Tuesday, January 13, 2015

John 1:1, Harner, Dixon and Qualitativeness

Here's something I wrote almost 15 years ago. I'm open to correction on what I stated then:

When I was first introduced (formally) to the history and grammar of the English language, I was taught the outmoded symbol-referent model. I have since abandoned it in favor of the signifier, signified, and referent paradigm. Now I make that observation in order to stress that I am not saying the qualities of the "terms" (θεὸς or διάβολος) are emphasized by the preverbal anarthrous PNs; to the contrary, it seems that the qualities of the referent (or grammatical subject) are stressed in John 6:70 and 8:44. So the respective terms or signifers ("slanderer" and "liar") apparently stress qualities of the subjects (Judas and Satan respectively) discussed by John. In John 1:1c, therefore, it might be the case that θεὸς primarily serves to delineate the qualities of the Λόγος (the referent or grammatical subject) as opposed to depicting his identity. This is not the same as claiming that the quality of θεὸς is emphasized over against "the qualities and all" of the term in this fateful passage. As the KIT appendix says: "It [θεὸς] merely expresses a certain quality about the Word [Λόγος] . . ."

But how does one prove that a construction is qualitative (with very little if any emphasis on indefiniteness) rather than definite or qualitative-indefinite or indefinite-qualitative? Work from usage, grammar [syntax], and context. Hence, I may not agree with Harner or Dixon's statistics for qualitativeness in John (Harner said that about 80% and Dixon wrote that 94% of preverbal anarthrous PNs in the Fourth Gospel are qualitative, I believe). I may question some of their examples and the inferences they draw from the data, but 6:70 and 8:44 evidently stand as legitimate examples of places where the qualitity of the subjects are stressed (as does 1:1c). But are these examples of pure qualitativeness? Maybe we don't have to go that far.

Now as far as fronting for emphasis is concerned, Wallace gives John 5:10 as an example of a preverbal anarthrous qualitative PN. Frankly, this verse is highly debatable. Nevertheless, it's possible that the reason why there's a fronted PN could be for the purpose of emphasizing the qualities of a literary or grammatical subject. If the Jews were arguing about the "kind" of day on which the man was healed, then John's use of Σάββατόν in 5:10 could be primarily qualitative in nature. Granted, this conclusion cannot be reached by the syntactical construction alone; however, I am simply pointing out that anarthousness might be used to focus on the quality of the subject delineated by the signifier in question. But we must determine such qualitativeness or lack thereof from the context. Even in English, we may front nouns to emphasize qualties.


Anonymous said...

Hi Edgar,

You probably recall that I reject the "qualitative count noun" idea as an invention of Trinitarians used to avoid the two most natural understandings of John 1:1c. It was proposed by theologians, not professional linguists, and the reason it was proposed was because Trinitarians came to perceive that their previous preferred blunder (Colwell's Rule) presented theological problems.

However, setting my skepticism aside for the moment, I'd like to point out that Dixon's three distinct categories, indefinite, qualitative, and definite, is demonstrably flawed. "Qualitative" count nouns aren't distinct from indefinite nouns because their "qualitativeness" actually *depends* on their indefiniteness!

For example, one could say that "Holle Berry has the appearance of a teenager" as a means of hyperbolically noting her youthful appearance. If you were to say, "Holle Berry has the face of the teenager" it simply wouldn't make sense, as no other teenager is presented in context for comparison. If you were to say, "Holle Berry has the face of teenager", you would simply give the impression that English isn't your first language. The "qualitativeness" (her youthful appearance) we infer from the sentence *depends* on the indefiniteness of "teenager".

Dixon was simply mistaken when he asserted that indefinite nouns are solely for categorization. And it was a embarrassingly silly mistake. Indefinite nouns are used for a variety of reasons, i.e. to categorize, to convey blended nuance, and even when qualitativeness is more important than than the noun's indefiniteness.

I wouldn't personally call "liar" and "slanderer" qualitative, as they refer to behavior, not nature per se, but even if we grant that they are used "qualitatively", that nuance doesn't have anything to do with the position of the nouns in relation to the verb; it has to do with the terms themselves as applied in context.

