No Line On The Horizon

As someone with a relentless need to communicate by spoken and written word, the medium of language in which that language is conveyed has long been of great personal interest to me. In many ways, the language that we use is like the water in which a fish swims, or the air around us which we breathe. Unless something is a drastic problem, it is a matter we seldom notice. While doing some idle reading today, as is often the case in my free time, I came across a discussion of the last remaining Doric Greek language, mutually unintelligible with the Modern Greek, that is spoken fluently by only a few hundred mostly elderly people. A few generations ago, the language was spoken by perhaps a hundred thousand rural Greeks or more, but the lack of official recognition for the language, and the realization that the language is an isolated and low-status dialect, and the fact that culture and education are in Modern Greek and not this hardy survivor of the language spoken by those who dwelled in the ruins of Mycenaean society more than three thousand years ago, has led to the immense loss of fluency in this language among the formerly isolated areas of rural Greece where it was once spoken commonly. The knowledge that one’s native language is backwards and stigmatized tongue is a powerful incentive to learn a higher status language so that one can pass as cultured and civilized and not be looked down on like some sort of uneducated rube. As a child of the Appalachian Piedmont who grew up in rural Central Florida, and who has lived far from these native lands for long stretches of my life, it is a problem I know particularly well, and deeply personally.

Yet language is more than a way to pass as a member of an elite culture or to suffer stigma for sounding vulgar and uneducated. Language also helps us to make sense of our world, and expresses a great deal of our private assumptions that are not often explicitly examined. When I learned Spanish, for example, I found that there were at least a few ways that even with a fairly high level of conversational understanding, that there were ways in which my extremely high level of American English thinking was very contrary to the Spanish which I was trying to learn. An example of this is the fact that Spanish contains an entire sense of subjunctive verbs that describe possibility but not certainty, a lack of certainty that is entirely lacking in English. Naturally, with alarming regularly I would discuss matters in the indicative sense, whereas the people I spoke to who were native speakers of Spanish would speak in the subjunctive sense, and my speech and writing would come off as particularly definite and more than a little harsh. To be sure, it was not done maliciously, but the sharpness and perhaps harshness of my own mind is reflective of the particularly pointed and precise and definite language that comes most naturally to me. Mine is a language of sharp edges, not of blurred lines, as is my mind. Additionally, a few other aspects of learning Spanish were notable, particularly the way that one does not say that one dropped something, but rather that it fell, a phrasing that tends to reduce responsibility, blaming gravity for what an English speaker would consider a matter of negligence or inattention that is blameworthy. Language expresses powerful aspects of mentality, and when one masters a given language, part of that mastery involves thinking naturally and instinctually through that language, so that one has adopted the perspective and approach of that culture. This aspect of one’s language being a lexicon of one’s way of thinking and behaving that is merely expressed in the spoken and written word is the legitimate reason why people tend to think of those with other languages as threatening others, because the difference in language implies a difference in thinking and a difference in mindset, and unless one is a part of a culture that values multilingualism (Switzerland being a notable example of this), such differences tend to create tensions and difficulties within the body politic, whether one is speaking of the United States or the nations of the Balkan peninsula.

Previously, I have written much about the difference in language that results from the shift in language in looking at Greek and Hebrew [1]. Given that the Bibles that most of us (and I assume I am writing to an audience of people who do not speak the koine Greek or biblical Hebrew or Aramaic) read are in English or whatever other language we are most familiar or trying to gain mastery in, the shift in meaning that results from moving from one language to another are often muted by the fact that those various other languages have all been translated into the language that we read. As a result of our failure to recognize the mindset of languages, we are prone to struggle with the experiential nature of knowledge in the biblical Hebrew [2], and likewise we tend to fail to properly recognize that the precision of Paul, for example, does not permit his words to be twisted to the extent that they commonly are without our suffering greatly as a result of that violent misinterpretation of text. We ought not to think this is a problem only for biblical texts—anything that is spoken or written can be violently misinterpreted, because a great deal of context is necessary to understand where a person is coming from, what tone they are using, what they are really talking about, so that we can meet them and come to terms with them and profit from their communication with us. When we lack the comprehension of where others are coming from, and lack the interest in seeing them as they are or were, then we will inevitably depart from their intended meaning in our misinterpretations.

How do we go about saying what we truly mean? First of all, we have to know what it is, in fact, that we actually mean. This is not a trivial or straightforward task, as we often do not really know what we are looking for, or what we are really aiming at, or we may be unwilling for one reason or another to say what we truly think or feel because we will feel stigmatized by it. And so our language will be couched in polite or vague terms that seek to deflect or disguise the true reality within us. Such a task may be necessary and proper for reputation management, but it greatly hinders our ability to be understood, and reflects our unwillingness to engage with those around whom we do not feel safe being ourselves. Our language, rather than simply being a medium for communication, becomes a method of disguise and obfuscation, as we seek to become skilled enough in language to pass ourselves off as something creditable or praiseworthy or elegant or cultured when that may not be the case. Additionally, we may find that the languages we are trying to speak do not accurately express the reality in our minds, which will lead us to either find the best equivalent possible or encourage our creative thought processes to the extent that we are willing to create and define terms to bring to life what we are thinking and feeling that does not yet have any known expression in the real world. In so doing, we enrich our communication when we can convey more precise and accurate communication, accurate in tone, accurate in meaning and extent, accurate in intensity. Sometimes, though, that means we need to work on the language itself, to better shape it according to our own hearts and minds and spirits, and to convey it to those who care about what we have to say in the first place.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to No Line On The Horizon

  1. Pingback: An Exploration of The Moral Topography Of Sin: Part Two | Edge Induced Cohesion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s