Tag Archives: language


18 Apr

1173672104_fThe end of the Gérard Dépardieu epic film 1492: The Conquest of Paradise graphically depicts the failure of the Spanish expedition to curb the greed and violence of the Conquistadores. In the midst of a tropical storm whose physical violence matched the inner destruction of the colony, Columbus’s faithful translator Utapan once again shaves his head and dons his tribal face paint ready to abandon his patron and return to his native people. He runs across the yard towards the beckoning forest and is entreated by a bewildered Columbus: Speak to me! But he finds no comfort. Before smiling and disappearing among the foliage Utapan exposes the depths of pain in his soul as he shouts back: You never learned to speak my language!

You never learned to speak my language.

80693-19Something as simple as this, but it seems it never ocurred to Columbus or his companions. The Tainos people had managed to learn Spanish, how come the Spaniards never learned theirs? It was certainly not lack of intelligence or curiosity, rather an insidious cultural supremacy that held that everything Western was superior to local mores, whatever shape these may take. And nowhere is this more clearly found than in language.

Language is more than the ability to communicate. It defines us, becomes part of us, draws many of the lines of our identity. It links us to the world around us, but only by separating us from part of that world. Language enables us make our mark, to leave a lasting impact on society, accessible to those that share our linguistic identity.

We are created speechless – a baby’s crying communicates loud and clear, but can hardly be considered speech – with a blank page on which language is slowly written by those around us. And so we acquire the ability to express ourselves, to relate socially to another – the Thou of Buber’s world – and  to pour our innermost self out through our words.

It seems to me that this innate capacity for language is part of the image of God in humanity, and a most significant part at that. In the beginning was the Word – communication, self-revelation, expression, thought-given-form – and the Word was with God, for communication needs recipient as well as expression. And the Word was God. God was, and is, Word.

1301595118.motLanguage is not a bolt-on extra. A mother tongue is the gateway to the heart, sitting at the core of who we are. No wonder when the Word became flesh, he learned our language.

Tomorrow I come to the end of another course teaching language learning skills to a bunch of those who will make it their life’s purpose to bring Jesus to people and communities across the world. Perhaps better than anything else,  learning local languages will connect them with the people they go to serve. As Eugene Nida rightly said:

“Language learning is not a matter of acquiring a simple mechanical ability to produce acoustic signals so as to buy, sell etc. It is a process by which we make vital contacts with a new community, a new way of life, and a new system of thinking. To do this well is the basic requirement of effective missionary endeavour.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!


Do you speak Christian?

9 Apr

WS4It’s that time of year again when I find myself in Llanelli, South Wales, teaching a group of trainees introductory linguistics and language learning skills. I trust that by the end of this two weeks they will have learned a thing or two about how languages work, and how they can best learn one. And somewhere in the midst of all this, I hope that they will also understand why language is important. As for me, it gives me an excuse to write again about language. Way to go!

In an engaging scene towards the end of the adventures of Don Quixote, the brave knight, his faithful Sancho and their entourage come across a traveller and his companion, a lady dressed in “Moorish” style. Poor thing, she didn’t seem to understand the kind words they spoke in her direction, for she merely crossed her hands over her chest and bowed in appreciation. She evidently did not speak “Christian”.

QuijoteHow many of us speak “Christian”? However we want to define “speaking Christian” – and in Cervantes’ day, it was a simple synonym for Castillian Spanish – that isn’t really the main issue. More to the point is how many people beyond the walls of our churches speak Christian? Because if we are not speaking the same language, we are never going to make ourselves understood. As Taylor Swift would say, “never, ever, ever”.

God has always come to humanity speaking our language(s). Whenever you find an angel in the Bible, they speak in the language of their interlocutor, not in “the language of angels”, whatever these might be. God’s words to people in dreams and visions were always perfectly understandable. Jesus used his native Aramaic but also seems to have managed to communicate happily with Greek speakers in their own language. And the vast majority of the New Testament is written in Koiné Greek, “common” Greek, or that which was spoken by the masses, the trade language of the Mediterranean world and beyond, not the cultured Attic Greek of Homer and Plato.

God addresses people in their own language. And we should too. The second century epistle to Diognetus says it well:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. […] But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.

Christians did not stand out from the crowd in anything but their godly living. They dressed the same – I guess that might mean hoodies and low-slung jeans these days, not to mention the odd piercing –, ate the same food, did the same jobs, spoke the same language… yet somehow displayed a “striking method of life” that was soon to overrun the mighty Roman Empire.

