Review of Runge's "Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament" Pt 3

Steve Runge’s A Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament (DGGNT) is divided into four main sections, which are followed by a summary. In this portion of my review, I want to focus on Chapter 1 of Part 1, which is titled “Foundations” and as such, functions as an introduction to what Runge understands to be key concepts within his Discourse Analysis (DA) approach.

While this is a grammar which both Wallace (in the foreword) and Runge (in the preface) suggest is a “complement” to other grammars, as opposed to being in competition with them, some of my initial questions/critiques flow from this assertion. When compared to other grammars, I find it interesting that Runge opts out of providing rudimentary elements of Greek at the beginning of his “grammar”. Absent from DGGNT are any signs of an alphabet, pronunciation, diphthongs, breathing/diacritical marks, etc. In the foreword, Wallace urges students to take up and read this book, while Runge, in the preface notes that this work is one that “even first-year Greek students” can productively engage (xviii). Yet, if this were the only grammar one had to start with, this would certainly not be the case as they would not even know the alphabet! Therefore, in an updated version, I wonder if it might benefit Runge to consider adding brief sections on each of these phenomena.

Runge does begin his introduction, however, by exposing some of his philosophical undergirdings. For instance, he notes that in using a “function-based approach,” he desires to “describe grammatical conventions based upon the discourse functions they accomplish” not simply “their translation” (3). One major difference between the DGGNT and traditional grammars is that whereas other authors have tended to focus on word-level or sentence-level phenomena, Runge seeks to offer a “descriptive framework” that is functional across the board, in other words, a cross-linguistic framework (4). Instead of simply describing linguistic peculiarities away, as many grammars have tended to do, Runge argues that these peculiarities, in fact, point to the existence of significant discourse features that beg for the interpreter’s attention.

For Runge, there are at least three presuppositions of his approach that he desires to make explicit mention of: 1) Choice implies meaning, 2) Semantic or inherent meaning should be differentiated from pragmatic effect, and 3) Default patterns of usage should be distinguished from marked ones (5). While there are likely more assumptions underlying Runge’s approach (e.g. unspoken assertions about using modern linguistic theory to analyze ancient texts…and modern ones too), the annunciation of these claims from the outset are helpful for the reader. Here, let us deal with each in turn, and then say a few words also about “prominence” and “contrast”.

Much of Runge’s agenda, as we have alluded to, seems driven by the desire for a cross-linguistic analytic, that is, an “approach to language that applies just as much to Greek or English as to other languages” (5). In every language, including these two, choice always implies meaning. To put it differently, those who composed the biblical texts in Greek wished to communicate in certain ways, prioritizing and ordering events and words purposefully (5). An example of my own illustrates this presupposition. If I am at a 4-way intersection in my car and I am in need of gas and on each of the four corners there is a gas station, then I have four choices I can make. I can go to Station A, Station B, Station C or Station D. Yet, I do not just go. No, I choose to go. And inherent to my choice is a reason (or reasons). The reason might be based on whether or not I have to make a right or left hand turn, have to wait or not at some traffic sign or light, gas prices, etc. My choice is backed by reason and that reason implies meaning. It means something that I went to Station A over and against the other three stations.

DA suggests that when reading a text, we must pay close attention to the choices that the composer(s) made. A choice of words implies meaning, especially when there are multiple options available. For example, this past Sunday when I was working through Mark (Mk) with my class, in 1.12, we took note of the word ekballei. This is typically the word used of exorcisms throughout the Markan narrative. So, why would the author of Mk choose this word of the Spirit's relationship to Jesus, a word which had a lot of potential for confusion, when he could have chosen apostellei or agei, etc.? Choice implies meaning! This, I believe is a sound principle. As Runge notes, “If a (NT) 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” (6).

Still, I am left wondering at this point how Runge’s DA accounts for socio-cultural motivations of linguistic usage? It is one thing to analyze the text in light of discourse, but it is a completely different thing to analyze the language used in light of socio-cultural motivations for using a word or set of words? For example, where DA can tell us that there is something significant to be said for using a participle over and against an imperfect, it does not seem to be able to tell us whether the participle used was local idiom, rhetorical polish or driven by social & cultural norms. For example, Runge could analyze the following sentence of mine, “You all are good readers” and he could tell you that linguistically, I used SVO word order and an adjective. (In fact, a similar example is used beginning on pg 12!) He could also tell you that I used a 2nd person plural verb (e.g. You all are). However, his DA could not tell you why I might have done that. For instance, he could not tell you that just a few miles down the interstate there stands a huge water tower that might embarrass many Kentuckians because of its poor grammar, which reads “Florence Y’all.” Thus, my choice to use the more proper “You all” might be driven by a socio-cultural resistance to the tower’s poor grammar. Or, it may not. So, I am left wondering at this point, where DA intersects with rhetorical and socio-cultural motivations behind language use!

