Re: etymology and semantic domains

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Thu Apr 23 1998 - 10:00:22 EDT

Jim Ware writes,

>Thanks for your helpful posting on semantic domain. I was a bit surprised
>that you seemed to contrast etymology and semantic domain as if they were
>the subject matter of two incompatible approaches. Could you clarify what
>you mean here? Is not the semantic domain that a word possesses
>determined in large measure by its etymology? This is the assumption of
>J.H.H. Schmidt's magisterial Synonymik der griechischen Sprache, and yet
>no one who reads him carefully can fail to se that he is working with the
>concept of semantic domain, although of course the terminology was
>unavailable to him. My own rough-and-ready approach assumes that every
>word has a core meaning (Grundbedeutung) which generally follows its
>etymology, and that out of this core meaning each word develops a semantic
>range of particular meanings, and that it is the function of the context
>to determine which part of this semantic domain is visible in each
>instance. Attention to a word's etymology is, in my view, just as
>crucial as attention to the semantic map and contextual factors. In
>fact, to my mind, they are inextricably intertwined. Am I misstepping
>anywhere with such an approach, in your view?

Dear Jim,

Both diachronic and synchronic studies of words are profitable. When I for
instance read an entry in TDNT (which I often use in spite of Barr`s
criticism), I appreciate both the etymological comments and the comparison
with other languages. However, in a context of Bible translation we must be
very careful both with our tools and with our premises.

The problem with etymology in the context of Bible translation is that the
reason why some (or many) committees behind the older versions chose a
literal translation, was their belief that a fundamental etymological
meaning could be found in all uses of a particular Greek and Hebrew word.
Because of this, each word should as far as possible be rendered
uniformely. Barr showed that this was wrong, and most of those working with
the subject today agree with him.

Barręs dictum was that what counts in studies of NT words, is the meaning
of the word in NT times (or even how one author used a word), not its
etymology. This meaning was of course tied up with the minds of the people
living in that period. When a native inhabitant of Corinth in the 1st
century CE, a member of the congregation, for instance read (2 Cor 4:4)
about hO QEOS TOU AIWNOS TOUTOU, he or she had a concept in the mind about
the meaning and use of the words QEOS and AIWN, plus an apprehension of
the linguistic convention called grammar and syntax. Based on this,and not
on a study of Semantic domain or a knowledge of etymology, could the
expression be understood; and would probably be understood similarly by
most members of the congregation, because of similar presupposition pool.
In this case etymology would play little or no role at all, in other
instances it would.
Language is groving and evolving. A study of etymology can contribute to
our understanding of a particular word, but has no independent, decisive
role. Therefore I have problems with the "Grundbedeutung" of a word as
applied to anything else than the cencept in the mind of the native speaker
of the first century CE.

The Semantic domain model has several advantages compared with the
etymological one, and it is the basis for translation based upon functional
equivalence (NB: this is the present name of "dynamic equivalence"). I
admire Nida for all the fine work he has done, but in one respect has he
errs. In his eyes there is no alternative to functional equivalence, this
is THE translation method! For most target groups this is true, but for
those who want to have a part in the translation process themselves (this
process starts with the written word and ends when the reader understands
the text), they need something else than Semantic domain word studies and
functional equivalence.

 For a functional equivalence translation the "kernel" (which is found by a
semantic analysis rather than a grammatical analysis) is the fundamental
translation unit. I have for a long time studied the question: Is it
possible to create a linguistic model (without seeking recourse in the
etymological fallacy) where the *single word* is the fundamental
translation unit? I believe the answer is yes, but I repeat that it only
works for the particular target group already mentioned. Because this model
only works in the case of one target group it is no rival for functional
equivalence tranlation, rather a useful complement. However, one
interesting fact with my model is that there is little need on the part of
the translator, either for etymological or for Semantic domain word
studies, because of the role of the reader. If I should create a slogan in
relation to this very simple model, I would say: "More power to the

My conclusion therefore is that studies in etymology, comparisons of the
domains words, functional equivalence translation and literal translation,
all can do much good provided that they are used in the particular context
where they belong.


Rolf Furuli
Lecturer in Semtitic languages
University of Oslo

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