To “speak Christian” roots us firmly in a bygone age and severs our connection with those that actually need Christ. We risk becoming an irrelevant relic, a quaint nicety that is tolerated, more or less, by outsiders, but little understood.

imagesAnd it’s not just the “thees and thous” that mark us out as travellers in time. So much of our communication is built on an overestimation of the place of “preaching”, a premise of shared values and shared knowledge and basic “biblical literacy” that can in reality no longer be taken for granted. Concepts of sin and morality, the question of whether God even exists, the reliability of the Bible… we assume so much and fail to connect.

And so our message misses the mark, quite simply lost in translation, from “Christian” to however we wish to label contemporary communication.

We simply have no alternative – to follow faithfully in the footsteps of a communicative God, we must live out our faith in ways that other people can understand. Whether in the way we construct our corporate life, our communication style or the very words that we use, our language must be their language; anything else is a distortion of the gospel.

It’s time to stop speaking Christian and live it.

P.S. If you are interested in one theologian’s perspective on Speaking Christian, see this review of Marcus Borg’s book of the same title or an interview with the author.


25 Oct

Today, together with the students on the course on the Pentateuch that I am teaching this week, we have been looking at Babel. Fascinating. Four days in, we are still battling through the world of mystery that surrounds the beginnings of history as recorded in the opening chapters of Genesis. And it seems that some of the battles are more to do with our own pre-conceived ideas than the initially perceived irreconcilable conflicts between science and faith.

I love the best theories of the origin of language. All of these place language into a social context, the interaction of humanity with one another or the world around them, but none are able to offer an even remotely satisfactory or convincing explanation of how language began. Grunts as people worked together on prehistoric projects of all kinds – ho heave ho – becoming full-blown speech; onomatopoeic mimicry of animal noises – buzz buzz – gradually expanding to cover the full-range of human experience; natural emotion – ouch and boo hoo – slowly finding means of expressing feelings in non-instinctive reactions; attempts to say hello – huh – when stumbling across another lone wanderer taking shape in greetings; humming and singing – lah di lah – finding identification with the world around; and even “oral-greetings”, mouthing shapes and other oral gymnastics then emerging into fully fledged language. That’s maybe OK if all you want to do is wave goodbye with your tongue, but just try telling someone that your brother is convinced he is the reincarnation of Genghis Khan with a few quick licks of the lips…

Note the “white lie” in this image — all the world’s language families are connected into one big family tree, from the same trunk. A nice idea, and a logical necessity without Babel, but one for which there is currently no empirical evidence whatsoever.

And that, believe it or not, is about as much as we can come up with. The origin of language is, quite simply, a complete mystery. Babel remains as acceptable a theory as any other, and fits perfectly with the evolution of today’s languages in a limited number of separate language families with no traceable connection between them.

Add to this the physiological adaptation that humanity exhibits for language, our natural capacity that makes speech not only possible but a logical companion, and the plot thickens: complex muscle structures around our mouths, small mouths (yes, believe it or not…) that can move quickly, a vertical larynx (good for speech, but unfortunately bad for choking on pen tops), and teeth ideally positioned to create a variety of sounds. And controlling all this we have our brains, with not only their huge capacity but also right and left hemispheres which allow for both analytical processing of language – the separation of sound from meaning and the creation of speech – and the appreciation for the social and conceptual content in communication. Then place language-learning into its natural context, transmitted to children over a period of years by parents and the wider community, and we have something without parallel in the animal world.

Along with all the other cultural capacities that make us human, language has always been there. Wherever and whenever people are found, so is language. There would appear to have never been a time when we were unable to communicate, and certainly no record either of how we acquired this ability, or how it emerged in a random evolutionary manner from our posited pre-human ancestors.

I am sure the theologians would disagree, but as much as any other single aspect, to me language represents one of the greatest facets of the image of God in humanity. To be able to communicate, to formulate thought, to express that whole gamut of human experience, from hard fact to powerful emotion, through the vehicle of language, is just priceless. All I need to do now is go and learn how to say all this in the rest of the world’s six thousand or so languages that I don’t know…

BFF of sinners

6 Jun

More acronyms. BFF or FBF? Best Friend Forever or Facebook Friend? Which does your social sphere most resemble? (I realise that there are more social networking sites than Facebook, some more popular depending on location; I use Facebook as a discussion starter simply because it is the largest and most influential global site, not out of any sense of personal devotion…)

Social networking is changing both the way we relate and what language itself means. (Nothing wrong with that, by the way; this is a simple observation, not a bring-back-the-good-old-days moan. Culture, of which language is an integral part, is dynamic and in a constant state of flux, there are just times when we notice it more.) Let’s start with language.

