Definiteness is a semantic feature of noun phrases, distinguishing between referents/entities that are identifiable in a given context (definite noun phrases — in English marked with determiners such as “the,” “this,” “every,” and “both”) and entities which are not (indefinite noun phrases — in English marked with determiners such as “a/an,” “many,” “any,” “either,” and “some”). (source: Wikipedia)

“[As an example,] the English and Choctaw concepts of how definiteness and specificity are handled are not mapable to each other, even though the mechanism for the marking itself, a set of affixes, is quite simple.

“English wrings as much work as possible from the articles ‘a’ and ‘the’ and a few other demonstratives. A native speaker knows how to use these to refer to new information, to things already in evidence, to particular things, and to general members of a set. If these will not pick out something to a fine enough degree, we also can use a range of other constructions, such as relative clauses, adverbs, and even idioms to make finer distinctions. But these are not grammaticalized, they are tools the speaker may use to clarify an utterance, not mandatory.

“In strong contrast, Choctaw has a large, finely articulated, and morphologically efficient system to mark definiteness, contrast, specificity, and the like. A large set of affixes marks information about how specific something is, whether it has been mentioned previously, when in the discourse it was mentioned, whether it contrasts with something else in the discourse, how particularly it contrasts, whether it is part of a set, and other distinctions that are literally not possible to categorize in English.

The result in translation is that at some point, not only do English words fail, but some of the distinctions cannot even be made in a meaningful way. More precisely, we can perhaps capture the essence of the Choctaw distinctions, but only at the cost of a cumbersome sentence that would never be uttered by an English-speaker.” (Source: Marcia Haag in Swann 2011, p. 352f.)

Following are some examples from a Choctaw translation from 1881 (with the respective definiteness markers underlined):

The Greek that is translated as “when he came into the house” in English is translated as Milnna yυmmak ash osh aboha ont chukowa ma: “And when the one being discussed entered the room.” (See Mark 9:28)

The Greek that is translated as “the girl got up” in English is translated as ohoyo himita yash osh tani tok: “that young woman, the one being discussed, arose.” (See Matt 9:25 and Mark 5:42)

The Greek that is translated as “we know God spoke to Moses” in English is translated as Moses ak okvno Chihowa yυt im anumpuli beka tok a il ithana: “We know that Moses the particular one in contrast to others was the one whom Jehovah the definite subject of this clause used to speak to.” (See John 9:29)

Source: Haag / Willis 2007, p. 124.

Jesus heals a boy (image)

Image taken from the Wiedmann Bible. For more information about the images and ways to adopt them, see here .

For other images of Willy Wiedmann paintings in TIPs, see here.

inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (Mark 9:28)

Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). (Click or tap here to see more details)

The inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (“you and I and possibly others”), while the exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (“he/she/they and I, but not you”). This grammatical distinction is called “clusivity.” While Semitic languages such as Hebrew or most Indo-European languages such as Greek or English do not make that distinction, translators of languages with that distinction have to make a choice every time they encounter “we” or a form thereof (in English: “we,” “our,” or “us”).

For this verse, translators typically select the exclusive form (excluding Jesus).

Source: Velma Pickett and Florence Cowan in Notes on Translation January 1962, p. 1ff.

complete verse (Mark 9:28)

Following are a number of back-translations of Mark 9:28:

  • Uma: “After that, Yesus and his disciples left there and entered a house. When they had entered the house, they began to ask Yesus, they said: ‘Teacher, why were we (excl.) unable to expel that evil-spirit earlier?'” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “When Isa had entered the house, his disciples asked him alone (lit. they-they only), they said, ‘Why couldn’t we (excl.) cast out the demon?'” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And when Jesus and company had returned to the house where they were staying and no other people were there, just them, his disciples asked him, they said, ‘Why couldn’t we drive away the demon?'” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “When plural Jesus entered the house where they were staying, and they were alone, his disciples asked him, ‘Why were we (excl.) not able to cause-that evil-spirit -to-leave?'” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “When Jesus had gone into the house, his disciples asked him privately. They said, ‘Why was it that we couldn’t drive out that evil spirit which was possessing/causing-madness?'” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)


The Greek that is often translated as “disciple” in English typically follows three types of translation: (1) those which employ a verb ‘to learn’ or ‘to be taught’, (2) those which involve an additional factor of following, or accompaniment, often in the sense of apprenticeship, and (3) those which imply imitation of the teacher.

Following are some examples (click or tap for details):

Scot McKnight (in The Second Testament, publ. 2023) translates it into English as apprentice.

In Luang several terms with different shades of meaning are being used.

  • For Mark 2:23 and 3:7: maka nwatutu-nwaye’a re — “those that are taught” (“This is the term used for ‘disciples’ before the resurrection, while Jesus was still on earth teaching them.”)
  • For Acts 9:1 and 9:10: makpesiay — “those who believe.” (“This is the term used for believers and occasionally for the church, but also for referring to the disciples when tracking participants with a view to keeping them clear for the Luang readers. Although Greek has different terms for ‘believers’, ‘brothers’, and ‘church’, only one Luang word can be used in a given episode to avoid confusion. Using three different terms would imply three different sets of participants.”)
  • For Acts 6:1: mak lernohora Yesus wniatutunu-wniaye’eni — “those who follow Jesus’ teaching.” (“This is the term used for ‘disciples’ after Jesus returned to heaven.”)

