On Language and Lumberjacks

From Eugene Peterson’s memoir:

True language has to do with communion, establishing a relationship that makes for life: love and faith and hope, forgiveness and salvation and justice. True language requires both a tongue and an ear…depersonalized, nonrelational, unlistening language kills. In the land of the living it is blasphemous, whether spoken from pulpits or across the breakfast table.

Language is relational: it is only given to us by others, and its primary use is the creating and sustaining of relationships: the relationship with others, with self, with God.

As such, language begins with seeing–and smelling and tasting and touching and feeling–but sight is the sense on which we most rely. We must allow ourselves to see the world as unique, and to see each other as unique for language to have any possibilities for us. This is the danger of cliche: we come at the world as others have come at it, we use language that is worn and trite and void of meaning. Cliche–whether we are describing a nestled village in a valley or encouraging someone to buck up–refuses to celebrate the uniqueness and miracle of the village, of the other person. It is a cookie-cutter approach to language, and it deadens the speaker even more than it deadens the listener. For the listener can deny a word: the speaker has lived it, has made it his or her own. Has refused to see, to engage.

True language of relationship demands that, most of all, we see each other as unique. This is a weakness for today, via the internet. We no longer speak face to face. People are avatars and icons rather than material bodies with immaterial souls: it is easy to cuss at or curse an avatar. It is not a person, and if you read an internet message board you will see such language. These places are damaging in that they are depersonalized, and for the great strength of the internet there are also great weaknesses–most of all, places where people are no longer people, they are no longer humans but glowing pixels to be manipulated and used.

Language itself needs to be redeemed.

The literary theorists would remind us that even when it is personal, language is slippery and hard to pin down–the signifiers, or words, cannot match exactly the signified. The word tree and the thing itself are radically different, and when I say “tree” we all have slightly different ideas in our minds, whether of some pine atop a peak or an oak in the backyard. It is as if we can begin to redeem language now by paying attention to what we say, but on the other side of the curtain we will be given an entirely new language, one that is not so slippery and malleable–it is almost as if our language now is a shadow of what’s to come.

In the interim, as we speak–just like it is as we go to work or sit down at dinner–we are engaged in the everyday act of making things new. We not only give a cup of water to the thirsty but we think about the words we use to relate to that person–to all people–so that even labels of “thirsty” drop away and there is the dizzying humanness of the person, the accumulation of stories and acts and words and thoughts that make each of us. The accumulation of hair and skin and bone.

May we pay attention to our language, and refuse to speak platitudes that are void of soil and sinew and story. The composers of our holy writs knew this, and they wrote in a language worthy of field-hands or dockworkers, full of the here and now, the sheep and goats. Jesus knew this, which is why he told stories about seeds and coins and fish–refusing to escape into the depersonalized positivism of all inclusive statements–but instead employing the rough language of the earth. I wonder what stories he might tell today, were he followed by an assorted band of librarians and lumberjacks, by a wide swath of society that did not need to escape this world, but live fully in it, to see with new eyes and speak with new words. True language is about relationship, and we must realize that before we get to the messy work of redemption.

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The Language of Redemption

I remember, in college, my Spanish professor talking about his wife, who was from Latin America.  He said that if he knocked a glass off the table and it broke, then he would slap himself on the forehead and declare, in English: I broke the glass.  Yet, his wife would both express and think differently.  In Spanish, the verb is reflexive, so in essence, the broken glass on the floor “broke itself.”  In English, we have a culpability for the broken glass (whether good or bad); in Spanish, one might say fate plays a role.

Such a story fascinates me, as a writer.  It fascinates me because of not only how the action is expressed, but how it affects thought.  I’ve read some articles lately disregarding the effect that language has on thought process: the thinking is that human thought is, essentially, the same: language merely expresses the same thing in different ways.  I’ve been uncomfortable with this.  I believe language actually affects the way we think, from my own observation, from the story about my Spanish professor’s wife.

Lera Boroditsky, a professor at Stanford, agrees.

Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human.  Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity…

Language is so fundamental to our experience, so deeply a part of being human, that it’s hard to imagine life without it.  But are languages merely tools for expressing our thoughts, or do they actually shape our thoughts?

Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia.  I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space.  Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.  This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like, “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.”  One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly…

Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings.  What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language.  Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities.

When asked to arrange cards in chronological order (say, of a man growing older), the Kuuk Thaayorre always arranged them from east to west, whether it meant arranging them left to right, right to left, or away from their person.  Yet, language affects us even more.  Regarding masculine and feminine nouns in other languages:

In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages.  The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender.  For example, when asked to describe a “key” — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged,” “metal,” “serrated,” and “useful,” whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say “golden,” “intricate,” “little,” “lovely,” “shiny,” and “tiny.”  To describe a “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said, “beautiful,” “elegant,” “fragile,” “peaceful,” “pretty,” and “slender,” and the Spanish speakers said, “big,” “dangerous,” “long,” “strong,” “sturdy,” and “towering.”  This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender…Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world.

Language affects thought.  I rarely think of language as a tool, but it is: a tool with benefits and drawbacks, just like any other tool that humans use.  Our very language affects our perceptions of the world around us.  The act of writing — of good writing — is really an act of seeing: it is breaking through the cliche, even through the language barrier, to see the bridge or key with new eyes.  I think in many ways this is a spiritual act, as it asserts our independence and volition and creativity, our humanity.

Seeing in this way both asserts our humanity and the goodness of the created world, as it refuses to ingest the world based on another’s opinion, but always seeks its own.  It foresees the day when we no longer will be constrained by language, when we will experience truly and purely, when we will know fully, even as we are fully known.  One day, language will no longer get in our way, but will be transformed and redeemed.  The writer, the poet, seeks to begin that transformation today.