Beyond the growing influence of txt-speak with new terms such as lol finding their way into everyday vocabulary, existing words are being reshaped. For example, a normal conversation will involve chatting, talking and listening. But not in the world of cyber-relationships. Are you a good listener? “Listening” normally involves paying attention to the content of what another wants to transmit. But in the blogosphere listening is simply skimming what is “out there” to discover “trending topics” or where our own name gets a mention. More a case of keeping a virtual ear to the ground than taking anything in. And “chat” no longer implies talk. When someone wants to “chat”, further definition is now required to know if they in fact are looking to “voice-chat” (how strange is that?) or rather write/type – probably on a smartphone if connecting with a member of the emerging “thumbtribe”, the English term commonly used to express the original Japanese oyayubizoku.

What about “follow”? Once a relatively sombre term, in certain situations even with overtones of stalking, “follow” is a term still in evolution. Jesus’ “Follow me” certainly has a different meaning in a world of tweets than in 1st century Palestine. To have a couple of thousand Twitter followers is no huge achievement; to have followers who embrace your ideals and values is a completely different story.

And then there is “relationship”. What exactly is a “relationship” these days? Sometimes it is clearly an exclusive (normally sexual) bond, as in “I’m in a relationship with so-and-so”, but more often than not it is predicated on the ties created on social networks, thus being as thick or as thin as these. A relationship becomes whatever the participants want it to be.

“Like”, is an interesting one too, seeming to resemble the “amens” in some churches, which mean anything from “Yes, preach it!” to “We can hear you at the back”. In other words it is a generic response that somehow lets the other person know that you are there and are paying at least minimal attention. A Facebook “like” does something to cement “relationship”, particularly if someone has suggested that you “like” a page they have created; it does not necessarily imply agreement with the content, or even in fact “liking” it at all.

Coming finally to the focus of this post, take the term “friend” itself. To its definition of friend as “a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations” the Oxford dictionary has added a sub-definition: “a contact on a social networking website”. How many of your Facebook friends would you describe as people with whom you “share a bond of mutual affection”? Friend may have been a less inappropriate term for the original Facebook restricted to a closed university context but has somehow stuck as Facebook has mushroomed to a vehicle with the potential to connect anyone on the planet to absolutely anyone else. “Friend” has lost its meaning. Given that 80% of Facebook friend requests are accepted, “friend” now refers simply to a person who has been granted access to one of the (virtual) networks that we belong to. We have come a long way from the Philia of Aristotle or Amicitia of Cicero. As Mark Zuckerberg himself said: “Facebook is the most successful social network in the world, enabling millions to share information of no interest with people they barely know”.

There are more, but that, I think, shows what we are talking about. Is Orwellian “Newspeak” able to control thought and mould the surrounding world, or will language simply express whatever is happening at a deeper level within a given society? In other words, is language a reflection of where culture is going, or can culture be steered by language? For me, this is never an either-or; language and culture are so intertwined that language will always grow out of cultural innovation, but then, in turn, will impact future social development. So, the very meaning of “friendship” has been forever altered, both linguistically and in cultural practice, through the combined social and technological revolution that is Facebook.

What does all this mean? According to the American Sociological Review study published in 2006, “friendship” is in fact in decline. The average American may have 245 Facebook friends, but in “real life” that number of close friends (not family members) drops to two. That’s right, just two friends. In 1985 the average American had three, still not enough for a football team, but statistically well above today’s figure. Worse still, that is the average. One in four Americans confesses to having no friends. None, not one. “One is one and all alone and evermore shall be so.”

Retreating into the isolation of home is paralleled by exponential growth of cyber relationships (whatever that means, as we have seen…). Friendship is largely lived out online. Socially inept individuals can avoid the angst of real-life encounters and yet still forge meaningful, intimate even, friendships with other like souls. And these do not just allow for the sharing of superficial information or interest-based activity; for many, this is where the deepest feelings are expressed and the closest ties built.

This is not being addicted to technology – it is addiction to people, connected through technology, in what Pew Research’s Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman describe as “Networked individualism”. But what has changed is that the focus is no longer on the unit, the community, the family – it is on the individual. Social networking sites link individuals together independently of the social group that formerly enabled this interaction. No wonder this manner of relating has exploded in the individualistically minded West: autonomous individuals at the centre of self-defined networks that enable multithreaded simultaneous relating to other selected individuals from the comfort of one’s chosen environment – heaven on earth!