Source: Kathy Taber in Notes on Translation 1/1999, p. 9-16.

In American Sign Language it is translated with a combination of the signs for “following” plus the sign for “group.” (Source: RuthAnna Spooner, Ron Lawer)

“disciples” in American Sign Language, source: Deaf Harbor

pronoun for "God"

God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is traditionally confined to “he” (or in the forms “his,” “him,” and “himself”), “she” (and “her,” “hers,” and “herself”), and “it” (and “its” and “itself”).

Modern Chinese, however, offers another possibility. Here, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (tā), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is “he,” 她 is “she,” and 它/牠 is “it” and their respective derivative forms). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.

In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande (王元德) coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: tā. But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that each person of the Trinity has no gender aside from being God.

While the most important Protestant and Catholic Chinese versions respectively have opted not to use 祂, some Bible translations do and it is widely used in hymnals and other Christian materials. Among the translations that use 祂 to refer to “God” were early versions of Lü Zhenzhong’s (呂振中) version (New Testament: 1946, complete Bible: 1970). R.P. Kramers (in The Bible Translator 1956, p. 152ff.) explains why later versions of Lü’s translation did not continue with this practice: “This new way of writing ‘He,’ however, has created a minor problem of its own: must this polite form be used whenever Jesus is referred to? Lü follows the rule that, wherever Jesus is referred to as a human being, the normal ta (他) is written; where he is referred to as divine, especially after the ascension, the reverential ta (祂) is used.”

In Kouya, Godié, Northern Grebo, Eastern Krahn, Western Krahn, and Guiberoua Béte, all languages of the Kru family in Western Africa, a different kind of systems of pronouns is used (click or tap here to read more):

In that system one kind of pronoun is used for humans (male and female alike) and one for natural elements, non-liquid masses, and some spiritual entities (one other is used for large animals and another one for miscellaneous items). While in these languages the pronoun for spiritual entities used to be employed when referring to God, this has changed into the use of the human pronoun.

Lynell Zogbo (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 401ff) explains in the following way: “From informal discussions with young Christians especially, it would appear that, at least for some people, the experience and/or concepts of Christianity are affecting the choice of pronoun for God. Some people explain that God is no longer ‘far away,’ but is somehow tangible and personal. For these speakers God has shifted over into the human category.”

In Kouya, God (the Father) and Jesus are referred to with the human pronoun ɔ, whereas the Holy Spirit is referred to with a non-human pronoun. (Northern Grebo and Western Krahn make a similar distinction.)

Eddie Arthur, a former Kouya Bible translation consultant, says the following: “We tried to insist that this shouldn’t happen, but the Kouya team members were insistent that the human pronoun for the Spirit would not work.”

In Burmese, the pronoun ko taw (ကိုယ်တော်) is used either as 2nd person (you) or 3rd person (he, him, his) reference. “This term clearly has its root in the religious language in Burmese. No ordinary persons are addressed or known by this pronoun because it is reserved for Buddhist monks, famous religious teachers, and in the case of Christianity, the Trinity.” (Source: Gam Seng Shae in The Bible Translator 2002, p. 202ff.)

In Thai, the pronoun phra`ong (พระองค์) is used, a gender-neutral pronoun which must refer to a previously introduced royal or divine being. Similarly, in Northern Khmer, which is spoken in Thailand, “an honorific divine pronoun” is used for the pronoun referring to the persons of the Trinity (source: David Thomas in The Bible Translator 1993, p. 445). In Urak Lawoi’, another language spoken in Thailand, the translation often uses tuhat (ตูฮัด) — “God” — ”as a divine pronoun where Thai has phra’ong even though it’s actually a noun.” (Source for Thai and Urak Lawoi’: Stephen Pattemore)

The English “Contemporary Torah” addresses the question of God and gendered pronouns by mostly avoiding pronouns in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (unless God is referred to as “lord,” “father,” “king,” or “warrior”). It does that by either using passive constructs (“He gave us” vs. “we were given”), by using the adjective “divine” or by using “God” rather than a pronoun.

Some Protestant English Bibles use a referential capitalized spelling when referring to the persons of the Trinity with “He,” “His,” “Him,” or “Himself.” This includes for instance the New American Standard Bible, but most translations, especially those published in the 21st century, do not. Two other languages where this is also done (in most Bible translations) are the closely related Indonesian and Malay. In both languages this follows the language usage according to the Qur’an, which in turn predicts that usage (see Soesilo in The Bible Translator 1991, p. 442ff. and The Bible Translator 1997, p. 433ff. ).

See also this chapter in the World Atlas of Language Structures on different approaches to personal pronouns.

Translation: Chinese





Translator: Simon Wong