The biggest problem with the "qualitative" theses is that it hasn't been properly vetted by secular linguists whose views aren't controlled by theological presuppositions. I sent a copy of Hartley's thesis to John Blackman some time ago, and he found it to be so sloppy that he gave it to a friend who teaches linguistics in college as an example of how NOT to do linguistic research! I'd say that the same goes for Harner and Dixon. They make assertions that we simply have no reason to accept.


Anonymous said...


Interestingly, definite nouns can be used to highlight the "nature" (=qualitativeness) of a subject, and, as with indefinite nouns, the qualitativeness we infer in these cases also *depends* on the noun's definiteness.

For example, if someone wanted to really ram home how wicked he felt another person is (e.g. Hitler), he might say: "That monster is the Devil himself". Here "qualitativeness" is emphasized by a formal lie, and Devil is clearly definite.

So, both definite and indefinite count nouns can be used to convey the nature of a referent (="qualitativeness"), and in all cases the qualitativeness actually *depends* on the definiteness or indefiniteness of the terms.

Dixon separated the "nature" indefinites from the "categorical" indefinites for the sake of "expediency" as he notes in the beginning of his thesis. That was an ironically appropriate way to put it, for "expedient" means "suitable for achieving a particular end in a given circumstance", and in this case the "end" was determined before the thesis was begun: He needed to avoid the two natural understandings of John 1:1c and secure a third alternative.

IMO, Dixon's third alternative exists only in his mind, and only because he distinguished between two uses of *indefinite* nouns in an illegitimate, self-serving way.


Edgar Foster said...


I try to keep an open mind about the definite, indefinite, and qualitative issue. Maybe the "qualitative count noun" notion is purely ad hoc and ideological. It could have been postulated in order to further a/the Trinitarian agenda. But talk about qualitative nouns has been around for quite some time in Greek grammars and I'm sure you remember Slaten's work on the subject too. I'll post a little more on the qualitative issue. However, it's going to require more study for me to completely reject the definite, indefinite and qualitative semantic force scheme. One problem (as you say) is probably the mixture of linguistics and theology that's occurring in these discussions. That seems to be par for the course though.

Thanks for your input.

Anonymous said...

Hi Edgar,

A number of things helped me to reach the realization that "qualitative count nouns" are really indefinite count nouns used to highlight nature.

First, I set aside the theologians and tried to find support for the notion of purely qualitative count nouns in the secular literature. I finally gave up, as it appeared that only theologians were talking about this unique category of noun.

Second, I went over example, after example, after example in my head, and came to realize that the "qualitativeness" we infer always depends on the definiteness or indefiniteness of the nouns in question, as used in context.

Take the example I offered:

"That monster is the Devil himself."

"Devil" there has to be definite or we wouldn't know *whose* "qualities" are being transferred to Hitler via the formal lie. If "Devil" were purely qualitative, then there would be no "who" implied or inferred, because quality isn't a "who".

Take another example involving an indefinite noun. If you wanted to say that someone is beautiful, you could say:

"She's a beauty."

You wouldn't typically say "She's the beauty," or "she's beauty," if your sole purpose were to assert that the "she" in question is "beautiful". The definite article makes the assertion specific, while the lack of the indefinite article changes the statement to either an abstract one, or a suggestion that the "she" is the personification or embodiment of beauty. Moreover, "beauty" would be a mass noun in that case, not a count noun. This could ultimately mean the same thing, but the meaning is arrived at differently, i.e. NOT via the application of a qualitative count noun.

Third, I wrote (via email) to various linguists and grammarians who teach at college and asked whether they would take "God" as "qualitative" in the sentence "the Word was God". I gave a brief explanation of what motivated my question, and in response ALL said no, that "God" is a definite noun in that sentence. If I recall correctly, one even said that it's a proper name. Another, who I believe was into computational linguistics, said that nouns have to be either + or - definiteness (i.e. either definite or indefinite).