This remains one of my concerns througout the following section: Semantic Meaning versus Pragmatic Effect. Here, Runge argues that “It is very important to distinguish between the inherent meaning of something (its semantic meaning) and the effect achieved by using it in a particular context (its pragmatic effort) (7). Runge provides some excellent examples of how choice not only implies meaning but that choice and meaning also create effects upon audiences (e.g. readers or hearers). Paying attention to linguistic signals, for example, the punch line in a joke or the sarcastic tone in a conversation reveals that speakers seek to create certain effects. Missing those signals may lead to misinterpretation and therefore misunderstanding…and even misappropriation! These signals or “markings” help things stand out so that they are not missed or glossed over too easily. As Runge contends, “Distinguishing semantic meaning from pragmatic effect is critical to providing a coherent and accurate description of the device and its function within the discourse.” (9) Otherwise, one is simply left with “messy discourse” (9). While being able to notice marking is certainly helpful in exegetical and hermeneutical endeavors, I am still left asking the same questions raised at the end of the previous paragraph above.

In the following section, “Default versus Marked Framework” I understand Runge to be showing how attention to “markedness” is often a way to overcome textual or linguistic ambiguity. It is difficult to see this early on in the book, however, just how “markedness” is all that different from “modification.” For instance, Runge suggests that his theory contains sets of words or ideas. In each of these sets, there is a default “member” (11). If “kids” is the default member in a set of words and we wanted to “mark” this word or signal that it deserves attention, we could say “my kids” or “your kids” and this would “signal the presence of some quality or discourse feature that ‘the kids’ would not have signaled” (11). Of course, I do see some nuance here that distinguishes this from modification but still, the concept is very close. I wonder if a new term is needed, if I’m simply misunderstanding or if the broadening of the traditional use of “modify” would suffice.

One takeaway from this theory is its resistance to the Word Use Fallacy (which has a variety of other names as well), that is, the fallacy that appeals to statistics of word use to bear the weight of interpretive freight. Here, the focus is not on word count but rather word choice and whether the term or terms used deviate (or not) from the default term. One caveat that Runge notes, however, is that “Factors such as genre and content can skew (default) frequency, so, care must be taken in selecting the default” (12). From here, Runge goes on to show how Wallace’s definitions and categorizations of conjunctions is confusing and even unhelpful (12). In particular, he points out that kai and de, Greek conjunctions, according to Wallace, serve multiple functions. Attempting to understand the logic of their function, however, is quite difficult. In fact, briefly looking ahead to chapter 2, Runge notes that kai and de need to be understood less in terms of specific glosses and more in terms of how they function to show continuity and discontinuity in Greek discourse (13).

This leads into a discussion of prominence and contrast. Prominence is simply a cipher for emphasis. Some linguistic moves or devices signal to the audience that emphasis is being placed upon certain words or aspects of the discourse (13). Like photographers, writers or speakers can frame things in such a way as to bring more attention or emphasis or prominence to them. One way that this can also be done is through contrast. For example, a writer can repeat a certain word throughout a sentence or paragraph but suddenly change their pattern up and use a different word. This contrast will alert readers or hearers to an important aspect of the discourse. It is like the co-worker who wears jeans and a t-shirt to work every day for twenty years, but then, one day, breaks the pattern and arrives in a suit. The breaking of the pattern “attracts attention, perhaps prompting questions about what it meant” (16). The snapshots of the mountain scene below, taken from the book (14), also illustrate both prominence and contrast. Can you point out how the different pictures use prominence similarly or differently to highlight the mountain or surrounding scenery? Can you see how contrast is functioning as well?

The point of this illustration is significant because, whereas “prominence is fundamentally about making something stand out in context…contrast, in turn, presupposes that a person recognizes the underlying pattern” (16). Ultimately, “The choice to break the expected pattern implies that there was some reason not to follow the pattern. The choice implies meaning” (16). Which of the above images deviates from the pattern? How? Why? What might the meaning of this deviation or contrast be?

So far, I am still very intrigued with Runge’s DA approach and already, a number of important questions have been raised. I will continue to ponder these matters and explore them in conjunction with and apart from the DGGNT. I look forward to reviewing Chapter 2 of Part 1. In the meantime, feel free to read along with me. Pick up your copy over at Logos.

No comments:

Post a Comment