The Mutations of Language

Language changes. All languages change. Some, such as Latin, die, which is why they are called dead languages. Others, by internal and external influences, mutate into new languages. The Bible reflects the truth of language mutation.

(Now it used to be in Israel that whenever someone went to inquire of God he would say, “Come on, let’s go to the seer.” For today’s prophet used to be called a seer.) 1 Samuel 9:9 NET

Most all the versions take this verse as a parenthetical statement, among them the NET, NIV, NASB, NKJV, NLT, NRSV and ESV. It was inserted as an explanation of the word “seer” as used by Saul and the need to call Samuel a “prophet” so the readers would understand.

In her commentary in the Tyndale series, Dr. Joyce Baldwin wrote that “In a modern book this verse would be a footnote.”

Aside from a testimony to the author’s recognition of the change in language from the time of Saul to the time of the final form of 1-2 Samuel, the verse serves as a witness to the mutations that occur in language and the need to continually “update” or adapt language to the hearers or readers to whom one hopes to transmit a meaning.

Just as the writer of 1-2 Samuel was concerned to communicate accurately with his readers, so today writers must be sure that their language is not archaic, but clear.

This same concern moves the production of new Bible versions (when not motivated by copyright restrictions and marketing opportunities). New versions should not be automatically excoriated, but welcomed. The phrase “modern versions” has acquired a negative connotation, unnecessarily so.

The writer of 1-2 Samuel explained that “seer” had the same referent as “prophet.” Though both were Hebrew words, they had different origins and shades of meaning, but referred to the same function or person. “Seer” was one who saw, who had a spiritual vision. “Prophet” probably referred to one’s “calling” to be God’s mouthpiece.

Some countries or international organizations attempt an authoritative control over how a language may change. Some Christians or churches seem to attempt the same control over a certain type of language to be used in prayer, versions or evangelism. Though laudable from a desire to preserve fidelity to the gospel, it is deeply wrong-headed since languages mutate constantly. The writer of 1-2 Samuel knew that and took it into account. We should as well.

In his article, “What Is Effective Teaching?,” Mike Riley condenses communication theory and applies it to spiritual teaching: “Communication takes place only when there is a reception to the teaching being presented.”

If we do not consider whether the proper meaning is being formed in the mind of the hearer or reader, we will not communicate effectively. We will, as Paul said, “be speaking into the air” and over people’s heads, 1 Cor. 14:9.

Doing so, we may blame people’s hard hearts, or lack of interest, or worldliness, when in fact the fault will, at least, in large part, be ours.

What do you think?