The Power of Language

 W.F. Bellais II

One Saturday, a few years ago, I was watching C-Span’s “Book TV.”  This channel, every Saturday and Sunday, provides an outlet for authors who have written non-fiction books to talk about their writings and present their cases.  Most of the authors I watch are stimulating and some are argumentative.  Every now and then a few are over my head.

Norman Mailer and his son John Buffalo Mailer used C-Span to talk about their book The Big Empty. The discussion set my mind to thinking about language when, during the interview, Norman Mailer said something like this (and this a paraphrase not a quote), Ireland’s language lacked distinguished until James Joyce came on to the scene.  As I understand what Mailer was saying is that the language of a people is elevated by superior use of the language.

Language is a gift that only human beings have.  Other creatures have means of communicating, but language allows humanity to think, to dream, and to look toward the future as well as remember the past. Because of language we know about ourselves.  We know how we come into being; we know about death, we can even know about grace.  Language gives us that power.

My concern is that we are abusing language.  Because I am only fluent in English, I cannot speak to other languages, but I sense that English spoken in this country is deteriorating to lower and lower points of misuse.  In an essay Michael Toomey (“The Power of Language,” 1999) he writes, “Words can inform our mind, caress and comfort our feelings, excite and thrill our spirit, or warm and kindle the flame of our hearts. They can also slap our face, punch us in the stomach, rattle our nerves, kill our desire, or destroy our self-confidence.” He continues by suggesting that words are actually metaphorical of what we experience, think, and often do. The metaphor is itself the power of words, the power of language.   Then he concludes, “To give the power of language its rightful place we should teach the power of articulate speech that captures the intensity of our feelings, without using them as weapons, and we should not tolerate the abuse of this power that violates us and our system.”

When I was a high school freshman I learned that languages such as Spanish, German, and French (and certainly many more) have what is known as the familiar.  This familiar speech and writing gives languages charm and personality. However, I believed that the language we speak in everyday conversation constituted a familiar.  I learned that is not the case.  Our familiar language has been abandoned, except in the King James Bible and plays by Shakespeare.  The “thee and thou” of those now antique texts have been set aside as no longer “contemporary.” They have even been removed from our religious or prayer language. when I think of prayer and the act of speaking to God in both private devotion and communal worship, the words of our “everyday” language seem inadequate to me.

In researching ideas on language, especially the language of prayer and worship most of the commentaries I found were on praying in tongues; or ecstatic speech. To the uninitiated it sounds like melodious mumbling.  For some this is a more profound method of prayer. However, I am too pragmatic and I want to form ideas in prayer not simply sounds.  Further, the apostle Paul instructs us that this is the least of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Thus, the language I want to explore is that language that lifts me to heights of intellectual and spiritual thought.  Because we have language we can describe what we experience.  Words can be found to help us understand our emotions and to understand the circumstances in which we may find ourselves. 

For example, we can name the spiritual power of the universe God. But is God still God if we call God by a different name?  Jesus calls God his Father.  Jesus encourages us to refer to God as Father.  What is the deeper meaning of that word Father?  I think it is to help us think of God as a nurturing parent.  Many in our modern, or post-modern, world have difficulty with patriarchal images of God.  Still others may have difficulty with a matriarchal vision of God also.  Thus, if we refer to God as the “Great Parent”, the “Source of Life,” or as in Star Wars, “The Source”, does the name change God? Regardless of the argument, we have language (sometimes inadequate language) to hold the discussion. In fact, we have the language to even deny the existence of God or any spiritual power.

 Meredith Sprunger, in her article “God Language”, appearing in the 1993 fall edition of Spiritual Fellowship Journal , writes, “The most basic attribute associated with God’s relationship with human beings is love.” Then she continues, “Many of us have resented the patriarchal evils of our culture and patriarchal or matriarchal domination in our families. But we still conceptualize and idealize the role of wise and loving parents and good families. We should strive to eradicate autocratic patriarchy from our culture and arbitrary patriarchy and matriarchy from our families. It would be a great mistake, however, to allow these distortions of parenting to eliminate parental/family metaphors for God”

The upshot of all this is that language is important.  When we gather to explore the forces of the universe that affect us or in prayer the need to rise above our every day experience is urgent. Eloquent and familiar language elevates contemplative thought and prayer.

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