Friendship is morphing. But Jesus is still “friend of sinners”. And we are still to love as he loved.

This is our world. Stay with it.

Be a friend, BFF to some – I reckon Jesus had a few of those – and FBF to others. (No, Jesus had no Facebook friends, but he did reach out with a similar depth of relationship to numbers on a par with our FB friend lists.) But be a good friend, especially of sinners.

And please friend me.

Beat until stiff and stand in the fridge

20 May

Words do not carry immutable meaning as defined by an entry in a dictionary. Certainly, they bring core meaning with them, but words are moulded both by the words that accompany them and the stage on which they are placed. The whole is irremediably more than the sum of its parts.

This is true of every single piece of communication, the Bible included. Meaning must be deduced from the context in which communication is constructed and the way words combine together, as much as from what any one word itself may be said to “mean”. Context is everything in interpreting language.

In biblical interpretation, the literary context is one level that needs to be explored: genre of language, the paragraph as a unit of thought, the flow of the author’s argument, grammar and syntax, and the meaning of individual words as used by that writer, in the rest of Scripture, or in contemporary writings. In that sense, the Bible is literature, and behaves like any other piece of writing. We ignore that to our detriment.

Beyond the level of literary context, historical and cultural context provide the keys for correct understanding. A couple of examples I trust will help us when we – eventually! – get back to 1 Timothy.

Numbers 5:11-31 contains an example of what is known as “trial by ordeal”, a means of appealing to the supernatural for confirmation of guilt or innocence. Jealous husbands pay close attention. (Nothing here about husbands straying from the marital bed, but that’s another story…)

If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him by sleeping with another man, and this is hidden from her husband […] and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure – or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure – then he is to take his wife to the priest. […] After the priest has made the woman stand before the LORD, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the [offerings] for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has slept with you […] may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have […] defiled yourself by sleeping with a man other than your husband […] May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells and your thigh wastes away.” He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water will enter her and cause bitter suffering.

Outside its immediate historical context, this procedure is quite simply beyond comprehension, and may even strike us as barbaric and sexist. When considering a passage such as this, pretty much everyone can see the need to take the historical background into consideration. All Scripture has its own historical and cultural context, however, which conditions how a passage was written, even if on a surface level the text appears to be more immediately understandable. We cannot just assume that they thought as we think today. What would the text have meant to them, in their world, at their time, with their cultural norms?

One more. Beyond general historical-cultural context, much of the Bible was written with specific circumstances in mind, and nowhere is this more marked than in the epistles. Known as “occasional” documents, most were written to concrete people to address specific needs or questions; they were provoked by “occasions” of concern to the writers, most often situations of heresy or conflict that needed correction. It is rarely possible to unearth every detail of the circumstances behind a portion of an epistle – reading them can at times feel like listening to one side of a telephone conversation – but we must at least try. Let’s take a passage from 1 Corinthians:

Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him […] Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. […] Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. […] From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none. […] So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better. (1 Corinthians 7:20-38)

Without telling us exactly what difficulties the Christian community of Corinth was facing, Paul does at least let us know that his instructions are not permanent but relate to the needs of the moment. Imagine the theological gymnastics needed if we were to attempt obedience to Paul’s words in all places and times… The epistles do not always reveal to us the circumstances that motivated the apostle to write, but again, those circumstances were nevertheless there, and influence how the text is to be read. To interpret without attempting to see the underlying situation is to invite misunderstanding; doing this with 1 Timothy 2 has had drastic consequences throughout church history.

Sound like hard work? Mmm… maybe it is, but that does not make it any the less necessary. In our interaction with Scripture we can get motivation for the “harder” stuff by the “easier” things. Some gems sit John-Three-Sixteen-like on the surface; others require a “search for wisdom as for buried treasure” attitude to find them. Collecting a few surface gems can give motivation to dig a little more deeply, but dig we must.

Because, as you no doubt already know, a text without a context is often said to be a mere pretext. I would go a little further than that: a text without a context becomes a con-text, a word with the authority of Scripture which can be used to say absolutely anything, in order to impose already decided meaning and manipulate those who listen to us. We owe it to God, to his Word and to his people to aim to do better than that.

