Language is Not Mathematics

123 or ABC

2+2=4 in every language, in every culture. Even among people with no written language, a girl having two sheep who gets two more sheep always ends up having four sheep. There is no room for ambiguity or nuance. The numbers don’t lie; they don’t hide the truth.

Language, however, cannot claim to be so straightforward. There are always two participants in language, the speaker/writer and the hearer/reader. Language always has nuance.

One could say, “He went to the store.” -Seems simple and straightforward, but the understanding is affected by the emphasis of the speaker. HE went to the store. He WENT to the store. He went TO the store. He went to the STORE. These all have different nuance of meaning.

More than speaking, writing adds another level of complexity. While the hearer has audio emphasis as well as possible facial expression and body gestures to aid understanding, the reader must gather by context which emphasis the writer means.

Language is always a conversation. Even a soliloquy must have a hearer. The hearer must always intuit the speakers meaning to some degree.

We come to the problem with translations.

The translator studies the context, and deciphers as mathematically as possible, but he can never translate without the bias of his own understanding, his own intuition.

I am not a language expert, but in my limited experience it seems that some languages are more mathematical than others. For instance, Latin is very mathematical in form and order while English leaves much freedom of order and even of form to the speaker/writer. Still, Latin is not as clearly unambiguous as mathematics.

A few years ago a series of tornadoes blew destruction across the southeastern US. Some of my neighbors discovered windblown mail from other states dropped by the swirling clouds into their backyards. Some letters were actually returned. Had I discovered a letter out of the blue and had read it, no doubt I would have found nuances that I could not intuit because I do not know the writer.

Here is my point. In order to fully understand a speaker, a hearer must know the speaker. Also, understanding is more apt to be accurate when the hearer is actually in the presence of the speaker, face to face, so to speak. Again, this is a problem for translators.

I can fully affirm my belief that the Bible is the “only infallible rule of faith and of practice.” Yet, I do not find a translation that I can fully trust to be infallible due to nuances intuited or not intuited by the translators. I study the text using several translations, paraphrases and lexicons, but none of them will ever yield a mathematically accurate understanding. I have resigned myself that I must know the speaker.

My father was a gentle, empathetic and kind man. If someone brought me a letter written in my father’s handwriting that could be interpreted as harsh, vindictive or unkind, I would reject that interpretation. Those characteristics were not in his nature. I would look into the context and the history to find clues about his meaning.

We have such clues to be used in Bible interpretation. The greatest clue as to the character of God is Jesus himself. In his own words, “If you have seen me, you have seen my Father also.” God is a spirit. It is hard for us to see Him. Jesus was “the image of the invisible God”. The best interpretation of any passage will be found by seeing God through the character of Jesus Christ. It reminds me of  the old saying, “What would Jesus do?”

 No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
John 1:18

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