Lexical Fallacies by Linguists

Ever since James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language, originally published in 1961, introduced students of the Bible to the fascinating field of linguistics, the world of biblical studies has not been the same. Barr took his cues from linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, whose 1916 work Cours de linguistique générale (translated as Course in General Linguistics), marked a milestone in lexical studies.

Some of the lexical fallacies pointed out by these scholars, and numerous others after them, include the following:

  • Root fallacy: assigning the (supposed) original meaning of a word to its usages throughout history;
  • Diachronic priority: like the etymological or root fallacy, this looks at usage throughout the history of a word as though all such uses are still in vogue at any given slice of history (synchronic view);
  • Illegitimate totality transfer: assumes that all the uses that occur at a given time apply in any given instance;
  • Lexical-conceptual equation: the belief that a concept is captured in a single word or word group or the subconscious transference of a word to the concept and vice versa (like ἁμαρτάνω and sin).

All of these fallacies are well documented in the literature prior to 1961 (and even after!), and they are indeed linguistic fallacies that must be avoided. I have essentially applied this linguistic approach to syntax in my Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1996).

There are other ‘fallacies’ which themselves are fallacious, however. Below are enumerated three of these:

  • a word has no meaning apart from context;
  • diachronics are not helpful; instead one must focus entirely on synchronics;
  • etymology is always worthless.

I will briefly examine these three fallacies of linguists in this blog post.

A Word Has No Meaning Apart from Context

Often linguist say that the word being examined should have the meaning of ‘X’ with ‘X’ being only what one can determine from the context. But this is an unreasonable demand on any word. If every word in a given utterance had the meaning ‘X’ then we simply could not figure out what any utterance ever meant. Consider the following sentence:

Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.

If the only word we did not understand was ‘lamb’ then with a little help from the broader context we might be able to determine that it meant a four-legged domesticated ruminant mammal whose woolly coat is used for clothing. But what if we did not know the meaning of all the words in this utterance? Unfortunately, when lexical studies are done, armed with modern linguistics, they often assume the meaning of all but the target term. But where did the meanings of the other words come from? If we were to carry the linguistic notion that a word has no meaning apart from its context to its logical conclusion, then the above sentence would initially be rendered:

X X X X X X X X X X X.

Like Egyptian hieroglyphics that were not decipherable until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, we would never be able to figure out the meaning of the sentence. It is not only the immediate context that tells us what a word means, and this leads us to the discussion of the second fallacy.

Diachronics Are Not Helpful

Frequently, linguists assume that diachronics are not helpful in determining a word’s meaning. The analogy that Saussure used was a chess game: Someone who observes a chess match, coming in sometime after the beginning of the match, can simply by observation determine who is winning the game. He or she does not need to know any of what has occurred prior to this point. This is synchronic (current time) priority to the exclusion of diachronics (over time).

There are inherent fallacies with this analogy, however. In this case, each one of the chess pieces always has its own defined functions and abilities. This never changes, yet it presupposes diachronics. Further, the chess game is not really the best analogy. A better one would be an American football game (or some other contact sport that involves teams). Suppose you came to the stadium at the beginning of the third quarter of the 1974 USC-Notre Dame football game. The score at the time was 24–7, with Notre Dame in the lead. You might say that Notre Dame was well on its way to winning the game, and you might even put money on it. I saw the game, but didn’t bet on it—though I should have since I have always been a USC fan! The second half USC team seemed to be different guys wearing the same numbers: USC went on to win 55–24, with Notre Dame being completely shut out in the second half. One would have to know about momentum (USC scored their first touchdown just before the half), and even what the coaches said to the players at halftime. In the least, just knowing the score would not be a helpful predictor of the outcome.

Expanding on this analogy, suppose you saw a game in which the teams were tied with 5 minutes to go. Knowing who had the momentum (which could only be known by diachronics); what injuries may have sidelined some key players—and when they happened; which team had the ball—and just as important, how they acquired it; which plays have worked; and which men are playmakers are all important factors in determining the outcome. Just as professional gamblers do not simply look at the W–L column but also examine injuries, home field advantage, weather, one-on-one matchups, and numerous other factors, diachronics is a key element in determining outcome. Although the current situation (synchronics) is the most important factor, the past also helps one to get a clearer picture.

