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The King James Bible reads in Nehemiah 13:24:

And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people.

Considering the use of English at the time around 1611, what does "their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language" mean? Is it clearly (i) or (ii) given below; or can the intended meaning only be derived from context?

(i) 50% of the children spoke Ashdodic and could not speak the language of the Jews.

(ii) Each child spoke a 50%-reduced version of Ashdodic (so they did not speak it properly) and moreover could not speak the language of the Jews.

The vast majority of other Bible translations point to (i). But my question is whether this can be determined by only looking at the King James text, without going to other translations or to the original Hebrew or Greek.

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    Would that we had the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. It mustn't be absolutely necessary. Feb 6 at 19:47
  • This is a legitimate question of English, and it’s topical here. But you honestly might get better informed answers on Biblical Hermeneutics. They might even be able to tell you how the KJV ended up with that particular construction.
    – Dan Bron
    Feb 6 at 19:55
  • Taking a sentence in isolation, it's almost always possible to interpret it in multiple ways. "Speak in the Jews' language" could be metaphorical similar to the idiom "they're speaking my language" (meaning they think the way I do). Maybe "speech of Ashdod" was some kind of rhetorical technique or debating society or a river or meant they did vocal impressions of someone called Ashdod. "Their children" might mean literal genetic offspring, or people who follow after them; or their pets or toys. The intended meaning can always only be derived from context.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 7 at 11:06
  • I disagree that a valid answer here would be opinion based. I agree with @DanBron that the expertise here is more likely found in biblical scholars or even experts in translation from the source language. To my reading (ii) sounds more likely, but that is just an opinion.
    – jimm101
    Feb 13 at 0:15

2 Answers 2

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The Pulpit Commentary is a homiletic commentary on the Bible created during the nineteenth century under the direction of Rev. Joseph S. Exell and Henry Donald Maurice Spence-Jones.

[Wikipedia]

Pulpit Commentary: Nehemiah 13 Verse 24. - Their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod.

Some understand the writer to mean that half of the children in a family spoke the tongue of the father, and half that of the mother. But many of the best Hebraists prefer the sense expressed by our translators, viz., that all the children spoke a jargon half Ashdodite and half Aramaic.

[BibleHub]

This is doubtless referring to the opinion and hence sense conveyed of the translators who produced the KJV.

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    Yes, I checked the Hebrew and it does not say half the children, but children half-speaks (in the singular!). Hebrew easily has grammar for Half their children by placing it in that order. Why the Holman Christian Standard Bible goes there, I cannot say. Feb 6 at 21:43
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One assumes that if the translators had meant that half the children spoke one language and half another, then they would have said:

And half their children spake in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language,

so one would assume that the meaning would be (ii).

I am not a native speaker of 17th Century English, but I don't believe English has changed enough to change the meaning of this sentence.

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