Gendered Language and Bible Translation -- By: Valerie Becker Makkai

Journal: Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
Volume: JBMW 06:1 (Spring 2001)
Article: Gendered Language and Bible Translation
Author: Valerie Becker Makkai

Gendered Language and Bible Translation1

Valerie Becker Makkai

Associate Professor of Linguistics, University of Illinois-Chicago, Past President, Linguistic Association, of Canada and The United States

As a professor of linguistics with a keen interest in the theory and practice of translation, and as a committed Christian, my reading of various translations of the Bible has always been accompanied by a desire to know the original Hebrew and Greek wording on which the varying translations were based. Some knowledge of ancient Greek and of the Semitic languages, as well as study of commentaries, has only piqued my curiosity. As I read and study the Bible I find myself constantly wondering how closely and accurately each translation reflects the original. Thus I have followed with great interest the debate that has arisen over gender-neutral Bible translations in general, and the NIVI (New International Version: Inclusive Language Edition) in particular, and I was pleased to be asked to write the foreword to the present contribution to this debate.

In the present volume Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem have presented a well-reasoned and level-headed argument for their case. Indeed, they are a voice of reason in a dispute that is fraught with emotion and misinformation. They clearly understand the fluid and changing nature of language and their arguments are based on sound linguistic principles, some of which bear emphasizing here.

First, one of the basic facts about language is that all languages are constantly undergoing change. At any point in time, changes in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary are in progress. Most of the time the speakers of the language are not aware of the changes. But if we look back in time we can see that at earlier stages the language was different. We sometimes have trouble understanding the King James Version of the Bible or the plays of Shakespeare because they were written some four centuries ago and English has undergone many changes in that time. If we go back two hundred years farther in time, say to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we have an even harder time understanding. And if we go back five hundred more years to something that was written in Old English, such as Beowulf, we can’t understand it at all—we have to read it in Modern English translation. Or look at Latin. In the course of less than two thousand years Latin has changed so much that it isn’t Latin at all any more—it has become French and Spanish and Italian and several other languages. And so it is with all languages.

A second basic fact of language is that we cannot consciously control the changes that languages undergo. We cannot pre...

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