Peter Roe


This Unit seeks to help you develop an understanding of what it is we are trying to achieve through the study of lexis.

adequacy: descriptive, explanatory, predictive; perspective, practical power, purpose, theory

After you have worked and thought your way through this Module, I hope that you will feel that it has all been worthwhile, and that you have achieved what you set out to achieve. But the likelihood of that being the case will be greatly enhanced if we can make it clear at this early stage just what is being attempted. I am of course making certain assumptions about this, and you need to know what these are, so that you can interpret what I say in that light, but at the same time keep your own counsel and develop your own perspectives.

The reason for this rather permissive approach is that there is simply no set of 'right answers' to be learned and repeated when it comes to the study of words and meanings, how we 'teach' them, or how we translate them, or how we construct dictionaries. There just isn't a standard theory, just lots of different perspectives, all competing for our attention. As Westney puts it in Odlin (1994):

"there is obviously no 'best' or final description of any area of language, and any account has to be seen in relation to its function or consumer".
(Op. cit. page 86)

We may in the past have suffered from over-subservience in the face of the 'great' linguists, so that language teaching fell under the influence, particularly in matters of course design and coursebook production, of something called 'Applied Linguistics', assuming that we were applying some 'best' or 'final' description, and failing to ask how relevant it was to our functions and purposes as teachers.
So in this Lexical Studies Module I propose to invite you to explore those purposes, and to decide, if only tentatively, what it is you want to achieve, and how you can achieve your ends more efficiently. The only fundamental assumption I am making at this stage is that you fall into one, or more, of the following broad categories:
Language Teacher;

I shall focus mainly on the first of these (which I also take to subsume teacher trainers, Directors of Studies, ELT publishers etc), but much of the ground to be covered should provide equally rich insights for the other two, and I shall occasionally draw attention to these. And of course the nature of language is of crucial importance to all three. I shall leave the question of what it is that we are teaching, translating or compiling into dictionaries until Unit 2, and in the meantime concentrate on the important matter of the learning targets we are setting ourselves, and the criteria of evaluation by which we will measure how successful or otherwise our study turns out to be.

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On Becoming Theoretical
It is not uncommon for teachers, and others, to say: "I am a practical person, I haven't much time for theory." This may apply to most of us, if by theory we mean a fully-fledged system worthy of an Einstein or a Chomsky. But a theory need not be so grandiose. And in a sense we all have hundreds of them, just not fully and rigorously elaborated. We cannot take any purposive or calculated action without having some sense of the likely consequences of what we do, a set of assumptions, a perspective. Even so-called 'common sense' is not all that 'common', but can differ widely across cultures. The difficulty with theories lies in their articulation - putting them into words, labelling the parts.

I am using the word 'theory' here in the sense of a 'way of looking at things'. Your way of looking at things is your theory regarding those 'things'. And there is no way in which I am entitled to say that my way of looking at things, my perspective, my theory, is any 'better', in itself, than yours, or anybody else's. To suggest otherwise would be like asking which is the 'best' tool in my toolbox. I do not know which is best until I have a job to do, and then it is only the 'best', the fittest, for the job in hand. That job done and out of the way, all my tools return to their former state of neutrality, all equal in my sight until the next task comes along.

Our theories, our perspectives, our insights, however half-baked, do nevertheless influence our actions. My eating habits, giving up smoking and so forth have all been influenced by my changing perspectives. And at the same time my insights into, and understanding of, the underlying issues have been enriched. The trouble is that if you were to ask me to explain my behaviour to you, to justify it, I might have considerable difficulty. There is a lot of difference between having a theory and being able to articulate it. But the very process of articulation itself helps us deepen the theory and make it more and more thorough and dependable.