It has often been said by linguists that since the speaker or writer whose words they are trying to understand may be blissfully unaware of the diachronic usage of his words, so linguists need to focus on this author’s/speaker’s usage rather than the past. I agree that we must employ the principle of synchronic priority; but we should not embrace the notion of synchronic exclusivity. Why? Because said author/speaker is presumably comfortable with his own language, having been exposed hundreds and thousands of times to most of the various words he will use in any given utterance. Diachronics are needed by the modern investigator, not the ancient speaker. Precisely because the modern researcher does not have the same linguistic background as the person whose usage is being examined he or she must ‘get up to speed’ on what a word can mean by employing diachronics. Consider for example the word-group κοινός/κοινωνία/κοινόω/κοινωνέω, etc. In the New Testament, when this word-group is used of human beings’ relationship to God, it is often put in a positive light because of the cross. We have fellowship (κοινωνία) with God because Jesus has made this possible. But in the Septuagint, this word-group frequently, if not usually, has a decidedly negative tinge. Has the word changed its meaning? No, it still has the idea of (sharing something in) common. What has changed is mankind’s relationship to God through the blood of his Son. But someone just looking at the synchronic meaning of the word-group in the New Testament may miss this background and thus an important clue to the richness of its usage in the New Testament.

Etymology Is Always Worthless

Certainly for words that have a long history, etymology is hardly needed to determine meaning. The fact is, words change in their meaning over time. Root fallacy ignores this fact. But what about words that are of recent vintage, perhaps even coined by the author one is studying? Consider, for example, θεόπνευστος, a word appearing only in 2 Timothy 3.16 in the Greek Bible. Although Paul did not invent the term, it was recently coined (apparently occurring for the first time in the Hellenistic period). As such, its history is short by the time we get to Paul. Breaking it down into its constituent elements (one form of etymologizing), we see that the word may mean “God breathed” or “inspired by God.” Did it have this force in 2 Timothy 3.16? Almost surely it did. In instances where a word is of recent coinage, and especially when it is used for the first time by the author in question, etymology is a must. No author would coin a word whose meaning had no resemblance to its parts. Words that have been in circulation for a long time, especially common words, however, require primarily a synchronic analysis with supplement from diachronics.

Although modern linguistics has made significant and abiding contributions to biblical studies, not all linguistic principles are of equal value. And some may even be fallacies themselves.


27 thoughts on “Lexical Fallacies by Linguists

  1. Pingback: Lexical Fallacies by Linguists | A disciple's study

  2. Reblogged this on Veritas Venator and commented:
    Dan Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary examines ‘Lexical Fallacies by Linguists.” This is interesting to me since I recently wrote a chapter of my dissertation on the Greek term “philoxenia.” Being no linguist myself, I found the research fruitful and the exercise one that I hope to continue in practice not only in research, but also in sermon preparation. Wallace’s insights as a scholar are especially authoritative given his own expertise in such matters. He not only warns against certain practices, but also lends his own integrity and credibility to doing it correctly. I believe his thoughts are common among scholars — or, least I’d hope so — but I believe that preachers could certainly stand to hear this. I’ve heard many use these fallacies in their own preaching when it suited their purpose.


  3. Pingback: Lexical Fallacies by Linguists | Involuted Speculations

  4. I appreciate this post. I come from a very old school background where everyone owned a Vine’s dictionary. I was fortunate to have a relative who excelled in Biblical Greek and helped me understand many of these fallacies. I also remember reading Moises Silva’s 2nd edition of, biblical words and their meaning, which seemed to do a fair job of pointing out fallacies without going to an extreme of rendering etymology useless. Thank you!


  5. Thank you for the helpful observations; I’ve been struggling with how to communicate the meaning of a Greek word with out confusing (or misleading) the audience. This seems especially difficult when the word has a wide range of meanings.


  6. Josiah Walters

    I’ve read a moderate amount of linguistics literature (for my BA and MA in linguistics), and don’t think I’ve ever heard any of these three fallacies propagated by linguists (at least not in unqualified terms). Who are all these linguists who ‘often’ and ‘frequently’ say these sorts of things? At least some illustrative references?


