Saturday, July 27, 2013

Is Greek Really More Expressive Than English?

I found a blog this evening discussing how Greek is "more expressive" than English and how this affects translations. Here is what the author wrote:
"The New Testament was initially written in a language that is generally more expressive than English tends to be, and sometimes our English versions do not fully convey the depth or the clarity communicated in the original Greek text. This is not always a weakness of translation as much as a limitation of the English language itself."
You may have heard someone say something like the following as well: "Hebrew is a more simple language. You can say things with Greek that you just couldn't communicate in Hebrew." Have you ever thought about this? First, are some languages really "more expressive" than others? And, second, is this true with Koine Greek compared to English?

In Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek, David Alan Black writes:
"Most importantly, because languages are similar, all languages will share the same high degree of adequacy in communication--in spite of their differences. Linguists reject the notion that any one language can be more expressive than all other languages, an opinion incorrectly held by many teachers of New Testament Greek. God has undoubtedly conferred special honor upon Greek as the language chosen for the inscripturation of the New Testament, but Greek is not inherently superior to the other languages of the world. At present, both linguists and Bible translators agree that any language can express whatever ideas its speakers are capable of having, and that a language can and does expand and change to fit new needs or ideas those speakers may have" (17-18). 
To quote Astroboy over at Philosophy Forums, "Different does not mean more expressive."

I was just talking to my brother about what I was writing right now, and I couldn't help but think of that question that some people ask those they love--"How much do you love me?" The response "There just aren't enough words" suggests that the problem is the deficient number of words in the English language. I've written this recently to a brother and sister in the Lord: "Words really do not suffice..." My problem at times like these is that the mere value of words is inadequate to express the deep appreciation and love we have for someone. The words are out there, but none of them, in no grouping or any order, could ever express what I'm trying to communicate. In one sense I suppose this is rhetorical, but it seems true too. I don't know all the English words out there, and I certainly can't imagine the innumerable groupings and infinite, logical orders they could be placed in to be exactly sure. But with certain people in our lives, we just have a pretty safe hunch that no words will cut it. The primary limitation in communication lies with the communicator. Translation falls under communication. And the same primary limitation is true: It lies with the translator, not the language itself.

When I was reading the blog quoted at the beginning of this post, my immediate reaction was the author did not really show that English is limited in communicating the ideas of Greek. I thought he made a fine presentation on how English translations, especially "literal" translations, have failed to think past the lexical-level of the Greek language when carrying it over into English. English can certainly capture any idea that is found in the New Testament. The problem is many people believe translation has to be quantitatively exact and lexically consistent in every instance in a receptor language. By quantitatively exact I mean one word for one word. And by lexically consistent I mean a single word has to carry over into the receptor language exactly the same without giving attention to things like author, context, and date of composition.

My wife is from Honduras and, obviously, speaks fluent Spanish. English is her second language. My first language is English (although I'm still not fluent being from da South), Spanish my second. So we have conversations all the time about this translation or that translation. I've never had a conversation with her where one of us just said "That just doesn't translate into Spanish/English...Your language just can't get that idea. My language is too deep and more clear than yours." It's never happened, and I met Lesly in 2005. Now we have said, "I just don't know how to translate it." But with that statement, the problem is with me or her, the translator, and not with the language itself.

We need to be careful when we say that Greek is one or two up on any language. In fact, we just don't need to say it at all. One of my hesitations about saying things like this (besides the fact that I just don't think they are true) is how they can potentially breed some dangerous ideas in local church ministry. I can see someone who knows Greek going into a church believing something like this and saying, "I wish you knew Greek because then you'd understand what this passage is saying. There's just no way for me to put it into words. It's too deep. Your English translation just doesn't get it done here." This creates a couple of major problems in local church settings. First, it undermines the trust that believers should have in their English Bibles. I don't ever want to tear down someone's trust in their Bible. Second, it puts the pastor up on some sort of pedestal. He ends up presenting himself as someone who knows more than anyone else in the congregation because of his knowledge of the biblical language. He becomes someone who has some special knowledge that is unknowable to anyone else apart from this special tool.

In conclusion, I don't think any language is "more expressive" than any other language. This includes Greek. What we should consider doing is thinking beyond the word-level of sentences that we are translating. And for a pastor interested in seeing how a verse or set of verses he is teaching can be translated, he might consider looking at multiple translations in the process of studying the text. Don't just look at the NASB and ESV either. Check out some other ones, even in other languages that you know, and see how others have made sense of the Greek.


  1. There are instances when the verbal idea in Greek isn't easy to translate into plain English, particularly when it comes to issues related to verbal aspect. Other than that, I agree with your post.

    1. Tom, thanks for you comment and for visiting JPNEE. May the Lord bless you in all your gospel-driven endeavors!

  2. Hi Thomas. I’m the author of the article you have taken issue with. I don’t necessarily disagree with the overall thrust of what you’re affirming, but I think some clarification is in order.

    In addition to verbal aspect (as Tom has noted), here are some things I had in mind when I suggested that Koinē Greek is “generally more expressive than English tends to be.” For example, there is no direct equivalent in English to the first person plural hortatory subjunctive. When a Greek speaker (or writer) issues a command that includes himself as a receptor, the English “let us…” just doesn’t capture the full force of the expression. The Greek paidagōgos (with reference to an adult slave responsible for guiding, protecting, instructing, disciplining, and caring for the young son of his master) has no direct equivalent in the English language. Granted, several words can be used in translation, or even explanatory notes, but words such as “tutor,” “caregiver,” and “guardian” just do not convey the complete sense of the Greek term.

    I agree with your statement: “English can certainly capture any idea that is found in the New Testament.” The point I was trying to make in my article is that English cannot always capture NT ideas as succinctly as Koinē Greek, and English renderings often require further explanation to appreciate the full force of the expression. While the English language is certainly adequate for translating the Greek New Testament, I would argue that reading the biblical text in the languages in which it was first written opens up a world of depth and clarity that is sometimes missed in translation.

    Like you, I would never want to undermine someone’s trust in the Bible. At the same time, I suspect you would agree that we ought to be careful about putting too much trust in any fallible human translator (or translation) and discounting the value of studying the Bible in its original languages. Years ago someone said to me: “Not everyone needs to know Greek to go to heaven….but somebody does!”

    The main focus of my article concerns the pisteuō word group and how the English rendering “believe” fails to communicate the broader sense in which the Greek expression is often used (inclusive of obedience). Beyond that, as far as I’m concerned whether or not Greek is more expressive than English is of little consequence.

    1. Dear Kevin,

      Thank you very much for your comment, especially the kindness with which you wrote. I appreciate your clarification, and I know my readers will enjoy reading what you've written here.

      Concerning the subjunctive: When it's being used to exhort/urge oneself and the audience at the same time (1PP)...or just urge the audience to do what the speaker indicates he's going to do, for example in Mark 4:35, how do you feel about the translation, "Come on! Let's go to the other side!" (Διέλθωμεν εἰς τὸ πέραν)? Or, maybe just the use of the contraction can help us get away from the "robotic" voice that characterizes the hortatory subjunctive when translated into English. What do you think? I'd love to look over your dissertation ("The Exegetical Significance of the First Person Plural in the Canonical Writings Attributed to Paul") if you have a digital copy you're able to send over.

      Concerning the word παιδαγωγός in Gal. 3:24-25 and 1 Cor. 4:15: I'm really familiar with this issue. I actually included a 7-page discussion of this word in my doctoral dissertation. Of course, part of the reason it's so difficult to translate is because the social concept is just so foreign in 21st century, modernized, Westernized society. Reverse what you are trying to do (i.e., translate Greek to English), given the number of changes from the 1st century to the 21st century, we'd have just as much trouble taking words in English into Koine Greek for people living in the first-century world to understand. Even with languages in the same time period in history, this difficulty exists. I was thinking about a couple just now. In English, we have "urgent care" facilities (places where we can go to receive immediate medical attention [no appointment necessary] that are not primary care facilities or emergency rooms/hospitals). Now I can't speak for all of Latin America, but in Honduras there's no such thing. Translating it (quantitatively exact) is not an option, unless I'm willing to lose something in the translation (e.g., just calling it a "hospital"). Another example is "middle school." In Honduras (and every Latin American nation as far as we know), they just don't have it. They have "pre-Kinder," "Kinder," "Primaria," and "Secundaria." There's primary school and secondary school. Bilingual schools use middle school, but they call it "Middle School." No single word, or two, or three words in Spanish can refer to this grouping of grades like we have in English. Neither of these two examples shows how one language is more or less "expressive" than the other. I'll agree that all languages have their peculiarities. I'm still not convinced, however, that one language is more expressive than another.

      I definitely believe that there is immense value for studying the Greek New Testament. I'm thankful to the Lord that there are people out there like you who are training and equipping others to be able to study the Word of God. Kevin, I really appreciate your comments. I love thinking through things like this, and I appreciate you allowing me to weigh in on your post. May the Lord bless you in your endeavors to bring others to know Jesus through the proclamation of the gospel.

    2. Thank you Thomas for your thoughts. I’m reluctant to belabor the point because I don’t feel strongly compelled to change or even challenge your point of view, and there are much weightier issues that could be discussed. Your response to my paidagōgos example is valid, but I still consider the hortatory subjunctive to be more expressive in Greek than anything comparable in English. Your proposed translation of Mark 4:35 is fine, but the English “let’s” or “let us” can only go so far (= a polite request) and lacks the authoritative or earnest force that is possible in Greek (e.g. Gal. 5:26; Heb. 12:1; 1 John 4:7). As for my doctoral dissertation, you’re among the rare few who have ever expressed interest in it! Unfortunately, the only electronic copy is on an antiquated floppy disc. One of these days I hope to transfer it to a more modern format, and if that ever happens I’ll keep you in mind.
      Thank you for your insights. Very helpful.

  3. Dears Ameriwiki and Thomas: I got here just by those mysteries of God's will, looking for Greek fonts for a design in which I am working.

    It also happens that I am quite fond of languages and linguistics, so whilst I am enjoying your dissertation very much, I am remembering myself that, at the very end, the Apostle wrote 1 Cor 14.

    God bless you all! Only God!

    1. Juan, so glad you visited JPNEE. I recommend you visit the New Testament Greek Portal I worked on with David Alan Black and some other faithful co-laborers. The site has an entire section devoted to Greek fonts developed by Jacob Cerone. You can view it here:



  4. As a native Greek speaker I'd like to put my two cents to the discussion.
    Ancient and modern Greek are based on the same words and grammar is similar. What are the pros and cons of Greek language?

    The pros
    Greek language has plasticity and a mathematical nature providing highly sophisticated words able to describe all aspects of life, even abstract meanings. It reminds more of a programming language that we use for building software. It can describe something accurately.

    The cons
    Spoken Greek is a "heavy" language. It's more difficult to just sit and relax listening to Greek language (modern or ancient). The sound of it makes you more alert, like listening to a math class. Although a native Greek, I often find myself reading English translations just to get a more "relaxed" experience of the underlying message.

    However, I have to say that English translations often deviate enough from the original text. Sometimes it gets frustrating, it's like reading in a different context. Some have proposed that those deviations are not made "by coincidence" but serve a specific agenda, arbitrarily deleting words like "Κύριε" (Lord) ή "Χριστός" (Christ) multiple times from the translation. I was shocked with the hundreds of similar examples found here

    All in all, what I'm trying to say is that although I enjoy reading modern English translations of the bible, I DEFINITELY DO NOT TRUST THEM. Not because I don't trust the concept of translation overall, but I have reasons to believe that there may be an agenda behind mainstream translations, involving the copyright owners.

    If there is not an agenda, it just does not make any sense. Why someone would delete specific words and phrases from the original text multiple times? And why don't they openly declare it in the front page? To put it in Greek words, this is NOT a translation (μετάφραση, metaphrasi) but a paraphrase (παράφραση) of the original. Metaphrasi (translation) comes from the words meta + phrasi (phrase).
    If you change the meaning even slightly (!) this should be called as a Para+phrasi (para = parallel, phrasi = phrase, --> paraphrase).

    So, it would be at least honest for the editors to openly declare in the front page whether it is a translation (metaphrasi) or a paraphrase of the original. Otherwise, I find the use of the word "translation" as misleading.

    1. Amelia, thank you for your comment. And thank you for visiting JPNEE. I'm very appreciative of your native insight. I think you might enjoy reading the post I wrote yesterday dealing with the expressions "Word-for-Word" and "Literal" with regard to Bible translation. I'd love to know what you think.