Runge fills a gap

Of the eleven new books on my shelf, Steven Runge’s Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament is the one I’m most excited about. First of all, it continues the line of valuable Greek reference tools that have a green cover. So it’s obviously in good company with Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich, Daniel Wallace, Stephen Levinsohn, and the Loeb Classical Library.

If you know anything about what my latest research has been in applying discourse linguistics to the interpretation of the New Testament, you’ll know why I’m so excited. Too often, exegesis is limited by a narrow view of the meaning of words and sentences without considering how those words are used in the wider contexts of whole discourses with patterns of use within a language community (and even patterns shared cross-linguistically). Many have touted the benefits of discourse linguistics for exegesis, but it looks like this might finally be the work to bridge the much-needed gap in introducing the theory to a wider audience in the academic world of New Testament studies.

After reading the foreward by Daniel Wallace, I immediately thought back to Wallace’s own introduction to his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (1996) and why he excluded discourse analysis from his treatment of Greek grammar. In Runge’s preface, he himself cites Wallace’s reasons for leaving discourse considerations out. But I think Runge got Wallace’s sentiments a bit wrong! In only one sense can Wallace be said to be in the camp with those who “believe that linguistics and discourse studies have overpromised and underdelivered.” Wallace was still waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, still waiting for the delivery, but not because he doubted the value of discourse linguistics. In fact, Runge only cites the first three of Wallace’s four reasons for excluding discourse. The fourth one was the most promising, and the one that kept me waiting for a book like Runge’s: “(4) Finally, DA is too significant a topic to receive merely a token treatment, appended as it were to the end of a book on grammar. It deserves its own full-blown discussion.”

I’ve only read through the first chapter of Runge so far, but already, I’m very pleased with the kinds of things that he is challenging NT scholarship with…

Choice implies meaning

If a writer chose to use a participle to describe an action, he has at the same time chosen not to use an indicative or other finite verb form. This implies that there is some meaning associated with this decision. Representing the action using a participle communicates something that using a different mood would not have communicated. Defining the meaning associated with the choice is different from assigning a syntactic force or from determining an appropriate translation. It requires understanding what discourse task is performed by the participle that would not have been accomplished by another verb form. (p. 6)

Semantic or inherent meaning should be differentiated from pragmatic effect

Most languages do not have specialized devices that are singularly devoted to prominence marking. It is far more common to find a nonstandard usage achieving specific pragmatic effects. Greek is no exception. The use of the historical present for forward-pointing highlighting exemplifies this. Using a grammatical construction in an ostensibly wrong or unexpected way has the effect of making something stand out. The pragmatic effect achieved is dependent upon the discourse context in which it occurs. The devices described in the chapters that follow exploit some departure from an expected norm to achieve a specific pragmatic effect. Distinguishing semantic meaning from pragmatic effect is critical to providing a coherent and accurate description of the device and its function within the discourse. Neglecting this distinction leaves you with “messy discourse”! (p. 9)

Default patterns of usage should be distinguished from marked ones

To summarize, markedness theory presupposes that one member of a set is the most basic or simple member, called the “default” member. All of the other members signal or “mark” the presence of some unique quality, one that would not have been marked if the default option were used. The marked options are described based on how they uniquely differ both from the default and from one another…. Some English conjunctions distinguish semantic continuity versus semantic discontinuity (and versus but). The conjunctions καί and δέ do not encode this semantic constraint, leading them to be listed under both connective and contrastive relations [in Wallace]. The messiness of this overlap is caused by the mismatch of the feature to the framework used, not by the overlapping features that are marked.  καί and δέ are unmarked for the feature of semantic continuity or discontinuity. (p. 11, 13)

Prominence

The primary objective of using the various discourse devices is to attract extra attention to certain parts or aspects of the discourse–that is, to mark them as prominent…. Regardless of whether we are looking at a scenic view, a piece of visual art, or even listening to music, we are constantly making judgments about what is “normal” and what is “prominent” based on the devices used to signal prominence. (p. 13-14)

Contrast

Since prominence is fundamentally about making something stand out in its context, marking prominence typically involves creating contrast with other things in the context. Contrast, in turn, presupposes that a person recognizes the underlying pattern. Even if we cannot verbalize the pattern, we can still perceive contrast. (p.16)

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2 Responses to “Runge fills a gap”

  1. Mike Aubrey Says:

    It’s a great book. I had the pleasure of contributing some of the technical editing of it. I’m glad that you’re excited about it, bzephyr.

    Now, if only we could get a linguistically grounded syntax…

  2. Books and dear friends « Living Letters Says:

    […] I’ve started reading a bit from each one just to whet my appetite, but which one do you think I’ll dig into first from cover to cover? Check it out at my ΑΓΑΠΗΣΕΙΣ blog. […]


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