More on Words, Ecumenism, and Language

With deep regret, this article comes to you late, for which I apologize.

Vlad and I recently resumed our discussion of words and the use of “ecumenism.” We both moderated our positions, and I want to present my position anew. I look forward to hearing Vlad’s take on my moderated position.

First, on the matter of etymology, Vlad is correct that I brought this up in oral discussion. This occurred on a lakeside porch in a faraway country in the summer of 2018. I may have also brought up this point previously in an online discussion. In my article, I granted him the point because it was not central to my main argument. My original argument regarding etymology as the proper source of a word’s meaning was loosely made, but it did point to a more important argument I intend on making here.

Like art forms, languages evolve, becoming better at expressing some things while their ability to describe other matters decays. The long sentences of nineteenth century English may have been great for diplomatic correspondences carried by envoys, but William Strunk’s pithy style was better suited to the real-time environment of Madison Avenue and the New York Stock Exchange. Modern Hebrew is much better than biblical Hebrew at discussing electrical engineering; biblical Hebrew does not have the words needed for such a discussion. But biblical Hebrew is better suited to discussing sacrifices (I believe biblical Hebrew has eight different words for “sacrifice”). Rabbinic Hebrew trains one to think carefully in legal terms.

Like civilizations, languages at their zenith are often nearest their decline. One must never forget to look back to days when the language worked better for certain purposes. Similarly, it is important to look forward to adapt a language toward a desired future reality. Those who invented modern Hebrew looked back to biblical Hebrew to gain inspiration for new words modern Hebrew would need. שעון (“clock”), a modern invention that did not exist in biblical times, shares the root שעה (“moment”), a biblical Aramic word. Yechiel Michel Pines coined שעון knowing that modern Hebrew speakers would want a concise word to refer to clocks. He looked back to biblical Hebrew in order to create a better future for modern Hebrew speakers. I think this is approximately what I was grasping at when I said we should consider etymologies.

The coining of שעון was not without its controversy. A couple constructions already existed to refer to clock-like objects: אבן שעות (“sundial,” or literally “a rock of moments”) and מורה שעות (“clock,” or literally “teacher of moments”). In one sense, שעון was unnecessary, because a word for “clock” already existed. On the other hand, a modern language meant for everyday use could use a more concise term than the four-syllable מורה שעות.

Another broader controversy ensued over the adoption of modern Hebrew. Although Yechiel Michel Pines was himself a religious Jew, many ultra-orthodox Jews refused to use Hebrew in everyday life. For centuries, Hebrew had been mostly reserved for sacred settings, and many felt that using Hebrew in daily life would be profaning a holy language. Such religious Jews expressed conservatism with regard to a language that had once been well suited to everyday life, but now could only be used in religious settings. In my opinion, the Zionist linguists did a noble work of enlivening biblical Hebrew for everyday modern usage. What cannot be denied is that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (the father of modern Hebrew) helped to form a new reality that was, at his time, a mere futuristic vision.

There are many other cases of intentionally changing terms in order to effect the direction or utility of a language. I’ll list a few here, just for fun:

  • Jeremiah 19:6: “Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “that this place shall no more be called Tophet or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.”
  • “Political correctness” and “American exceptionalism” both originate in Communism. “Political correctness” has been used by Communists, from Mao Ze Dong to American Communist leaders. The Right has generally failed to co-opt this term, instead simply calling political correctness a nefarious idea. In the case of “American exceptionalism,” it was used by Stalin as a critique of American attitudes but later adopted by Reagan as an affirmative term.
  • Nazis invented euphemisms left and right. Calling gas chambers “showers,” mass shootings “special treatment,” and the path to the gas chambers “ascension road” formed a language that allowed for the Holocaust to happen more smoothly. Euphemism is a powerful tool for facilitating discussion about matters that ought to be hidden—or are otherwise too horrific to mention.
  • Academics frequently run into problems of how to term things. Because they are often exploring uncharted regions, they have to expand the capacities of language to suit that. But implicit in the construction of new language is the insertion of theory, worldview, paradigm. Here’s a fascinating example.

More examples abound. Thus far, I have been beating around the bush. What I mean to say with all of this is that intentional evolution of language works. Vlad says to turn our sails according to the wind; but why shouldn’t we be the wind if that is an option? Why not create the undercurrents of culture when presented with the opportunity? English is the language of its speakers. It is not the coiner of a word who makes the language what it is; it is the user who morphs the word by the context in which he uses it. Academics make up words that people forget; Shakespeare used words for new purposes in new contexts, and we all follow in his inventions.

No word is an island. Just as individuals make up a polity, words make up a language. And our language today has problems. The language of debate and disagreement is in disuse, dying, its vocabulary being eaten up. Instead, a language of entrenchment, comfort, and tribal cancellation flourishes; this language shouts to its users that ignorance is bliss. In my opinion, the increasingly anti-confrontational modus operandi of American churches creates a less appealing place for men (but perhaps an attractive venue for Canadians?); this may be one of many reasons why men are far outnumbered in American churches.

When what should be evil is called good, and what should be good is called evil, we must fix our language. I hold a strong conviction that ecumenism should be a good thing, and I am not willing to give in and limit the word to its more pathetic usages. Such uses of “ecumenism” only feed our linguistic rot. By using the word in contexts that clarify its good meaning, we can properly counteract the decay of our language, a most important social convention. I believe we must seize this opportunity as best we can. (How we can best do this will be a separate discussion.)

Unlike those who coin stupid terms left and right as a power play, we can restore, purify, and grow the language into a better, more substantial, and more utilitarian language. Even more, we can fashion a language that promotes righteousness and the kingdom of God. Behind all my hopes for a better language is my conviction that one day all Creation will be perfected. In speaking many languages, we will speak one perfected language geared towards worshipping God and marvelling at His wonders.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *