Tuesday, 17 August 2010

In the beginning was the Word

The "confusion of tongues" by Gustav...Image via WikipediaI'm not a theologian. Nor have I studied linguistics. On the other hand, I'm a lifelong Christian become Catholic with a BA in English Literature who works in translation. Both these areas interest me.
Occasionally the following pops into my head, and I thought I'd blog it: isn't it funny that human language doesn't seem particularly aligned to Christology, given the centrality of Christ to Christianity (natch) and the big deal that is made of Jesus the Word of God:

In the beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things came into being,
Not one thing came into being except through him.
He was in the world that had come into being through him,
and the world did not recognise him.
He came to his own
and his own people did not accept him.
The Word became flesh,
he lived among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory that he has from the Father as only Son of the Father,
full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-3,10-11,14

God said 'Let there be light,' and there was light.
God said 'Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild animals and all the creatures that creep along the ground.'

God created man in the image of himself,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:3,26-27

Man is made in the image of God, through the Word, whose glory is full of truth. All of creation bears the imprint of God, man especially so. Both these passages at least hint at the Holy Trinity (let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves), which, as has often been pointed out, allows the affermation that "God is love" (1 John 4:8) to make sense; since God is a community of persons even before (causally) the world was created, love can be a part of his nature – the Father loves the Son, and the Son the Father, and so on. And if he is a community, then communication is also part of his nature, part of his unity. The Word even became flesh and dwelt with man.

And yet, from this vision of God and man which suggests that language isn't just something that we do, it's an essential part of who we are we move to the reality of people who can't talk to one another because they don't have a common language. Something fishy would appear to be going on. Back in my first year at university we took a little look at linguistics, or at least at two broad schools of thought in linguistics, structuralism and post-structuralism. I can't remember in great detail what they were about, and what specifically distinguishes them, but I remember discussion of (or perhaps just listening to) how words are related to meaning. In any case, you don't have to be a linguist to appreciate that words seem to be somewhat arbitrary: a dog, for example, is a Hund in German, a chien in French, a cane in Italian, and so on and so forth. What I think marks to the passage from structuralism to post-structuralism is essentially the same thing that marks the passage from modernism to post-modernism: the former, inspired by the enlightenment, attempts to classify and provide a logical internal structure (again, natch) for understanding language, the latter sees how bloody difficult this is and gives up, abandoning examination of the relationships within language for relativism and (proudly?) proclaiming that meaning is in fact a myth.

We've got something of a disconnect on our hands: is language essential, unifying and full of truth or is it arbitrary, unable to unify us and devoid of meaning?

I have to admit that I don't have this clear in my own mind. Both visions seem pretty extreme; I guess that the solution lies somewhere in the middle, as it is prone to do. I certainly don't doubt God's revelation, but it's also very easy to follow the logic of the post-structuralists. Of course, revelation does give us an account of the matter. However, unfortunately it's one of those incidents where God comes out looking like a bit of a cosmic jerk on the face of it:

The whole world spoke the same language, with the same vocabulary. [...] 'Come,' they said, 'let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top reaching heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we do not get scattered all over the world.'
'So they are all a single people with a single language!' said the Lord. 'This is only the start of their undertakings! Now nothing they plan to do will be beyond them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they cannot understand one another.' [... T]here the Lord confused the language of the whole world and from there the Lord scattered them all over the world.

Genesis 11:1,4,6-7,9

I'd prefer not to get too bogged down in defending God's reputation – perhaps that's a topic for another time – but the passage itself is surely fundamental, given the topic. Note again, that God seems to act as Trinity on this occasion as well. God deliberately limits man's ability to communicate, to stop him doing whatever he wants to do. In fact, perhaps this is obviously for the best after the fall. We all know very well what a mess we've made of the whole world with the percentage of our brain that we do use, just think of the damage we would have done by now if we'd devoted all of our grey matter to it! On the other side of the equation however is Pentecost:

When Pentecost day came round, they had all met together, when suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of a violent wind which filled the entire house in which they were sitting; and there appeared to them tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak different languages as the Spirit gave them power to express themselves.

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed them in a loud voice:
[... T]his is what the prophet was saying:
In the last days – the Lord declares -
I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity.
Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your young people shall see visions,
your old people dream dreams.

Acts 2:1-4,14,16-17

Here we effectively have the tower of Babel in reverse, as I'm not the first to say. And here we have the Trinity and consequently Christology. As he promised, the Son has sent the Spirit, the Spirit in whom we are adopted sons and can say "Abba, Father!". We are co-heirs with Christ and members of his body, caught up in the life of the Holy Trinity, and in this first Pentecost of the Church, preached by the apostles, God sees fit to restore unity of language as a miraculous sign of the outpouring of his grace.

The post-strucuralists gave us a pretty bleak vision of language, but that's not the only way of looking at it. Disparity of language doesn't seem to actually be a bad thing in itself. I think it's fascinating personally. Looking back at the creation account, we see God's creative action through the Word and we see man made in his image. Human languages are of course the result of creativity. God has made us co-creators in his image, and different communities of people have created their own languages, through which they have communion. As it's very fashionable to say nowadays, especially in response to people who are complaining about declining standards in English, this is also a continuing process, and involves, whether we like it or not, the concise text messages sent among groups of disenfranchised youth. "Word made flesh" might in fact be an apt expression to describe the development of language among mankind. Also, I understand that St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the great variety of life and difference in creation is an expression of the glory of God, praised by all his works in chorus. And though I might sometimes have a little trouble in the supermarket here in Italy, perhaps its more important after all that Gods praises are sounded with a variety of sounds.

That's all I can think to say on the matter. I'm sure it's just the tip of the iceberg. I'd like to know what a proper Christian linguist had to say about it, but I don't remember seeing many books on the subject. It might be a niche interest, but I'm sure someone other than myself must find it interesting.
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