Fourth, I set aside the natural tendency to believe that those who speak as authorities must know what they're talking about, and really scrutinized what they were actually saying. This was *really* revealing. I came to see so much sloppiness in the arguments, so many unsupported assumptions and assertions, so many unwarranted conclusions, and that it was theological considerations that inspired that sloppiness.

I've tried to keep an open mind too, which is why I've spent so much time researching this and giving the benefit of the doubt. But in the end I found that there simply is no compelling reason to accept what the theologians are asserting on this. I have no problem being corrected, as even if the theory were true, it would merely make a qualitative QEOS one of three possibilities at John 1:1c. But it's going to take more than the sorts of sloppy arguments I've read, many from anti-NWT polemicists at DTS, to sway me. I'm going to need to see what I haven't seen so far: some insightful argumentation and compelling evidence.


Edgar Foster said...

Hi Kaz,

I really appreciate the work you've done on this subject and the feedback you've provided here.

You're right about the need for precision or non-sloppiness in these kind of discussions. Because of your posts, I've begun to wonder if categories such as indefinite, definite and qualitative are semantic categories or syntactic/or a mixture of both.

I also came across a passage from Homer today that might have soms bearing on this issue:

δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος ἦμος Ἠώς, ὤρνυτ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐξ εὐνῆφιν Ὀδυσσῆος φίλος υἱὸς εἵματα ἑσσάμενος, περὶ δὲ ξίφος ὀξὺ θέτ᾽ ὤμῳ, ποσσὶ δ᾽ ὑπὸ λιπαροῖσιν ἐδήσατο καλὰ πέδιλα, βῆ δ᾽ ἴμεν ἐκ θαλάμοιο θεῷ ἐναλίγκιος ἄντην (Odyssey 2.1ff).

A.T. Murray render these poetic lines:

Soon as early Dawn appeared, the rosy-fingered, up from his bed arose the dear son of Odysseus and put on his clothing. About his shoulder he slung his sharp sword, and beneath his shining feet bound his fair sandals, and went forth from his chamber like a god to look upon.

The last sentence has the greatest bearing on the discussion for us.

How should we understand the "a god" translation in this case?

Edgar Foster said...

Repost of the Greek text:

ἦμος δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς, ὤρνυτ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐξ εὐνῆφιν Ὀδυσσῆος φίλος υἱὸς εἵματα ἑσσάμενος, περὶ δὲ ξίφος ὀξὺ θέτ᾽ ὤμῳ, ποσσὶ δ᾽ ὑπὸ λιπαροῖσιν ἐδήσατο καλὰ πέδιλα,
5βῆ δ᾽ ἴμεν ἐκ θαλάμοιο θεῷ ἐναλίγκιος ἄντην.

Anonymous said...

Hi Edgar,

That's a nice example. I would say that "a god" is probably being used to stress certain characteristics of the subject, there, though it's difficult to know precisely what characteristics the author has in mind.

BTW, I've continued our conversation on my blog via a series that I've titled "And the Word was God 'Qualitatively'?: Torturing Language and Grammar to Preserve a Preconceived View," which you can read at the below URL if you'd like:



Anonymous said...

"You're right about the need for precision or non-sloppiness in these kind of discussions. Because of your posts, I've begun to wonder if categories such as indefinite, definite and qualitative are semantic categories or syntactic/or a mixture of both."

That's a good question, Edgar. I understand that most modern linguists tell us that a word has only one meaning in a given context. Since a noun's qualitativeness can be shown to *depend* on it's indefiniteness (or even it's definiteness, in some rare cases), I've contemplated the possibility that that indefiniteness is primarily a syntactical feather that contributes to meaning, but isn't necessarily meaning by itself. I think I'll submit this to a few linguists and see what they think.


Edgar Foster said...

Hi Kaz,

Thanks for the link, Kaz. I have started to read your blog posts and think you've done a good job with them. I also appreciate you putting forth the effort to consult with linguists about the issue. It will be nice to hear what they say.

All the best,