Say What? A Meditation on the Glory of Language and the Respect we must have for its Subtlety

A priest friend of mine moved to this country when he was in high school, and English was not his first language. It took him time to get the slang expressions right. A big expression at the time was “What’s up.” And it took him a while not to look up when people said this to him. And another expression was “Say what?” And when someone said this to him, it took him a while not to respond by saying “what.”

Language is a funny thing. It obviously has a precision that is necessary. Without the basic framework of grammar and vocabulary, communication could not happen.

However, language is also a very creative endeavor which makes it quite a moving target.

I was surprised to learn how different English sounded back in the 13th Century which I discovered when I was required to memorize the prologue of the Canterbury Tales. To this day I can still recite most of it by memory:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

But wait a minute, thought I, if English used to look and sound like this, a mere 600 years ago, then spelling and grammar, even vocabulary must have changed by lots of little misspellings and malapropisms down through the years. If that is so, then why did my teacher always return my essays with red ink marking my errors? Wasn’t I just helping to move the language to the next stage? “Not so” said my teacher, “You don’t have that much power. Now make your corrections and turn the paper back in.” Oh well, I tried. πŸ™‚

And yet it would seem that language is a moving target and that there is an on-going battle between the purists (the language police and grammarians) and the creative wordsmiths who push the envelope with language.

But the fact is, our language is rife with inconsistencies, crazy spellings and words that have outright reversed their meaning. Language is more art than science, if you ask me, and even if you don’t ask me. Consider some oddities:

1. We often use words to mean the exact opposite of their original meaning. We park in driveways and drive on parkways. Manufacture used to mean “hand made” (manu (hand) + facere (to make or do). Now it means just the opposite of handmade. Awful used to mean “full of awe,” “wonderful,” now it means bad or terrible. And so forth.

2. Language is riddled with oxymorons (words that combine two opposite notions): Old news, even odds, pretty ugly, small fortune, growing small, industrial park, baby grand, standard deviation, civil war, original copy, student teacher, recorded live, etc.

3. Some words have more than one meaning and can even mean something totally opposite. Thus we clip something to attach it to something, or clip something (like a coupon) to detach it. We also bolt things in place or bolt in the sense of getting away fast. We can hold up things, in the sense of impeding traffic, or hold up things in the sense of advancing them, such as holding up values. Oversight can mean to carefully attend to something by over seeing it, or it can mean to neglect something by not attending to it. Certain can refer to something of a very definite quality, or it can mean just the opposite referring to something vague and difficult to specify, as in, “I have certain concerns about your plans.” And so on…

3. And then there are the heteronymns that must drive non-native English speakers crazy. These are words with the same spelling but different meanings and often different pronunciations. “Refuse,” the noun meaning trash, and “refuse,” the verb meaning to be against. Read the book (present tense) and read the book (past tense). Primer (base coat of paint) and primer (a beginner’s book). I am now resorting to resorting the papers. The entrance leads to a display that will entrance you. I am certainly content with the content of this offer. At present he is not present. As the altitude peaked, he began to look peaked. He lead a procession to the lead mine.

4. And then, so many of our expressions really don’t make any sense:

A hot cup of coffee – when what we really mean is a cup of hot coffee. It’s the coffee we want hot not the cup.

A one night stand – but we don’t stand at night, if you get my drift.

Head over heels in love – But our head is almost always over our heels. Don’t we really mean heels over head, as in upside down?

Preplan, preboard, preheat – but what people are actually doing is simply planning, boarding and heating.

Put on your shoes and socks – the order is wrong. Socks need to come first.

Back and forth – but it does not pertain to physical objects to go back and forth. Rather they must go forth before they can come back. It should be forth and back.

Watch your head – but that is impossible.

Behind my back – but isn’t this redundant? As if someone could do something in front of your back?

5. And then there is a wholly inconsistent matter of how we handle verbs in English: Today we speak, yesterday we spoke, faucets leak but never loke. Today I teach yesterday I taught, Today I preach but never praught. I win and I won, I also sin but never son.

What a mess huh? By the way if you want to read more of these twists and turns of our Language, read Crazy English by Richard Lederer.

Two thoughts occur to me based on this craziness.

