I can’t spell. I’m one of those people who appreciate the squiggly red line of a computer’s spellcheck correcting my papers and emails. But I love watching the National Spelling Bee every year (cymotrichous is this year’s winning word). It’s nice to see the nerdy middle school kids on ESPN, and even though I can’t spell, I have a fascination with words and their origins. One of the last classes I took in college was Linguistics. I loved learning how different languages are put together. And language controls our view of the world.
As someone who doesn’t pick up new languages that well, I know my view of the world is limited to the English vernacular. It’s not just my view of the world but my view of very existence. One of my favorite books is 1984. Despite the many times I’ve read it, I get a little paranoid each new time, positive Big Brother is changing all the archives and history isn’t what I thought it was the day before. But the scariest part of 1984 is by controlling language, the government controls people. How can the masses know they are slaves when there isn’t a word for oppression, or slavery, or freedom? Innately, they may feel some sort of injustice, but they cannot articulate it, cannot take action, and cannot visualize other possibilities.
Are there qualities of God that I’m missing out on because of a limited vocabulary? Is there something valuable that got lost in translation from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to Shakespearian English to now? The Catholic Church used to forbid vernacular translations. While many claim this was to keep the masses ignorant, keep in mind that the masses of the time couldn’t read the vernacular much more than they could read Latin. The Church was trying to avoid mis-translations and mis-interpretations that come from viewing the same text in different words. While I’m usually happy with my NKJV, I understand the effort of maintaining unity throughout the Church. For the same reason, some Protestants stick to the King James Version as if Jesus himself highlighted his words in red. With the plethora of Bible choices (just in English!), it is important to pick the right wording. I’m going to get a completely different understanding if I read the KJV compared to The Message. Multiply that by different languages, and it’s no wonder the universal Church is so fractured.
And it makes me wonder if any of us have an understanding close to the original. Can reading the Vulgate give a clearer understanding the early Church? Can reading Hebrew makes the psalms more poetic than I can imagine? Can I only truly understand Jesus’ parables if I know Aramaic? It makes me want to go into deep study, to learn as much of the cultures and languages as I can so I might have some revelation that can’t be explained in English. But as I said, I don’t pick up languages very well, so I’m stuck with English (which is a rich and complicated language I’m glad I don’t have to learn from the outside). So instead of worrying about what expressions or revelations I’m missing out on, I can look at the beauty of the language I do know and see how this unique lens lets me view God.
Let’s look at the Trinity: First, the name of God. It’s one syllable, strong consonants. It’s rather a harsh sound, one that lends itself to the understanding of a God of judgment and strength. But some adjectives help soften it, develop it. A loving God, a merciful God. Both still indicate power, but with a clause that in spite of such power, there is compassion. Something to fear and love simultaneously. In comparison, Yahweh. Two syllables, softer letters. To me, it sounds more encompassing; as if this word includes creation and personal relationship. To me, Yahweh sounds more likely to intervene in the middle of things, while God will arrive at the end to fix everything.
Second, Jesus Christ. Most English speakers don’t name their children Jesus, while it’s a common name to Spanish speakers. This is going to make a difference. To English ears, the name of Jesus is just a sacred as God; to Spanish, it’s a human name. Though I believe Jesus was both man and God, I think this distance or familiarity with his name impacts which part of Him is easiest to relate to. Also, I’ve always been fonder of referring to him as Christ. It sounds holier to me, perhaps because of all the religious words taken from it: Christian, Christianity, crismons, Christmas. Plus Jesus sounds so…vernacular. In Latin the J is pronounced like a Y; in Spanish it’s pronounced like an H. Christ feels more universal, aloof, which is good in some cases, while Jesus feels more human and personal, which is good in others.
Third, Holy Spirit. Or Holy Ghost, which doesn’t make much difference in Latin, but makes a lot of difference in English. Ghost implies the spirit of a departed. So the Holy Ghost is the remainder of Christ on earth? Or if it’s Spirit, it can exist on its own and instead of giving me the image of a transparent Jesus, gives me no image at all, just a force we feel and moves in, through, around us. For years, the Ghost thing had me thinking the Holy Ghost was just part of Jesus instead of its own, separate, equal part of the Trinity. So Holy Spirit is much better in my opinion. And Sactus Spiritus is even better. Why? First because it has that nice alliteration. And second, it’s Latin, but is easy to understand in English: sacred spirit. Doesn’t holy mean sacred? English has lots of words that mean close to the same thing. Like Christ though, Sacred has other words attached to it: sacrosanct, sanctuary, sacrament, Again, it’s just my preference to use the phrase that has more universal recognition.
Spinning off from holy/sacred, it’s part of the uniqueness of English that there are multiple words for sacred. When a language has more than one word meaning essentially the same thing, it’s a good guess that that meaning is important to the culture. Holy, sacred, hallowed, divine, reverend. English places emphasis on the fact that there is a category that exists beyond the everyday. It prompts belief in the supernatural or theism without actually promoting anything.
I’d love to compare notes with someone who is a non-native English speaker, to see what words and phrases have significant meaning in another language, and how they shape the speakers understanding of the world and God.