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Fitness for Purpose
So the value of any theory is measured by its usefulness for the purpose for which it is to be used. Which means that we must start out with a clear statement of those purposes. The clearer that statement, the more chance we have of coming up with a useful theory. Chomsky (1965) is my favourite example of a book which clearly sets out what it is attempting to 'account for', and then establishes for all to see the criteria of evaluation by which it expects to be judged, which he calls descriptive adequacy and explanatory adequacy. Chomsky has had a profound impact on language teaching, at least indirectly, in spite of his frequent warnings that his theory was not designed as a help for teachers. For example:

"Similarly, it would not be at all surprising to find that normal language learning requires use of language in real-life situations in some way."
(Op. Cit. page 33)

which is a position I shall be arguing for later in this Module, as well as his citation of Humboldt who:

"concludes that one cannot really teach language but can only present the conditions under which it will develop spontaneously in the mind in its own way."
(Op. Cit. page 51)

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Descriptive Adequacy
Yet it is Chomsky's description of language, rather than his views on language acquisition, that has had such a great influence on the language teaching profession, even though we may not necessarily be aware of it, particularly through its influence on a priori syllabuses, and the vogue it enjoyed at one stage as an element in advanced teacher training courses. And he made it very clear what he thought the basic criterion of evaluation of his grammar should be:

"A grammar can be regarded as a theory of a language; it is descriptively adequate to the extent that it correctly describes the intrinsic competence of the idealised native speaker. The structural descriptions assigned to sentences by the grammar, the distinctions that it makes between well-formed and deviant, and so on, must, for descriptive adequacy, correspond to the linguistic intuition of the native speaker "
(Op. cit. page 24)

To what extent do you think Chomsky's criterion is appropriate to our present investigation?
What do you see as the most inappropriate elements?
What dimensions are missing?
Try to formulate your own criteria.

But Chomsky's purposes, which he makes explicit, are surely not our purposes. There is no problem in reducing his "sentences" to orthographic words. After all, we do know how to read and write sentences. But where does the 'meaning' of words come in? Where is the communicative, the social dimension? Maybe descriptive adequacy is an appropriate criterion for a grammar as defined here, but is it relevant to the study of lexis?

So what is it that we want to account for? Let us remember the advice of Bateson (1972):

"In general it is unwise to construct systems of this sort until the problems they are designed to elucidate have been clearly formulated ..."
(Op. cit. page 61)

From one point of view, this is only common sense. From another it raises a serious procedural difficulty: the very way in which we formulate our objectives (i. e. based on our existing assumptions) will itself create a mental prison from which there is no escape, and which we may not even perceive. We must therefore be prepared to reformulate our goals periodically as we go.

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Initial Statement of Purposes
But as we must begin somewhere, here is an uninspired, but relatively undemanding, set of sample objectives:

· As a teacher, my objective is to help my learners to acquire as wide and rich a working vocabulary as possible.
· As a translator, my objective is to create a text as close as possible to the original.
· As a lexicographer, I want to create a dictionary which reflects as closely as possible the lexis of the language in which I am interested.

These statements are seriously inadequate in that they do not make clear what is meant by the terms used, especially 'vocabulary', 'lexis' or the vague word 'close'.
Write down your own formulation, and keep it in a place where you can look it up and modify it from time to time, as you work through these Units.

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Predictive Adequacy
Whatever formulation you arrive at, I would expect there to be an implication that you expect the insights you develop to enable you to do things better. That is, you are entitled to expect those insights to help you predict the practical consequences of changes in your professional behaviour. In other words, we can evaluate our theory on the basis of what is sometimes referred to as its predictive adequacy. Eco (1984 page 11) refers to this as practical power, which he says "contributes to the changing of the world".

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Evaluating our Theory
At the end of the day, we will want to have some yardstick for judging how useful our newly-found insights have turned out to be. And this can only be determined in the course of our professional work. Do our insights lead to better practice? Are we getting increased job satisfaction? Are those whom we serve getting better value for their efforts, time and/or money? Unfortunately, there may be a considerable delay, as we work through these Units, before we can make such an evaluation. Fortunately, however, we can also judge our progress by the extent to which we see ourselves developing those insights, our ability to understand and explain, at least to our own satisfaction, things which we previously could not well explain. Unit 10 of this Module is devoted to a consideration of how the theory we have developed has enabled us to make insightful statements about these questions, and others which I raise later in this Unit. And at various stages in the intervening Units I shall invite you to consider practical implications of positions reached.

