“And He said, saying”?

Jan 13, 2015 by

[This post draws heavily on the work of Joel M. Hoffman.]

In an earlier post, I have examined a millennium-long historical connection between Old Church Slavonic (OCS) and modern Russian. Here, I will look at another peculiarity of OCS which connects its across millennia both with the past and the present.

In Luke 12:16 we read: “рєчє жє притъчѫ к н҄имъ глагол҄ѧ […]” (reče že pritъčǫ k nimъ glagolę), which the King James Version of the Bible translates as “And he spake a parable unto them, saying”. But what does this glagolę ‘saying’ means? After all, it makes sense to say “he spoke to them floating in heavens” or (if not in reference to God) “he spoke to them standing up/sitting down/dancing/looking foolish/etc.”, but how can one speak without saying? What does “saying” add to the meaning of the passage? (Recall that we are talking about a medieval text, written at the time when parchment was so expensive that on occasion it was recycled by washing off the ink and writing a new text over the old one, creating a so-called palimpsest. So they wouldn’t write any superfluous words, would they?)

As it turns out, this form glagolę ‘saying’ has roots in Biblical Hebrew, which predated OCS by about a millennium. The connection was mediated by Greek; hence, the phenomenon is found not only in Old Testament texts translated into Greek from Hebrew, but also in New Testament (including the above-cited passage from Luke), and from Greek it penetrated OCS—as we shall see below, it appears even in texts that were not translations of a Greek original.

hoffmanAs discussed in detail in Joel M. Hoffman’s book And God Said. How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, numerous passages in the Hebrew Bible contain a word leimor, which literally means ‘to say’ but is most commonly translated into English as “saying”. As Hoffman explains, the real meaning of this word can be revealed only by considering the contexts in which it appears in the Hebrew Bible. As in the above-cited passage from Luke, leimor is used on numerous occasions in reference to something God said, such as “And God blessed them saying [leimor], Be fruitful and multiply…” (Genesis 1:22). It can also be used when human characters speak, as in “And Rebekah spake unto Jacob her son, saying [leimor], Behold, I heard thy father […]” (Genesis 27:6). But in addition to things that are said, leimor also appears in contexts of other illocutionary acts, such as questions: for instance, “And the man asked him, saying [leimor], What seekest thou?” (Genesis 37:15). As Hoffman notes, “the KJV has a problem, because in English one doesn’t say questions; one asks them” (p. 38). To make matters worse, leimor also appears with other things that are not “said”, such as songs, as in “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spake, saying [leimor], I will sing […]” (Exodus 15:1). All in all, leimor is used with statements, questions, blessings, songs, commandments, etc. Therefore, Hoffman suggests that its function is to “introduce direct quotation”.

In modern English, Hoffman claims, we use punctuation instead; thus, leimor “means, “comma, quote…”” (Hoffman 2010: 38). There is, however, something else in colloquial English that fulfills the same function: the notorious “quotative” like, as in She is like, “Do your homework!”. Two decades ago, this usage was mostly limited to Southern California and strongly associated with the so-called Valley Girl way of speaking, and some prescriptivist writers continue to condemn it. For example, Chris Kelly, a student at Santa Clara University, writing for the college daily in 2010, called this like a “detrimental word”, which “single-handedly devalues our public speaking skills” and even “makes us sound stupid”. Yet, this usage of like has spread like wildfire and it can now be heard all over the United States and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, especially from younger speakers. Perhaps in not-too-distant future, colloquial translations of the Bible will include passages such as “And Rebekah spoke to her boy Jacob, like, “Hey, dude, I heard your Dad […]”.

Going back to OCS, the quotative glagolę ‘saying’ and its plural counterpart glagoljǫšte (cf. Lunt 1001: 99) are found in texts that are translations of the Greek translations of the Old Testament texts, originally written in Hebrew (see the OCS versions of some of the examples from KJV cited above):

Genesis 37:15:

Вопроси же его чловѣкъ глаголѧ чесогѡ иштеши

Voprosi že ego člověkъ glagolę česogo išteši

“And the man asked him, saying, What seekest thou?”

Exodus 15:1:

Тогда воспѣ Мѡѵсей и сынове їизраилевы пѣснь сїѭ господьви и рекоша глаголѭште поимъ господьви

Togda vospѣ Moisej i synove iizrailevy pѣsnь cijǫ gospodьvi i rekoša glagoljǫšte poimъ gospodьvi

“Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spake, saying, I will sing […]”

However, it is important to note that the same quotative is also found in New Testament texts, which are translations from Greek (see the quote at the beginning of the post), as well as in passages that were originally composed in OCS. For example, in The Life of Constantine we find the following passage:

Ростиславъ бо, Моравьскъіи кнѧзь, богомъ ѹстимъ, съвѣтъ сътвори съ кнѧзи своими и с Моравлѧнъі, посла къ царю Михаилѹ, глаголѧ, людємъ нашимъ поганьства сѧ ѡтвръгшимъ, и по христіанєскъ сѧ законъ дръжащимъ, ѹчитєлѧ нє имамъ таковаго […]

Rostislavъ bo, Moravьskyi knęzь, bogomъ ustimъ, sъvѣtъ sъtvori sъ knęzi svoimi i s Moravlęny, posla kъ carju Mixailu, glagolę, ljudemъ našimъ poganstva sę otvrъgšimъ, i po хristianeskъ sę zakonъ drъžaščimъ, učitelę ne imamъ takovago […]

“For Rostislav, the Moravian prince, roused by God, took counsel with his princes and with the Moravians, and sent to Tsar Michael, saying: ‘Our people, having cast off paganism and conducting themselves according to Christian law, have no such teacher […]”




Hoffman, Joel M. (2010) And God Said. How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning. Thomas Dunne Books.

Lunt, Horace G. (2001) Old Church Slavonic Grammar. Mouton de Gruyter.

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