Linguistics and Context Part I
Updated: Feb 15, 2020
One of the most used examples of the uniqueness of the English language is the use of pear, pair or pare. When reading these same words the reader can easily distinguish the differences between each word and can more readily understand what is being said. A listener of the same word must hear a string of words put together to understand which of these words the speaker was trying to communicate with. Example 1 -"I used a paring knife to successfully pare a pair of pears." This sentence, while somewhat odd, illustrates the proper use of pare, pair and pear and in context is accurate. Let me move the words around to confuse you slightly. Example 2- "I used a pearing knife to pear a pare of pairs." Now we have a knife that is uncommonly called a "Pear"ing knife, and it is "pear"ing a "pare" of "pairs". If I read this sentence, I think that my first thought would be that someone has used a knife to slice pears and therefore has wrongfully identified it as a "Pear"ing knife, and that they really don't understand English well, and the juice from their knife has dripped on my pair of 3's in my UNO game. Odd and confusing, but there is still a slight chance that the statement was read as intended. However, the person that has heard the sentence and has not read it would not be able to differentiate between Example 1 or Example 2. (My cynicism kicked in while proofreading and my first thought would actually be this; "This writer should have finished third grade.") So what is wrong with Example 2? It has deviated greatly from the common usage that is found in our modern language and that deviance makes it almost unreadable. When listening to pear, pare or pair, we must hear the words around it to have understanding of the correct usage of the word. To read pear, pare or pair, we can quickly identify the word being used because of obvious spelling differences and that is what makes the above sentence so unusual to read. Had I spoken the sentence, then no one would have noticed the differences in spelling because it was presented as a verbal statement. Lets visit a similar word which does not deviate in spelling, but has multiple definitions for the same word. Fair! "A fair young lady was playing a game at the fair that just wasn't fair." (we will not delve into the word "fare" here). Fair - adj. Pleasing to the mind or eye, especially due to flawless qualities Fair - n. a festival, a gathering of buyers and sellers at a particular place and time Fair - adv. to play in a balanced and lawful manner, obeying the rules Would it be fair to say that this is a three fold word that looks and sounds the same, but varies greatly in its meaning? Now we fast forward to our missionary who is trying to teach our Vietnamese brethren the nuances of the English language. I cannot imagine that there is just one word in Vietnamese to express the word "fair" in 3 totally different contexts. How confusing would it be if you asked him about the weather and he blurted out the Vietnamese word for "carnival"? Then while playing Ticket to Ride he accuses another player of cheating, or not playing a pleasant looking and appealing game! Those of us raised on English would have a good laugh and the Vietnamese would have quite a few questions about context.
I hold in my hands a pure Bible. If I take a single word from Hebrew or Greek and then find study helps that guide me to believe that that same word in Hebrew or Greek was translated into four or five different English words, and that they all closely mean the same thing, then I would not be shocked to hear the Greeks laughing at my misunderstanding. It would not be because I don't know the word, but rather I do not know the context around the word. It would cause me to dig deeper into the Greek to look for the proper context in a language that I don't understand, or it would make me look at my English Bible to see if it actually means what it says! When you yell "fire" you must know the setting and timing before you yell the word. This is called context. If you yell "Fire" in a crowded theater, the chances are that you will spend a few nights in a jail minstry without support. If you yell "Fire" when a house is burning, then you could be the local hero for your understanding of the setting and the timing of your yell. If you see a man blindfolded smoking a cigarette while tied to a post, then it probably isn't your place to yell "fire" even though the last time you yelled "fire" you were the hero. Context is given in English that English speaking people can understand. I have chosen to believe the English Bible. It has created faith in me. Not out of pride, arrogancy or a despising of other languages, but out of a trust that a Holy God can keep the Word of the Lord as pure as He is. I believe this Cambridge Text is pure.