    1. For the most part, I have heard scholars use these arguments without sufficient nuance. Sometimes, however, they are based on statements found in linguistic works, even though for the most part such statements in their contexts are seen to be more subtle, less absolute. Below are some examples:

      James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961):
      Etymologizing: Barr sufficiently nuances his argument to the effect that he does not discount the role of etymologizing in lexical studies, but at times he seems to speak absolutely of synchronics as the only guide to lexical meaning.
      107: “Etymology is not, and does not profess to be, a guide to the semantic value of words in their current usage, and such value has to be determined from the current usage and not from the derivation.” He cites Jespersen, Language, 316–17.

      109: “The main point is that the etymology of a word is not a statement about its meaning but about its history; it is only as a historical statement that it can be responsibly asserted, and it is quite wrong to suppose that the etymology of a word is necessarily a guide either to its ‘proper’ meaning in a later period or to its actual meaning in that period.”

      112: “The word ‘holy’ does not have and never did have the same meaning as the word from which it is formed…”

      113: “…the test of explanations of words is by their contexts.”

      For the most part, the context makes clear what he is actually saying, but many professors and Bible teachers since his time have taken these statements out of their contexts and have spoken in absolute terms against any value of etymology.

      J. P. Louw, Semantics of New Testament Greek (1982):
      Louw, too, is careful to nuance his discussion. However, he says some things that again have been taken out of context in popular linguistic discussion:

      40: “…a word does not have a meaning without a context, it only has possibilities of meaning.” The first clause I have heard stated dozens of times by scholars—without the qualification.

      45: “…meaning is not a ‘possession,’ that is, something which a word has, but… meaning is a set of relations for which a verbal symbol is a sign…” Again, in context it is clear what he is saying, but by itself this statement could be understood to mean that a given word doesn’t even have a range of meanings.

      67: Louw quotes, with approbation, J. C. Nyíri (1971), who argued that “a word has no meaning independently from the way in which it is connected to other words.” This is the kind of absolute statement that I was objecting to.

      68: “Meaning is very much a matter that depends on the relations among words (or their combinations), and their grammatical structure. It is also dependent on the situation of the utterance.” He adds “Semantics is therefore concerned with more than simply the meanings of words”—a point which, in part, may suggest that the range of meanings for a given word can be found in a lexicon.

      Darrell Bock, “Lexical Analysis: Studies in Words,” in Interpreting the New Testament Text (2006):
      138: “Words operate in a context and receive meaning from that context.” This is point 3 of Bock’s principles about the meaning of words. The second point makes clear that he is not thinking that words only receive meaning from a given context (“2. To establish the precise meaning of a word, one must recognize its possible range of meaning”), yet again I have heard many a scholar speak as though words only have meaning in a given context. Bock uses the illustration of pieces on a chess board, arguing that they gain their meaning in relation to other pieces, a point that Saussure had argued long ago. Yet, as I already noted, chess pieces have meaning both in relation to other pieces and in themselves.

      150: Bock enlists Nida’s famous principle that the “correct meaning of any term is that which contributes the least to the total context.” Again, I have heard many times this statement without any nuancing, so that the effect on the hearer is that a word has meaning only in a given context.

      Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning, 2nd ed. (1995):
      “…historical considerations may be of synchronic value, but only if we can demonstrate that the speaker was aware of them.” Silva is here summarizing Wartburg’s principle, but with full approbation. But as I argued above, this is a wrong evaluation of the value of diachronics. Diachronics are important for the researcher, regardless of whether the speaker in a given instance is aware of a word’s history, simply because the researcher is not privy to all that the native speaker knows about the current range of meaning of that word.


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  9. Thanks for this! In a particular self-study I’ve been working on, I’ve tentatively concluded that a diachronic study may be especially helpful for understanding a specific Johannine usage of a particular compound verb. Thus, I’ve applied your 2nd and 3rd bullet points. Moreover, I was unsure whether I should consider LXX usage when compared to NT usage as diachronic or synchronic, leaning towards the former. Now I feel a little more confident of my work!


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