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Explanatory Adequacy
The extent to which our 'theory' enables us to understand and explain things I shall call its 'explanatory adequacy'. As mentioned earlier, Eco (1984 page 11) refers to what he calls explanatory power, which he says "provides a way to consider as a whole many otherwise disconnected data". But what are these 'things' which need explaining? Here again we come up against the problem of there being no universal list of these. Each of us will have his or her own. But if we do not make at least part of our list explicit, we will not be in a position to judge objectively the extent to which our theory has helped to develop our insights. So I invite you to make your own explicit list before proceeding to Unit 2. To help you, and to make clear the kind of thing I have in mind, I shall work through a list of my own. For each item on my list, decide which you think might find a place on you own list, which you reject, and questions which you yourself have, which I have not thought of.

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Questions to which I should like Answers: I
Questions relating to my own professional fields

As a Language Teacher
As a teacher (materials writer etc.), I may wish to articulate my reaction to questions such as these:
What is a 'word'?
What is implied if I claim that a learner has 'learnt' a word?
What is implied if I claim that I have 'taught' a word?
What is meant by the 'meaning' of a word?
What are the key factors which determine the efficiency of vocabulary growth?
What should I understand by the lexis of 'General English'?
What questions should I be asking when I read about the results of research into vocabulary acquisition?

As a Translator
As a translator I offer only one question, but it is one which I believe is the key to many others:
It is clear that translation at word level is non-sensical.
In what other ways can translation become 'non-sensical'?

As a Lexicographer
If my aim is to create a monolingual dictionary, I would like to know:
How do lexicographers decide which words to include in their dictionaries?
Do they all agree on the list of all words in the language, and then make selections according to the needs of their intended audiences?
Why do they differ so much as to how these words are grouped under 'headwords'?
By what criteria are 'headwords' identified?
Why do dictionaries not agree on the 'meanings' of words?
Dictionaries are supposed to list the 'meanings' of words. But it is abundantly plain that all they list are other words. How can a word be a 'word' and a 'meaning' at the same time?
I can understand a dictionary's claim to account for all the 'words' of a language (even if I am not prepared to accept it), but to what extent can it account for all the 'meanings' of that language?

And for bi-lingual dictionaries:
Why are bi-lingual dictionaries produced by different publishers for the same languages so different from one to the other?
I consulted one German-English dictionary and looked up the various 'parts' of the 'word' "Frevel".
These were translated as "sin", "sinner", "sinful" etc.
But when I looked up the English 'word' "sin" in the same dictionary the 'word' "Frevel" was not mentioned at all. Why is this?
In the same way I looked the Oxford Duden German Dictionary, which claims to be "comprehensive and up to date", and the "major new German and English dictionary for the 1990s".
Under "Frevel" I found "crime", but not the slightest mention of "sin".
And under the family of words related to "crime" I found no mention of "Frevel".
The same for "sin".
If "X" means "Y", does it not follow that "Y" means "X"?
What is going on?

Try formulating a list of questions of your own under one or more of the above headings.

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Questions to which I should like Answers: II
Questions relating to other fields of human interest

Language and the Law
But I also have questions not directly connected with classrooms and dictionaries into which I would also like to gain deeper insights. And surely any useful theory of lexis should serve this end as well. Moving outside my own professional fields, I have long been concerned, for instance, at what appears to be the inability, or unwillingness, among lawyers and the drafters of Statute Law to make the laws and other documents which they draw up comprehensible to the public whom they serve. It appears that I hear calls for the demystification of the law at regular intervals, at least every few years, in one sphere or another. Cicero (Pro Murena Chapter 12) made such an appeal two thousand years ago, where he railed against the obscurantism of Roman Law. And there have been frequent calls, even very recent, for a version of the law that everyone can understand. Jeremy Bentham, to take an earlier example, called (in various publications and letters from 1811 to 1817) for :

"a complete body of law, in the form of Statute Law; say, in one word, a Pannomion ..... should this or that same word be employed in ever so many hundred places, one and the same explanation serves for all of them".

