Re: "Grammatical" Categories

From: Joe A. Friberg (
Date: Mon Sep 20 1999 - 15:41:01 EDT

I would like to cast a vote in favor of, not every grammatical category I
meet, but at least the notion of grammatical-semantic categories in general!

The root of confusion and frustration with traditional grammatical
categories stems especially from the confusion (in presentation) of *Form*
and *Function(/meaning/content)*. (This is the essential problem w/ the
"8-case" grammar method--there are at most 5 forms, and many more than 8
functions!) Kevin Smith is right in picking up on the term "functions" as
the purpose of grammatical categories, but, IMHO, incorrect in rejecting
such categorizations as inherent in the language. The functions/meanings of
a form are every bit as much of a language as the form itself is.

True, Greek speakers did not stop to think 'am I using a genitive of
material-composition or content', but neither did they think 'I am using a
genitive' at all!

The difficult part of grammatical categories (that's short for
grammatical-semantic!) is the basic ploysemy inherent in all of
language--one form may relate to several/many meanings/functions. Even if
we know the form and all the appropriate categories related to the form, it
still takes the *context* to identify the appropriate category in the

Categories are inherent in all of language, and valid whether or not we are
ever cognizant of them: consider a semantic example of the English 'run'.
For me to run, or a car engine to run are quite distinct but also quite
precise meanings of 'run', and for water to 'run' is still another
distinction. Moreover, for a house to 'have running water' is quite
different from a house to be 'beside running water'. All these (and more,
many more, numerous...!) categories of 'run' are quite specific, and we
never think twice about which we use, yet we use them all accurately. Of
course there is fuzziness at times, but we are seldom misunderstood due to
the redundancy of context.

Every time I start to analyze the meanings of a particular form, I am always
amazed at how the specific categories *fall out naturally* from the data.
There may be residue (a few items which don't seem to fit any category), but
this is most probably due simply to lack of sufficient data to clarify the
categories or to indicate the nature of an appropriate additional category.

The REAL problems, and causes of confusion, with the use of (traditional)
grammatical categories are:
1. They are presented in a manner that confuses form and function (as stated
2. There is sometimes (but rarely) intended ambiguity, which means at least
two categories are actually operative.
**3. Our lack of *proper* categories is very frustrating, because the
function in context does not fit any of them.
   a. Many traditional categories are far too broad, attempting to lump
disparate notions into one disjointed category, so that the category gives
no precision, and provides little to no help in understanding. (Trying to
put all the meanings of 'run' in one category makes for a pretty useless
   b. if a category is too small, it may leave out truly related meanings.
('running water' is probably a large category which then needs to have
subcategories--hierarchical categorization)
   c. the supposed categories may be unduly influenced by English rather
than Greek. Frequently, some degree of overlap of the structure of English
and Greek categories has permitted sloppiness in analyses!
4. Our lack of recognition of the contextual keys that indicate the proper
category is a weakness of our analysis, not necessarily of the categories

While I have not reviewed Wallace's 43 'kinds of genitives' (let me say
'functions of genitives'), I am encouraged rather than discouraged at this
level of analysis. (I initially encountered the complexity of the Greek
genitive head-on in an insightful, but still not exhaustive, analysis in
_Translating the Word of God_, which contained some-where-about 40 uses of
the genitive.) The genitive is not one big amalgamous category, but many
different specific functions, determined by the nature of the words related
(eventive, personal, etc.) and by the broader context. I open Wallace
(p.93) and see the distinction drawn (literally) between genitive of
material-composition (bucket of iron) and genitive of content (bucket of
balls), and say "right-on!"

While intuition is great for reading and understanding words in context,
when we want to stop and talk to each other about what the interpretive
alternatives are, categories are essential for both accuracy and validity.

God Bless!

Joe A. Friberg
Arlington, Texas
MA Linguistics
MA Theology candidate

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