Linguist Forum

Specializations => Semantics and Pragmatics => Topic started by: josephusflav on October 14, 2018, 10:54:38 AM

Title: Is the following sentence grammatically correct way of conveying the following:
Post by: josephusflav on October 14, 2018, 10:54:38 AM
I have seen people tear each other's throats out over the following sentence.

"Behold, he Virgin shall conceive and bear a son , and call him Immanuel".

The controversy for those who don't know is the Hebrew word Alma.

Supposedly it could mean young woman or it could mean virgin, but the reason everyone is so uptight about the translation is because it's supposed to be evidence for the Virgin birth of Jesus.

However it seems to me perfectly possible that the original text literally says "virgin" and for the sentence to still mean " the person who is a virgin now will have sex and give birth later".

It seems like if you were to argue that " the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son" must mean that the Virgin will be a virgin at the time that she gives birth that you would also have to say the following:

"The Virgin shall grow up and receive the Medal of honor" is true if and only if the subject of that sentence is a still virgin at the time of receiving the Medal of Honor.

That seems absurd to me.

Am I correct that " the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son" is grammatically consistent with both the interpretation that the Virgin will be a virgin at the time of the birth and the interpretation that the Virgin will no longer be a virgin at the time of the birth?

Title: Re: Is the following sentence grammatically correct way of conveying the following:
Post by: Daniel on October 14, 2018, 02:10:20 PM
This is an example of underspecification. English, Hebrew, etc., do not have temporal information associated with nouns. There are languages that have nominal tense, so that something like "ex-president" and "president-elect" (or "ex-virgin" and "future-virgin") could be encoded grammatically, but that's not the case here. So yes you are correct. Otherwise it could also indicate that someone is permanently a virgin, such that Jesus's virgin birth would be nullified if Mary ever had sex after his birth too.

However, as you point out the sentence is ambiguous (actually, it's vague, underspecified, because it isn't strictly a set of particular alternatives, unless you assume a finite set of times at which to evaluate "the virgin"), and it may still be the case that the meaning of "virgin at the time of birth" was intended. This is a matter of interpretation and context, not inherent in the semantics. The literary and cultural context, as well as other verses, might clarify this. For one thing, given the attention this has gotten, wouldn't it be weird to mention she's a virgin before becoming not a virgin inherently by the information in the sentence?

Note also that the sentence could be interpreted as her becoming not a virgin while already pregnant with Jesus who was conceived immaculately.

In other words, this sentence is up to interpretation. The question is how the words were intended to be interpreted, not how they could possibly be interpreted.

I will say that generally the easiest interpretation is one of consistency, which also explains why nominal tense only rarely develops (contrastive use is rare, even though it would be useful in those cases). That is, assuming that "the virgin" applies throughout the moment of speech, the event described, and so forth, makes sense. A "permanent" reading, unless otherwise indicated, is a reasonable default. So personally I'd be more likely to focus on the ambiguity of "virgin" vs. "young woman", because those seem the most likely to be used in these circumstances. (It would make little sense and be of little relevance to say "the current virgin [who will later not be a virgin after conception] will give birth".)
Title: Re: Is the following sentence grammatically correct way of conveying the following:
Post by: panini on October 15, 2018, 09:09:46 AM
First, I don't see how the original text could have literally said "virgin", when we have a reasonable amount of evidence that it said "עַלְמָה". Nor could the text have meant "virgin" because English is not The Universal Semantic Language, where meaning across languages is defined in terms of English words. The first question that should be asked is what the evidence is that עַלְמָה refers (ever, generally, or in this instance) to a female who has not had sex (however that be defined). At which point, one would investigate all of the attestations of the word (all 7) and determine whether it definitely has that meaning in any other context (IMO, no). We might find that the word is only assigned the translation "virgin" in one text occurrence. We would also look at the masculine word עֶלֶם, which conventionally translates to "boy", to see if it too evidences the added condition "has not had sex". One would also want to check whether there exists an unambiguous Hebrew term that means what we mean when we say "virgin" – בְּתוּלָה. Maybe it too is ambiguous, but if the author's intent was to specifically communicate "has not had sex", why wouldn't the author just say that? In a Scalian court of law, the evidence would be found to show that the text says "girl" and not "virgin".

You would also want to look for evidence that the corresponding term in later translations and texts (Greek, Latin) had that specific meaning, that is, determine from context what the meaning of παρθένος is, and the meaning of virgo, and check for consistency (is עַלְמָה always translated as παρθένος, or only in one verse?). As I understand, there are two Greek translations for עַלְמָה, παρθένος and νεανις: when and why are there different Greek translations?

In contemporary English, if you say "My brother is a virgin", that means i.e. literally entails that your brother has not had sex. If you say "My brother is dead", that only linguistically entails permanent death because death is not a reversible condition. Whereas, talking about your virgin brother does not linguistically entail that he is a permanent virgin. This is not a quirk of English, this is a fact about human language, that conclusions of the kind "is and will forever after remain" are not linguistically entailed, unless you actually include some expression to that effect – "Behold, a permanent virgin shall conceive...".

Title: Re: Is the following sentence grammatically correct way of conveying the following:
Post by: Daniel on October 15, 2018, 02:38:03 PM
Most of what you said makes sense, but you would also want to look at why this particular instance uses "girl" instead of "woman", just as much as the comparisons you suggest. If it's a rare word, then there must be some reason for using it (e.g., Relevance).