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Language is hard: Are you sure they mean what you think they mean?

Caring for each other includes the humility of accepting that we understand each other and our words only in part.

Image by Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay/Creative Commons

(RNS) — In 1712, Jonathan Swift, the Anglican clergyman most famous for his brilliant satire, published “A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue.” Complaining that the English language was subject to “daily corruptions” and continuous “abuses and absurdities,” Swift offered a plan (perhaps facetiously) for “fixing our Language for ever.”

Although it would be impossible to establish a perfect English, Swift admitted, “I am of Opinion,” he wrote, “that it is better a Language should not be wholly perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing.” 

Obviously, Swift’s proposal was never implemented. Hundreds of words are added to English dictionaries every year, arising from new technologies, phenomena and trends. The number of words in English has long surpassed 1 million. Not only are new words constantly added to the language, but old words can take on new meanings, too (as anyone who’s read a quaint 19th century novel knows, for they are full of words and phrases that have less innocent meanings today).

Two camps shape the field of linguistics: prescriptivism and descriptivism. A prescriptivist approach sets out the rules of grammar and usage and is concerned with how language and words should be used. A descriptivist approach, in contrast, attempts to assess and describe how language is being used.

Because I teach English, I am by necessity a prescriptivist first, a descriptivist only reluctantly. It’s hard to be a prescriptivist in descriptivist world.

About 10 years ago, I noticed my students using the word “deconstruct” as a synonym for “destroy” or even simply “analyze.” They would say or write things like, “The tornado totally deconstructed the house.” Or “When you deconstruct this poem, you can see that it is about love.” I dutifully noted every time that “deconstruct” means something else and suggested to them a more precise word. Sometimes I would expand by explaining a bit of Jacques Derrida, who coined the term “deconstruction,” sensing the word had just seeped into their vocabularies, its source and meaning unbeknownst to them.

Did my effort work?

Well, I don’t see those particular uses of “deconstruct” anymore. But now that word is being used (and debated) within the context of reexaminations of religious faith and its underlying assumptions. “Deconstructing” one’s faith is practically a movement, and it bears only the loosest, if any, connection to Derrida’s philosophical term. Thus, critiquing “deconstruction” in that light (as I see some people do) is not just fruitless — it’s also a denial of linguistic reality.

Jonathan Swift portrait by Charles Jervas, 1710. Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Jonathan Swift portrait by Charles Jervas, 1710. Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons

As much as one might sympathize with Jonathan Swift’s bemusement over the ever-changing English language, and as much as one might feel bewildered over the latest cryptic slang, the fact is that the language of a living people is also alive. This means that words — like people — are birthed, change, grow obsolete. Some words, like “bespoke,” for example, are even resurrected.

The history of the English language is filled with such changes. “Awful” and “awesome,” which both come from “awe,” once meant the same thing. “Meat” once referred to any solid food. “Girl” once meant a child of either sex. “Cute,” originally short for “acute,” was used to mean “sharp” or “witty.” “Nice” is a word that has, perhaps, undergone the most change: It originally meant “silly” or “foolish,” then came to mean “attentive” before finally having its current meaning of “pleasant” or “agreeable.”

Words I’ve seen change over my own lifetime include “text,” “hack” and “tablet.” And I can clearly remember being asked by a student a few years ago for advice on how to be an “influencer.” I literally thought she was asking me how she could be an influence in people’s lives. And speaking of “literally,” its official definition includes the opposite of its original meaning.

Like it or not, words — and language — evolve over time. In fact, the earliest version of English (Old English or Anglo Saxon) is nearly unreadable to most English speakers today. Many are surprised to learn the English of both Shakespeare and the King James Bible is not Old English, or even Middle English, but, rather, Modern English. That’s how much language can change.

And it is still changing. Facing this truth about the nature of language might help us embrace not only the changes but, even more importantly, what those changes reveal about what it means to be humans made in God’s image.

Human language — in all its variety and vitality — is a glorious reflection of our being made in the image of a God who created the world through his word, a God who is the Word. He doesn’t change, of course, but we mortals in his image do.

Because there is something of God’s divine nature reflected in human language, we ought to treat words — our own and those of others — with care. Care includes the humility of accepting that we understand each other and our words only in part. Language can be hard. It is easily misused, misunderstood or made into an obstacle. Thus, when we don’t understand or when we think we disagree with someone’s words, we ought to look past the surface of the words and into the soul of the person by asking, What do you mean? Can you explain further?

Even if understanding ultimately yields unsurpassable disagreement, it will then be a disagreement founded on human dignity, not merely semantics.

Image by Gerd Altmann/Pixabay/Creative Commons

Image by Gerd Altmann/Pixabay/Creative Commons

The social media debates that weaponize words to mislead, confuse, polarize and divide and to cast doubt on the ability of words to speak truth and bring healing (Proverbs 16:24) are an abuse of God’s glorious gift of language, which is an expression of his nature in his image bearers. There is perhaps no passage in Scripture that ought to put more fear into more hearts today than Matthew 12:36, which says that on the day of judgment, we will give account of every careless word.

Humans weren’t made for words; words were made for us. We will keep creating and re-creating them. Just as God’s written word is a revelation of himself, just as Jesus is the Word incarnate, our words help us to reveal ourselves to ourselves — and to others. We steward language best not by preserving its parts like fossilized bones put on display, but by treating language as a dark glass, one we faithfully and continually clean and polish in order to see ourselves — and God’s image in each of us — more clearly.