Why then do we have so many legal authorities asserting that it simply can't be done?
Here are some examples of how they regard words and language:

"...the poverty of language ... expressions which do not with precise accuracy define what we mean ..."
(Burrows 1943 p.3)

"The difficulties are as manifold and as complex as our society and our language."
(Eldridge and Dennis 1968 p.99)

"..language is at best an imperfect vehicle for expressing thought and intention ... may be imperfect in an almost infinite variety of ways ..."
(ibid. pages 3 - 5)

"... inescapably inexact and unstable ... tremendous potential for vagueness, ambiguity, nonsense, imprecision, inaccuracy ..."
(Thornton 1970 pp. vi & 2)

" ... the inherent frailty of language ... we are driven in the end, to the unsatisfying conclusion that the whole matter ultimately turns on impalpable and indefinable elements."
(The Law Commission 1969 p. 4)

Should we just tell these people: "Try harder. The bad workman always blames his tools." If dictionaries contain the 'meanings' of 'words', and if I am able to 'teach' people these meanings, does it mean that these eminent lawyers do not know what they are talking about?
Or perhaps I need greater insight into the nature of the problem.

My Question:
What is it about the nature of language that leads to such difficulties for legal draftsmen?

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Poets and Philosophers
This lack of confidence in language to tie 'meanings' down is widely shared among poets and philosophers, those working at the frontiers of thought and expression. Our purposes in this Module do not include poetry appreciation, or even philosophy for its own sake. But (at least for me) there is value in widening the scope of our enquiry to see whether the questions, and doubts, about words, and their apparent failure to convey the meanings which we seek to express, give us clues as to the underlying nature of our own problems. We may learn something of value about the real world of language use for which we are preparing our learners.
Similarly, in the Units which follow we shall often find it of value to seek insights from authorities and fields other than language teaching (e. g. psycholinguistics and semiotics) whose insights we may find particularly helpful.

T S Eliot
One poet in particular, T S Eliot, refers to language as the "shabby equipment" he has to work with, as in:

So here I am ...
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision and feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

(Op. cit. page 182)

What do I need to understand about language and words in order to perceive the problem Eliot is trying to express?
Is this a purely philosophical matter and unrelated to my practical calling as a teacher or translator?
But Eliot is most insistent:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
(Op. cit. page 175)


"Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet and
hail of verbal imprecisions,
Approximate thoughts and feelings, words that have
taken the place of thoughts and feelings,
There spring the perfect order of speech, and the
beauty of incantation."

(Op. cit. page 164)

What is this "slimy mud" of words?
And why does Eliot appear to claim that words have to be so imprecise?
I would like my insights into lexis to shed light on this as well, and into the more general questions which follow.
(How do you 'teach' a 'slimy mud'?)

My Question:
What is it about the nature of language, and words in particular, that leads to such a feeling of frustration and inadequacy?

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Humpty Dumpty
Lewis Carroll was a self-confessed writer of 'nonsense'. And under a cloak of 'nonsense' he was able to make serious statements which might otherwise have evoked negative reactions among influential readers. One of the most famous of these provocative remarks he put into the mouth of Humpty Dumpty, often referred to by linguists, eg F R Palmer (1976) and Altmann (1997):

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
(Through the Looking Glass page 75)

The issue in the story is whether Humpty Dumpty is entitled to use the word "glory" to mean "a nice knockdown argument".
Is this pure nonsense, or is it inviting us to look at the extent to which all meanings are essentially private?

My Question:
What is there about the nature of language that might justify Humpty Dumpty's position?

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Private Meanings
To what extent is it reasonable to suppose that 'meanings' are indeed 'private'.
How commonplace is it for us to have to say: "What do you mean, 'xxx'?", where our interlocutor has clearly visited a meaning on a word 'xxx' which we are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to identify.
There is an example of this in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1 Scene II:

Antony: How intend you, 'practis'd'?
Caesar: You may be pleas'd to catch at mine intent ... ."

Here Caesar is accusing Antony of having "practis'd" against him, and Antony is asking Caesar to reveal more of his 'private' meaning for the word.
Caesar says that Antony can work that out, to "catch at" his "intent", from the examples he is about to give him.
So my question is:
To what extent is 'understanding' a matter of catching at someone's 'intent', as opposed to 'knowing' unequivocally what the words 'mean' because one has 'learnt' them?
Do language teachers have to train this skill?
It seems that there are plenty of instances of private 'meanings'.
The same principle can be seen at work in quite a different context - a learned academic paper by Newman (1870):

"Opinion is a word of various significations, and I prefer to use it in my own."
(Op. cit. page 64)

My Question:
To what extent is the use of language in communication a matter of guesswork?

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Put your Faith in Words
My own favourite example of a literary puzzle regarding words comes from Goethe's Faust. I would like to have a much deeper insight into what he 'meant' in such a magnificent product of human insight. We are not concerned here with the problem of 'knowledge', or wisdom, stated by Goethe in the first scene of the play, but rather with his view of 'words'. A little later in the play he contrives an excellent theatrical device whereby he gets the Devil (Mephistopheles) to deliver the opposite of the message Goethe really wishes to convey. He does this by the simple trick of mistaken identity. A new student comes to the University, unsure of how to start his studies. So he seeks out the famous Dr Faust. But when he enters Faust's study the person he takes to be Faust is really Mephistopheles dressed (for reasons which need not detain us) in Faust's academic robes. So he is given devil's advice, which we can assume to be the most destructive possible, at least from Goethe's point of view. Towards the end of this advice he sums it all up as follows (in my own very loose paraphrase):

"Above all then my advice to you is to put your trust in words. In that way you will pass through the safe gateway to enter the Temple of Certainty."
When the student suggests that there has to be a concept behind the word, the Devil brushes this aside with:
"Sure, sure. But there's absolutely no need to get yourself in a twist on that account. Look at all the advantages of putting all your faith in words:
· The best of these is that when you find yourself not having a concept at all, a word will come along and take its place, and nobody will be any the wiser;
· You can have a wonderful argument using words;
· You can use words to construct a system;
· You can put your faith in words;
· You can't change a jot or tittle of a word."

For those of you with a little German, especially those who mistrust my own loose rendering, you can find the original text at the end of this Unit.
My own personal question addressed to my theory of lexis is this:
What is Goethe really trying to tell us here?
What is wrong with putting our trust in words?
And of course, what insights does this afford into my professional work?

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The Greeks had a Word for it
My final question concerns a problem of relevance to language teachers, translators and lexicographers alike. It is based on early Christian literature in Greek, so if this is a subject you would prefer to avoid, please move on to the next section. In the various English translations of the Gospels I have looked at the word "love" occurs frequently. But the Greek original has two different words in these contexts. These are the verb 'filew' and the verb 'agapaw', each translated as "I love", and the various verb forms and related nouns and adjectives, e. g. 'agaph', the noun 'love'.

Pouring Meaning Into Words
Now a certain William Barclay had the idea that the early Christians were at pains to decide how their perceptions of the world could best be put into words for wider dissemination through the medium of another language, as opposed to Hebrew or Aramaic. The obvious choice was Koine Greek, a lingua franca of those days. But the thoughts themselves, the 'meanings', had grown on other soil, and the Greek lexicon available to them did not have words already vested with these meanings. So they did the best they could took a leaf out of Humpty Dumpty's book, hoping that people would be able to "catch at their intent". As Barclay 1964 puts it:

"Christian thought fastened on this word agaph because it was the only word capable of being filled with the content which was required."

But we (apparently) don't.
One would surely have thought that if the early Christians were so at pains to distinguish two contrastive meanings they were pouring into two different words, their successors would have gone to the same trouble to preserve the same distinction in translation. This they have not achieved. Both are translated by the same word "love". For those interested, I reproduce a critical example of these words used contrastively, but nevertheless translated by the same word, at the end of this Unit. Is this just an isolated example, or is it normal for 'meanings' to be named only after they have been 'created', identified? The second concerns our ability, or lack of it, to convey meanings across language, and ipso facto cultural, boundaries.

My Question is this:
To what extent is this failure to reflect a crucial contrast between 'filew' and 'agapaw', a question of the translators' inadequacy?
Or is this a matter of "shabby equipment"?
Or is it like Humpty Dumpty making words mean whatever he likes, and Alice not being able to 'catch at his intent'?

* * * * *

I have given you my personal list of questions and problems into which I should like greater insight.
And at the end of this Module, in Unit 10, I propose to use the explanatory power of the framework we develop in Units 2 to 9 to attempt to articulate my explanations.
But this module is meant not for my benefit, but yours.
You can by all means adopt any of my questions as your own, should you so wish, but it would be of much greater value if you were to create your own, at this stage, return to them at the end of Unit 10, and the whole Module, to see how well you can formulate your own answers.

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The purpose of this Unit bas been to set the scene for an investigation into words, lexis, vocabulary. We have not yet been able to define these terms, because to do so would mean making theoretical assumptions before we even start, which would in turn prejudice, and largely predetermine, the form our theory would take. We would lock ourselves into a mental set which may be entirely inappropriate for our practical purposes. So we must first establish what practical purposes are motivating us. We have assumed that we are all united in wanting to be more effective teachers or translators, or to create 'better' dictionaries, or to use them more effectively in our work. But we have widened this scope by the suggestion that there may be other questions outside this purely professional remit which might also be clarified by the same insights. After all, we would expect our learners to use the lexis we help them acquire to be able to enter the world of law, and other areas of ESP, poetry, philosophy etc.
(Or would we?)

Please carry your own questions through the Units which follow, possibly revising them as you go.
The acid test comes in Unit 10 when you will attempt to formulate your own answers to your own questions.
After all, there is little value in your memorising my answers to my questions. I am your guide, not a guru.

* * * * *

Hatch and Brown 1995, pages 5 - 9, list a thought-provoking set of possible objectives which you might like to consider in the light of this Unit, should you feel the need for further input.
In Unit 2 we will attempt to lay the foundations for a view of language, the context in which lexis occurs, appropriate to our professional purposes.

1. The original German text of the extract from Goethe's Faust referred to in the Unit.

Im ganzen - haltet Euch an Worte!
Dann geht Ihr durch die sichre Pforte
Zum Tempel der Gewißheit ein.
Doch ein Begriff muß bei dem Worte sein.
Schon gut! Nur muß man sich nicht allzu
ängstlich quälen;
Denn eben wo Begriffe fehlen,
Da stellt ein Wort zur rechten Zeit sich ein.
Mit Worten läßt sich trefflich streiten,
Mit Worten ein System bereiten,
An Worte läßt sich trefflich glauben,
Von einem Wort läßt sich kein Jota rauben.

2. Here is an exchange in the Greek New Testament reduced to its essentials.
(You do not have to understand Greek. Just note the different forms of the two Koine words referred to in the Unit. The semicolon functions as a question mark.)
First Question: agapas me;
Answer: filw se.
Second question: agapas me;
Answer: filw se.
Third question: filas me;
Answer: filw se.

This text is usually represented in English as:
First Question: Do you love me?
Answer: I love you.
Second question: Do you love me?
Answer: I love you.
Third question: Do you love me?
Answer: I love you.

It is immediately apparent that in Greek the two words are being used contrastively, but that this contrast is lost in English.
Consider the exchange in English: "Do you love me?" "Yes, you know that I like you."
Well, the contrast in the Greek example is just as great.
But it is quite a different contrast.
Is it possible to represent it in the English language?
In any language?

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