Lexical Nominalization & Πίστις Χριστου

David Ker has pulled me into the debate and subjective/objective genitives. NT Wrong has written a few posts now on the construction arguing for an Objective Genitive.

Personally, I don’t know how much I have to add or really what side I’m on, though I suppose I lean toward the Objective view (see HERE for why). I would like to deal with the question though in a manner different than what we’ve seen thus far in NT studies. I want to look at subjective/objective genitives cross-linguistically if only to suggest a more objective or empirically motivated path out of this mess. My thoughts on the issue developed from reading Bernard Comrie & Sandra A. Thompson’s essay, “Lexical nominalizations” in Language Typology and Syntactic Description: Volume 3, Grammatical Categories and the Lexicon (Timothy Shopen, ed.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 334-381.

Those of you who have read deeply enough into the aspect debate should recognize Comrie’s name. He’s a bit of a giant in linguistics and his reputation is well deserved.

Nominalization is a big word for “turning something into a noun.” Much of the Comrie & Thompson essay deals with derivational processes where various things are turned into nouns. Our interest in this chapter is found in the section on Syntactic Collocation, where they write, “Perhaps the most interesting evidence for the hybrid verbal-nominal nature of the action nominal comes from the expression of subject and direct object with the action nominal” (355).

Let’s examine, first, how English subjects and objects are assimilated to Noun Phrase Syntax.

What is unique about English and subjective/objective genitives in NPs is the fact that both can appear at the same time because have two different genitive constructions. Thus in (1)

(1) The man’s belief in Christ.

can only be interpreted as [Subj: man’s ] and [Obl: in Christ].* But what happens when we only have one genitive construction. How is it interpreted then? Well, that depends on whether the nominalized verb is transitive or intransitive.

If in English there is only genitive construction whether it be Saxon (_’s) or Norman (of _), the genitive will always be objective with transitive nominalizations, as seen in Comrie & Thompson’s examples (2-4; page 356):

(2) The enemy’s destruction of the city.

(3) The city’s destruction.

(4) The enemy’s destruction.

In (2), the prenominal genitive is subjective, while the second is objective. But in other two, the genitive construction must be the object. In (3), it is the city that is being destroyed, not the enemy. Likewise in (4), its the enemy being destroyed rather than the enemy destroying something.

But when we move into English intransitive verbs, such as to believe, we find that the opposite is the case.

(5) The belief of man

(6) Christ’s belief.

Both (5) and (6) can only be interpreted subjectively. In (5), the NP refers to a man’s belief in something/someone and (6) refers to Christ’s belief in something/someone. This is the case regardless of whether the genitive is prenominal (Saxon) or postnominal (Norman).**

Okay, so that’s the case for English. Other languages do different things. In fact, according to Comrie & Thompson, English’s ability to mark both subjective and objective genitives in the very same NP is impossible in many other languages (357). German can do it to a limited, but rare extent (borrowed from 358 and also examples [8-9]):

(7) Herrn Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft
‘Mr Dühring’s overturning of science’

But Russian does not allow such double genitive constructions at all. One cannot, in Russian, combine the subjective and objective genitives in a single noun phrase. Thus in (8-9),

(8) razrušenie goroda vraga
destruction of.city of.enemy

(9) razrušenie vraga goroda
destruction of.enemy of.city

both NPs may be grammatical, but neither of them mean the English, the enemy’s destruction of the city. The first means roughly, “the destruction of the enemy’s city” (8) and “the destruction of the city’s enemy” (9).

But what does this all have to do with Greek? My point in discussing of all this is that just as English, German, and Russian are structure so as to make their subjective/objective genitive constructions clear, I would be willing to predict that Greek does the very same. Perhaps as non-native speakers, this less clear to us, especially since we English speakers are in the unique position of having two different types of genitives.***

An interesting line of research would be a complete examination of these kinds of nominalizations with transitive and intransitive verbs (as well as different types of transitive verbs based on semantic roles or types of arguments). I believe that this sort of study would be extremely fruitful in determining whether the phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ is subjective or objective. If someone wanted to take up this task that I don’t really have time for, I would be interested in your results. It might even make a good thesis project.

*In the English nominalization of believe, “in Christ” is not an object because to believe is not a transitive verb. But it is also not a mere Adjunct since it is required by the verb in order to have a complete sentence. It is thus labeled with the grammatical relation Oblique.

**Yes, yes, I’m sure you can come up with counter examples. I’m discussing tendencies, not complete universals. My point is that the meaning of all of these constructions are clear to the native speaker.

***It could possibly be argued that Greek allows for both as well based on examples like Philippians 2:30 τὸ ὑμῶν ὑστέρημα τῆς πρός με λειτουργίας “your deficiency of service to me” and perhaps 1 Peter 3:21(?) σαρκὸς ἀπόθεσις ῥύπου “the body’s removal of dirt.” But these cases are not the norm, making Greek more like German the English. In general, Greek seems to parallel both German and Russian in certain ways.

