll get no impression to expect more—much less know what to expect more of. In Greek it's crystal clear. The word you're looking for in Greek is μέν. This basically lets you know that something more is coming; something more is going to be said that's somehow connected to what's just been said.

In this case, we notice that μέν precedes the comment made about what Lysias does. So the most likely thing to anticipate is that someone else does something else as well. That expectation is met when we get to the next comment about the Jews returning to their farming. The presence of δέ before the Jews is a typical marker of what μέν pointed to. It's not always present, but most of the time it is, functioning as a confirmation of the expected second shoe drop.

The reason this forward-pointing expression isn't often translated in English is because it tends to be unnecessarily bulky. For instance, we could say:

When this agreement had been reached, Lysias—on the one hand—returned to the king, while the Jews went about their farming.

And while this is true to what's being communicated, it has the tendency to disrupt the reader's processing of what's actually important in the unfolding story. Is it really the juxtaposition of what Lysias did compared to the Jews? No. It's simply that there were two parties that responded to the agreement that was reached. It wasn't just Lysias.

The simple fact of the matter is that Greek possesses an elegant way of hinting that something related is coming, while in English we do not.

So Greek readers, beware: Look out for μέν! And when you see it: Look out for δέ—but don't be δέsmayed if you don't! (Sorry. Had too.)

Well... now let me finish a story I started above. Last night I was watching a funny youtube video. It had Bill Cosby on The Jimmy Fallon Show, and I connected some dots about Cosby that I'd not yet connected before: Part of the reason he's so fun and engaging to listen to is because he's always leading up to some grand story or point! Watch the video for yourself and see what tactics you can identify (e.g. repetition).

See—Barney's tactic is kinda like μέν.
See—Barney's tactic is kinda like μέν.