First there is the remarkable capacity for us to navigate the complex and inconsistent landscape of language. Our minds are magnificent and able to grasp the subtleties of language and also also to apply experience and context. Frankly our ability to speak and communicate is nothing short of a miracle.

And it is unique to us. None of the animals have such a profound system of communication wherein reality is literally symbolized and even metaphysical concepts are conveyed by a series of sounds, and/or written symbols (letters) in combinations (words and sentences). It is nothing short of astonishing that we can understand one another at all, especially given the rampant inconsistencies of our languages.

I suspect there is and must be something of soul power at work for us in communication. It is not that we simply have the ability to talk, but also that we have something to say. And having something to say we thus make communication happen. I suspect that if two people who had no language in common were put in a room, soon enough they we would be communicating, even if it meant inventing a language whole-cloth.

Our capacity to speak starts in our soul’s desire to understand and be understood. We have something to say and so we must say it, even using the crude and inconsistent too we call language.

Secondly, as a Catholic and lover of Scripture, I DO wish that people would take some of the same sophistication that they have in everyday conversation and apply some of it to scripture. Too many people read scripture in a mechanistic way, missing basic human contexts like history, and language tools and genres such as metaphor, hyperbole, poetry, allusion, word play, paradox, irony, and so forth.

Frankly it is our opponents the atheists who are most guilty of a fundamentalist and reductionist reading Scripture. They love to pull quotes out of thin air and and say, “See your God is a blood-thirsty genocidal despot.” Yet in pulling these quotes they have no respect for context, or later development within the Biblical framework. Neither do they seem to have any respect for the various genres at work or that history can be told in different ways.

That God’s Word conveys absolute and clear truth is certain, but it does this in a variety of ways, sometimes telling epic sagas, other times getting deep into the details of genealogies, and very precise delineations on places and persons. Sometimes the bible portrays grave sin, but not as approval but to set the stage for and the need of grace and mercy. Some earlier provisions and rules gave way as God led us deeper into his will in stages. Yet other rules and commands remain unchanged and are operative at every stage of Biblical revelation.

So, like any use of language those who read the scriptures must bring a significant degree of sophistication and appreciation for the subtleties of the text. Frankly, trying to read the Scriptures outside of the ecclesial context in which they were experienced, written shared and understood is to engage in an interpretation that is dubious at best, and deeply flawed at worse. The Bible is a Church book and must be read with and in the Church. The Catholic Church provides not only a context for the sacred text, but also the authoritative capacity to interpret the limits and meanings of the text.

Ah Language! Such a magnificent gift, and one so fraught with complexity. Handle it with great care and appreciation. And if this be so with human speech how much more so with the Sacred Text.

6 Replies to “Say What? A Meditation on the Glory of Language and the Respect we must have for its Subtlety”

  1. in the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God. Far out!

  2. A friend of mine was sitting with one of his colleagues to watch high-school students audition for a musical. One of the young ladies chose “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” for her audition piece:

    I say to-may-to
    You say to-may-to
    I say po-tay-to
    You say po-tay-to
    to-may-to, to-may-to
    po-tay-to, po-tay-to
    Let’s call the whole thing off.

    Clearly she had read, but never listened to, the lyrics.

    Now I’m in the mood for Ella Fitzgerald…

  3. It is amusing to consider that in the United Kingdom, candidates “stand” for election, while in the US one “runs” for election.

  4. I noticed two word changes from listening to 1940’s radio shows. One is garage used as a verb. For example: I am going to garage the car. Also, they used to pronounce both of the u’s in vacuum. Maybe some people still do.

  5. “The Bible is a Church book and must be read with and in the Church. The Catholic Church provides not only a context for the sacred text, but also the authoritative capacity to interpret the limits and meanings of the text.”

    How true, and what a blessing for those who come to understand this truth!

