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Language is a Portrayal of Reality (Monday with Mounce 173)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday with MounceI am back from Asia, safe and sound. I discovered, among many things, that the native language has four tones, and the differentiation in tones is as significant to them as a change in consonants would be to us. I was trying to say “Thank you” and almost no one recognized my feeble attempt. But when I changed the tone just a tad, their eyes lit up.

It is kind of like slurring the end of a German word. It doesn’t mean much in English since most of the meaning is front-loaded in English, but for German it is significant how a word ends.

I thought a lot about how we say Greek words, especially if you use modern pronunciation and pay attention to the tones (i.e., accents), the voice going up and down, or up and down. Now add another tone. Greek isn’t that hard after all, is it? But I digress.

Someone asked me about the use of present tense verbs in Romans 7:14-20. Does it allow us to see these verses as a description of Paul’s past? Absolutely. Aspect is always primary to time, even in the indicative. The present describes as action from the inside out, as without beginning and end.


I could use a grammatical term like the historical present (although Wallace argues that the use of “I” makes this not possible, page 531f.). Or you could talk about the “I” not being Paul but rather any person who tries to live by the law, in which case the verbs become gnomic, but I think that unlikely as well.

Rather, I go back to  Wallace’s common assertion that language is just a portrayal of reality. Language does not state what is; it is a projection of what we want people to project. This means we use the indicative to lie. It also means our words can create an image in a person’s mind in which we are trying to say, “This is the way it is.”

As I have often said, language is the stringing of one ambiguity after another. Language is not precise, often because it is creating images. It is up to the context to provide, among other things, a chronological framework. Paul is describing something that he knows to be true as it is part of his experience. “I am of the flesh.” “I do not do what I want.” “The law is good.” The flexibility of the Greek language system only adds to the possibility of increased ambiguity and the need for context.

By the way, did you know that Chinese verbs do not have time? Basically, it requires contextual indicators to specify past, present, or future. And all Hebrew readers respond, “Amen.”

Ambiguity upon ambiguity. Language is truly analog, not digital.

MouncewWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more about Bill at, and visit his other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at

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