11 thoughts on “Lexical Nominalization & Πίστις Χριστου

  1. Mike,
    It’s one thing to try to read Greek by drawing analogies, as you do, from other grammatically similar languages such as English, German, and Russian. But it’s quite another thing to translate from Greek into, say, Chinese or 21st century Englishes. Since you admit you “don’t know how much [you] have to add or really what side [you’re] on, though [you] suppose [you] lean toward the Objective view,” are you leaning that way as a Language universalist? as a linguistic relativist?

    If the latter, then why does your agnosticism on the Greek genitive question matter for English translation? If you won’t settle the Greek ambiguity question AND since you believe Comrie & Thompson (that “English’s ability to mark both subjective and objective genitives in the very same NP”), then won’t you allow that good English Bible translations need not settle the Greek question but can be so ambiguous?

    There are other posts that start to get at this, no?

  2. Kurk, I’m not entirely sure what you’re saying. The only reason that I’m leaning toward agnosticism on the issue is that I haven’t studied the subject in any sort of depth. That’s why I don’t have much to add – not because of any linguistic perspective.

    Beyond that, again, I’m not entirely sure exactly what you’re saying…

  3. The bigger problem, I believe, is the terminology. When we say “Subjective genitive” we really mean “Agentive genitive.” And when we say “Objective genitive” we really mean “Patient/Thematic genitive.” The terms subject and object are syntactic clause notions that do us very little good when we look at NPs.

  4. Here’s what I’m trying to say:

    Let’s say we can’t really get at the Greek meaning(s), whether properly it’s “subjective,” “agentive,” or “objective” (or ambiguously more than one of these). We do know English. How many of Paul’s contexts allow the English translator “to mark both subjective and objective genitives in the very same NP”? Why not allow English ambiguity, especially when there’s such disagreement and uncertainty around the Greek in this phrase? (By analogy, to really allow split infinitives in English, why not translate Latin with them, and dangle prepositions too? I’m just being silly to say that the translator can have a voice, no?)

  5. Kurk; I’ve got you now.
    I’m convinced that if (a big “if”) it is possible to access the Greek meaning, then the way forward is going to be found less in contextual arguments and more in the interface between the lexicon (the mental one) and syntax – how does this verb express its arguments and semantics and how does that correspond to the nominalized form.

    The big question is whether we can access the mental lexicon of the Hellenistic Greek speaker. I don’t know if we can or not, but as far as I know, not many have tried (Paul Danove and Simon Wong are exceptions). And until we know for sure that we can or cannot the best way to translate these phrases is with ambiguity.

    As to Latin infinitives and English split infinitives. I’d say it depends I would be willing to bet that the pragmatic meaning of the split infinitive does correspond to closely to the pragmatics of some Latin construction – I just don’t know what that construction is. I suppose then that I’m a universalist in some ways – not in syntactic form, but in terms of function.

  6. Kurk, you ask “Why not allow English ambiguity …?” The answer is simple: there is no English ambiguity! None of the English examples (1) to (6) is actually ambiguous. I can see some grammarian trying to argue that (4) is formally ambiguous, but a mother tongue speaker will immediately recognise that it is not, that this genitive must be objective. So we can only allow English ambiguity if we can find it. And we can probably find it only in sentences which are so unclear in English that they make little sense.

  7. (4) might be ambiguous depending on the greater context of the utterance, but the default understanding would typically be objective.

    Peter, what would you say about ambiguity with phrases like, “the love of Christ.” Love isn’t a prototypical agent/patient verb – its an experiencer/stimulus verb. This is what I think needs to be examined in terms of Greek.

  8. I accept that in English “the love of Christ” is ambiguous, although probably leaning towards the objective, whereas “Christ’s love” is more likely subjective. But in Greek? I don’t know.

  9. I honestly don’t think there’s anything inherent in the construction of a Greek genitive noun with a verbal noun nor in word-order (whether the genitive precedes or follows the verbal noun) that points to one relationship (agent) or another (patient) or any other. “Subjective” or “Objective” is strictly a matter of interpretation on the part of the listener or reader of the word pair.

  10. Peter, Thanks for coming to “love” and thereby recanting. 🙂

    Mike, “whether we can access the mental lexicon of the Hellenistic Greek speaker” is not much more dicey than accessing the mental lexicon of any speaker of any English today, is it?

    Carl, “’Subjective’ or ‘Objective’ is strictly a matter of interpretation on the part of the listener or reader of the word pair.” ¡Viva el oyente o lector!

  11. Carl: Well, that would explain why you would have to be convinced of the proposal. We’ll see what I discover in time.

    Kurk: I think its a greater challenge for us when we look at Koine because we don’t have native speakers to elicit data specifically. But then on the other hand what we do have consists of plenty of nice long texts and give us a window into many other issues as well. That means something like: I think you might be right, but I don’t really know.

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