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.
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, readCrazy 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.