  6. First of all, an aside inspired by; “See your God is a blood-thirsty genocidal despot.”
    God may seem “harsh” to someone whose context is based on co-dependant families however, such families are built on a foundation which is flawed in many ways, including communication. If a child receives a certain amount of “treats” in a day then, is given enough of these treats to last a week and told to stretch them out: that child may eat them all in one go and blame the resulting sickness on the father. Many fathers will refuse to accept this at first but, the co-dependant father may be disburbed to the point where his peace of mind is disturbed because he feels a loss of popularity with the child. To regain the peace of mind he then gives in by supplying daily doses, of the treats, for the week – even though the entire week has already been provided for. Then, this father gives in to “peace at any price” which the “war hawks” were severely criticized for warning us about during the cold war of the later part of the 20th Century.
    The responsible father risks losing popularity by imparting, and keeping to, unpleasant truths in his communication. “you ate a weeks supply (as you rejected the process, just as Adam rejected the process. You both took it all in one gulp whether it was good/evil or candy treats) and made yourself sick – I didn’t make you sick” “You don’t have any for the next six days because of what you did with what I provided”
    The child may attempt to hide from these unpleasant truths by distorting communication by declaring the father of being harsh. The responsible father and the Perfect Father ,,, Old Testament God, whom some call harsh, do not accept this distorted communication so the child may further try to hide from unpleasant truth by confusing communication until it loses meaning.
    Those who choose to call God harsh seem to very much desire to manipulate our perception of Him as the falsly harsh illusion of a human father who refuses co-dependence. Perhaps that’s why so many co-dependent manifestations are creeping into families as one parent tries to play both roles and a welfare check arrives when no one has worked for wages, etcetera, ad nauseum. Are generations being led to grow up with an induced resentment against authourity which is not co-dependent, including God, Who sometimes teaches with uncomfortable truths? Suggest that if one wonders about “co-dependence” try a search engine and look at BOTH pro and con.
    John 8:32-35 about the truth making us free. I’ve often heard it quoted and preached about but, don’t recall ever encountering the conclusion where we are told that we are slaves to sin; until I read the Bible through over several years. Some people seemed, to me, to sense the lack of conclusion and added an interesting one which has a limited, human, value but, value nonetheless. “But first it will make us angry.”
    When unpleasant truths make us angry we, including myself at times, tend to distort the language until the meaning loses uncomfortable impact and, therefore, benefit.
    Another one that I’ve often heard without completion is in Matthew 20:1-16 where the owner of the vineyard asks the workers, who had put in a full day for a day’s pay, if they were envious because the owner had been generous to the ones who’d worked for less than a day. Incomplete communication, as in out of context, can be so unfortunately misleading. Couldn’t these envious workers not have rejoiced that their brothers had received a full day’s pay just as we should rejoice when sinners repent with contrition (Psalm 51) and are brought to full salvation, even if it is in the last moments of their lives? Couldn’t we just sort of not go all the way there and use distorted communication to avoid facing an uncomfortable truth about the need to stay clear of the deadly sin of envy? Seems like a bad plan to me.
    Christ Himself appears, to me, to have taken co-dependence to hell, along with all the other sins, as He refused to accept it within. Asking why His Father had foresaken Him He concluded the ordeal by commending His soul to The Father. Somewhat as He accepted temptation in the garden or Gethsemane to escape the ordeal against the Fathers will then, rejected the temptation as He submitted to His Father’s will, therefore taking Adams sin to hell without going against the Father’s will as He said that He would do the Father’s will.
    Another example of distorted communication that comes from the enclave in which I grew up is about Ivan the Terrible. Adult(s) who were fluent in Slavonic told me that the word, “Grozhny” had been mistranslated and really meant “awesome”. Ivan was the first Tsar of Russia who avoided a war with Kozakye (Cossacks) to the east by making a deal that Russia would receive lands to their east, which they had conquered, in exchange for accepting them into the empire as an autonomous republic who farmed their own lands (and provided self trained cavalry) in a system different than the feudal system which dominated. Thus, Russia went from just another country to an imperial power due to the cleverness of their awesome tsar.
    Western Europe had many geographical barriers which allowed preparations for war as enemy armies threaded their way through mountain passes. It was hard to understand the harsh aspects of Eastern European cultures which had evolved on the steppes where forced marches could bring sudden wars into being unexpectedly. So, they went from “awesome” to “aweful” to “terrible” and used a language distortion to dismiss that which they didn’t understand. I will stress that I’m not trying to put down Western European values, since half my origin is Western European and I learned many Celtic and Scandanavian cultural values from the relatives on that side.

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