Here at HBU we have a Biblical Languages program, which includes both an undergraduate degree in biblical languages (just Greek and Hebrew) and an MA in biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic). One of the requirements that we insist on for both programs is a course in General Linguistics. As the Director of the MABL program, sometimes I am asked questions like What is linguistics? and Why is it important to study linguistics? In this post I will attempt to provide some brief answers to those questions.
First, ‘What is linguistics?’ Linguistics is often described as “the scientific study of language.” Is it a hard science, like the natural sciences? Or is it a soft science, as we might consider the social sciences or behavioral sciences to be? And what is it about linguistics that makes it scientific? Two terms are often employed to describe linguistics, terms that one readily associates with ‘scientific’: (1) Empirical: John Lyons observes that “linguistics is empirical, rather than speculative or intuitive; it operates with publically verifiable data obtained by means of observation or experiment. To be empirical, in this sense, is for most people the very hallmark of science” (Language and Linguistics, 38). (2) Objective: Modern linguistics attempts to explain / describe human language for what it is, in as neutral a fashion as possible, without giving in the the layman’s misconceptions about certain accents/dialects/languages being simple versus complex, pure versus primitive, etc. Notice that in the definition provided for linguistics above (“the scientific study of language”), the word language occurs in the singular (language, not languages), and without the article (language, not a language). What does language mean in such a definition? It refers to language in general, rather than to languages in particular. Put another way, it refers to the language capacity that one has, rather than the language one actually speaks. Of course the two are interrelated, since someone cannot possess language without possessing a (natural) language. John Lyons (again) notes that “the question ‘What is language?’ carries with it the presupposition that each of the several thousand recognizably distinct natural languages spoken throughout the world is a specific instance of something more general. What the linguist wants to know is whether all natural languages have something in common not shared by other systems of communication, human or non-human, such that it is right to apply to each of them the word ‘language’ and to deny the application of the term to other systems of communication” (Language and Linguistics,3).
The second question is ‘Why is it important to study & understand language (i.e., linguistics)?’ There are several reasons. First, language is characterized by universality. It is an unarguable fact that human language is used everywhere in our world–in airplane cockpits/control towers, when wooing a woman, in fast food counters, in classroom instruction, in evangelism–and even in unreal situations like our dreams. The fabric of our society is built on language use; however, this is taken for granted precisely because it is so pervasive (like breathing). If, as Christian scholars, we desire to understand the nature of things, and if linguistic communication is part of the nature of things (being one of the universal features of human existence), then it behooves us to study it.
Second, even though language is so prevalent, it is poorly understood. Misconceptions about language abound, even among well-educated people. Linguists themselves are not able to give a fully satisfying account of human language. It is false to assume that because we know how to use language, we understand how language actually works (just like knowing how to use a car is no indicator that we can explain how one works!). Fromkin & Rodman make the point well that explaining how one can use language is quite different from noticing that one uses it: “Everyone knows a language. Five-year old children are almost as proficient at speaking and understanding as are their parents. Yet the ability to carry out the simplest conversation requires profound knowledge that most speakers are unaware of. This is as true of speakers of Japanese as of English, of Armenian as of Navajo” (An Introduction to Language, 6th ed., 4). We believe that those who get a degree in biblical languages ought to be able to avoid simple misconceptions about language use and at least to begin articulating a coherent understanding of how language works.
Why should students and thoughtful people develop an informed appreciation / understanding of language? In the first place, language use is involved in several of the “problems” we face today: (1) Political correctness on college campus and in media. (2) Language barriers as obstacles to mutual understanding (and peace). (3) Discussions about whether a government should impose one national language on a society. (4) Determining the best method for teaching children English. (5) Why do high schoolers graduate with such low levels of writing and reading ability, and how can the problem be addressed?
As well, understanding language has significant bearing on other intellectual disciplines. For example, philosophers have been keenly interested in language for a number of reasons, one of which deals with philosophical descriptions of “humanity.” Is human language something that is innate, or is it learned through one’s environment/experiences? How one tries to answer that theoretical question could have a bearing on how one tries to sort out the debate between rationalists (we are born with innate ideas, our psychological organization is pre-wired, so to speak) and empiricists (born with blank slate, psychological organization is not genetic but is determined by our experience). In addition, philosophers also have wondered if human language is an adequate tool for philosophical inquiry and theory. Is it perhaps the case that many of the problems in the history of philosophy are due to the inability to understand and use language properly? As well, psychology is influenced by the study of language. Since human language has a significant mental component, some classify language as a branch of psychology. Psychological accounts of humanity, therefore, have to give due attention to the fact that much of our mental processes find expression in outward linguistic expressions (as well as in inaudible or inward self-talk). As well, understanding the highly-structured organization of human language can help psychologists come to a better description of theories of psychological organization.
Finally, let me conclude by mentioning some of the benefits of the practical application of an informed understanding of language. (1) Language pedagogy: Pedagogy refers to one’s method of teaching, and one’s teaching of a language can be vastly improved by acquiring an informed understanding of language–whether one is instructing others in how to understand one’s own native language (like English teachers teaching English in the US) or a foreign language (like Greek or Hebrew). Our students routinely mention how studying linguistics has improved their understanding of the biblical languages. (2) Missionaries: those who labor in the mission field must understand and use language winsomely and skillfully if they are to bring the Gospel to the nations of the world. One cannot do that without an informed understanding of language and how it impacts social interaction, religious communication, etc. (3) Bible translators: these folks have the noble task of taking Greek and Hebrew biblical texts and rendering from their source languages into the target languages of a vast number of people-groups. Many of those groups speak a language without the benefit of a written language system. One cannot produce visible ‘texts’ of Scripture for people in this situation without first taking the oral language system, reducing it to a written system, and analyzing it at a variety of linguistic levels (phonetics/phonemics, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics). Only then can one provide suitable renderings in the target language. And none of this can be done well without recourse to linguistic knowledge and theory.
If you’re interested in studying biblical languages with us at HBU, please take a look at either our graduate MA program or our undergraduate BA program. If you’d like ask further questions, please leave a comment on the blog and I’ll be in touch with you.