So, respect the literary context. Find out as much as you can about the general historical and cultural background to a passage. And discover the immediate “occasion” that underlies it. Read the text with all that in mind, particularly if reading a cookery book. Otherwise “beat until stiff and stand in the fridge” might get you into more trouble than you bargained for.

Say “Shibboleth”…

22 Mar

Anyone know what this is a photo of, that is, what the Hebrew letter sin/shin is written on? No prizes this time...

This week and next sees me in Llanelli, South Wales, teaching an introduction to linguistics and language learning skills to 17 Koreans, 3 Brits and 1 American. No Jews this time, though there are a few times in Scripture when some unsuspecting Israelites may have wished they had had the chance to do this course. Some basic skills in phonetics or techniques for language learning in the community might just have spared them a headache or two, or even losing their heads completely in one particular instance.

In one of the sadder incidents in the Old Testament, one which along with many others in the book of Judges seems to illustrate the depths to which Israel had fallen, we read that:

Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.” The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time. (Judges 12:4-6)

Forty-two thousand! Killed for shpeaking with a funny acshent. Wow.

Thankfully, other instances had less far-reaching consequences. Let’s fast forward a few centuries till we meet Peter warming himself by the fire in the Sanhedrin courtyard during Jesus’ trial.

After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” (Matthew 26:73-74)

Peter was unmistakably a Galilean; as Matthew says, his every word gave it away. And being a Galilean hanging out in Jerusalem at that precise moment in time, in the Sanhedrin even, at once revealed who Peter was — in the eyes of any onlooker, he simply must be one of Jesus’ cronies.

Language is not just a means of communication; it is our identity, part of who we are, and who others see us to be. Like it or not, it associates us with certain social or racial groups and defines to the mind of everyone else  just who we are.

A couple of decades later, even some basic phrases may have helped another two apostles stay clear of a potentially very difficult situation.

When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!”  Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker.  The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting:  “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. […] Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

Barnabus watches as Paul leads away the cow that was about to be sacrificed; 12th-13th century stained glass at Bourges cathedral.

Maybe “Teach Yourself Lycaonian” was one of the parchment scrolls that Paul had left in Troas. Whatever, it seems that Paul and Barnabas did not get what was going on; they had not stopped to learn the local peoples’ language. Starting in Greek speaking synagogues, and preaching using the Greek Septuagint translation, Paul brought the gospel to scattered Jews and Gentile God-fearers. But pure pagans who spoke a different language were quite a different challenge. A bit like us today — for after all, “everyone understands English these days” — it is alright to preach and think that they are understanding us, but at times it would be more useful if we could understand them!

It is impossible to “just preach the gospel”, for “the gospel” does not exist in some a-cultural form that can be applied across the whole gamut of human existence. The gospel comes to us in ways we understand, and must be passed on to others in ways that they in turn will be able to understand. These ways may not be ours, and without language that gives us access to the heart, history and communication patterns of a people, we may find that they find our preaching, at best, simply incomprehensible.

For all his commission as the “apostle to the Gentiles”, it seems that in his ministry Paul never got further than using Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire. As a bi-cultural person, brought up as a Roman citizen in the Jewish diaspora and educated in Greek, he straddled these cultures but never seems to have strayed beyond the bounds of these familiar paths, much less learned a language for pioneer ministry in the process.

For this as much as for any other reason Paul cannot be considered the model par excellence for the cross-cultural worker today. For this we have to look to another, to the one who left his “home culture”, immersed himself in another, took on its ways — including learning relevant languages — and in every way became “one of them”: Jesus of Nazareth.

Language learning is not an optional extra for the cross-cultural worker. As a singular aspect of culture, language becomes the bottleneck through which our knowledge and ministry must pass. To enter another’s world necessarily involves us in learning their language; to do anything else is to declare their identity irrelevant. Commitment to language learning identifies us in a way that no other skill does with the people we work amongst. To speak another’s language (well) is a to honour them and opens the door to an insider’s understanding of the culture that in turn enables us to communicate in relevant ways. Deprived of this knowledge, our communication will remain stilted and we will fail to develop appropriately contextualised churches, if we even succeed in communicating the gospel at all. As Eugene Nida said:

Expert language ability helps to identify the missionary most effectively with the indigenous society, and such identification is essential to a truly successful ministry. As missionaries we must work in the field, not on the field. It is not the geographical scope, but the degree of cultural penetration which marks truly effective missionary enterprise, and there is no substitute for proper use of the local idiom.

Comparative phonetics here we come!

%d bloggers like this: