Re: JR & MO vs. the World <grin>

From: Randy Leedy (
Date: Thu Dec 12 1996 - 14:30:04 EST

Jonathan, here's your message (including its quotes from mine), with
my new comments interspersed: (How I wish my email program behaved
like everyone else's by adding > characters appropriately!)

>There's the background for the idea I want to float: isn't it
>misguided to treat language as though it were purely scientific?

Certainly. Language is not scientific. Linguistics, however, is
scientific, and formal study of language should be both formal and
scientific. If you are going to tell me what the aorist form means, I
would like a precise formulation, and I would like it to correspond
to actual usage. The simplest formulation that works is probably the

>Doesn't a great deal of the reliability of previous generations of
>scholarship rest on its keenly developed JUDGMENT OF VERBAL ART?

Again, certainly. Linguistics in the 1800s was based precisely on
this, and did not provide the evidence needed to agree with or
disagree with the statements that linguists made. Similarly,
cognitive psychology at that time was based on introspection - people
would try solving a problem, and write down the thought process they
thought they were following as they did so. And statistics was not
accepted as a science - in fact, it was hotly contested for decades
before it gained general acceptance.

In fact, scientific methods do not elminate the need for careful
judgement, and a linguist with a wooden ear for language will get the
wrong results no matter what statistical tools are used. If you read
Mari's thesis, or any other piece of modern linguistics, you will
find yourself confronted with many pairs of sentences together with
judgements about what these sentences mean. Modern linguistics, like
older linguistics, is very much dependent on these kinds of

The traditional Greek grammars are based on the linguistics of the
1800s. And this shows in many ways - for instance, compare
Robertson's use of the term "adverb" with the use of this term in any
modern language textbook, and you will see why it is hard for
students of modern languages to understand the vocabulary in
traditional Greek grammars, and why someone used to Robertson would
probably have a hard time reading and understanding Mari's thesis.

Koine Greek hasn't changed since then (though we have a lot more data
on it!), but the way we approach studying language has.

So you are making the argument that linguistics, as practiced in this
century, is not an appropriate tool for studying language. (Randy
Leedy vs. the World?)

If I were making this argument, I would certainly be taking on the
world, and I would expect to lose. I am questioning whether
linguistic science has recognized its limits in dealing with
phenomena that include significant artistic elements, which is
entirely different from questioning whether linguistics is legitimate
at all. Since I am not a linguist, I do not feel competent to make
any dogmatic statements. So I simply reiterate my question: is
linguistics methodology flawed by a failure to recognize the limits
of science in dealing with a subject that is to a significant extent
non-scientific? (I sure wish I could find a better adjective for

>The OVERWHELMING correspondence between augmented forms and past
>time in Koine Greek must be given its proper weight.

Any good theory will have to account for this, based on the evidence.

In fact, Mari's theory predicts that the majority of aorist forms
will describe events which have occured in the past - not because the
aorist has a past *tense*, but because the *aspect* of the aorist
implies that the action has already taken place.

As I understand aspect, it implies nothing of the sort. An event of
unspecified aspect can take place in any time frame whatever, as I
understand the meaning and usage of that term.

>Do the relatively few passages that don't fit demand the formulation
>of a new scientific hypothesis, or can they be taken simply as
>evidence of the fact that the art of language simply refuses to be
>constrained to scientific categories?

You talk as though there were a new scientific hypothesis and an old
one. The old grammars were very anectdotal and did not formulate and
test scientific hypotheses.

I don't intend to imply that the old hypothesis was as scientific as
the new one. I simply question whether a rigorously scientific
hypothesis is necessarily superior to one based on an intuitional
assessment of evidence, given the less-than-completely-scientific
nature of language. I agree that the best hypothesis is the one that
has not yet been falsified. But falsification is not as objective in
language as in the pure sciences. The mere presence of NUN with an
aorist indicative does not cancel a past time reference in the same
way, for example, that a positive 12 cancels a negative 12 in an
addition problem. It seems to me that NUN doesn't necessarily
represent "now, with respect to the present moment" in the same way
that -12 represents "twelve units less than zero."

The number of passages which use aorist without past referent isn't
the deciding factor - the nature of the manner in which it is used
is. The passages which Mari uses are chosen precisely because they
illustrate specific phenomena. Remember the TC adage that texts
should be weighed, not counted - it also applies to other forms of
scientific inquiry.

>JR & MO may claim that the "new theory" accomplishes precisely this
>result: it simply frees the aorist from the constraint of the "past
>time" category. But does it, in doing so, create TOO GREAT a
>freedom, a degree of freedom not justified by the corpus-wide body
>of evidence? Is it not more accurate simply to attribute the freedom
>to the inherent flexibility of language?

Well, Mari's theory frees the aorist from past reference with respect
to narration time, but maintains the past reference with respect to
the "viewpoint" or "aspect" of the depiction.

I'm not sure I understand the last sentence. As I understand the term
"aspect," it means how an action is presented with reference to its
duration. You seem to use it to mean a point in time, not necessarily
the time of writing, with reference to which the a verb presents an
action as past, present, or future. If that's what you mean by
aspect, one of us has a serious misunderstanding, and I wonder
whether perhaps that misunderstanding may lie at the root of this
whole debate.

You propose to replace scientific inquiry with a recognition of the
inherent flexibility of the language - wouldn't this give absolute
freedom for a passage to mean anything? Either the aorist has a
meaning, a set of possible meanings, or no meaning at all. If it does
have at least one meaning which affects the interpretation of a text,
I would like to know what it is.

I do not wish to replace scientific inquiry into the meanings
conveyed by language. A careful enough reading of my post will leave
no doubt that the only question I am raising is whether we have been
so rigorously scientific that we have forgotten the balancing
dimension of art. I am clearly insisting on the importance of both,
not demeaning science.

I would maintain that the aorist is commonly used to convey
information within a fairly well identified range of possibilities.
When a particular context demands something outside that range,
however, I'm inclined to subject the aorist to the contextual demands
without worrying too much over "the rules." Only when I begin to
observe a regular pattern of usage that seems to fly in the face of
"the rules" do I feel compelled to reconsider them. I do not fault
Mari and you for reconsidering the traditional rule on the basis of a
pattern of usage that seems not to fit. I am only lending weight to
the idea, expressed already by others, that the judgments formed by
previous generations of grammarians, however "unscientifically,"
ought not to be dismissed on a momentary whim, however scientific it
may be or appear to be.

If science is the only means of knowledge, we might as well throw
away the Book that we're spilling so many bits and bytes discussing

Randy Leedy

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