Secret Life of Language

I recently met with a friend to catch up on several years of silence. Increasingly I’m discovering the wisdom of those I’m privileged to know—perhaps it is the shedding of a purely academic way of learning. We all share in this very human voyage of discovery. This particular friend presented me with an idea that I just can’t dismiss: what if language is a living entity, existing in its own world but intersecting with ours? In a symbiotic relationship, we use words and they help us to survive and advance. This friend is a writer, and like all of us who attempt the art, knows the joys and frustrations of dealing with words that can elude but also fall subtly into place forming a poem or story of sublime beauty. We haven’t fully tamed language, but it defines us. Even my feeble attempt to replicate his fascinating idea is fraught with difficulty, for language won’t be relegated to the page, whether of paper or of electrons.

Language evolves along with us, helping us to express concepts that defy explanation. I recently read of the disappearance of three of our alphabetic letters in English. Alphabets, beginning with the earliest complete exemplar in Ugaritic, contain roughly thirty members that may be combined to replicate, in facsimile, the sounds we make. Different cultures use differing sounds; letters that represent those sounds require symbolic representation. Not all alphabets are created equally. One of English’s missing letters is “ampersand.” I always wondered why when I learned the alphabet the song ended with “W, X, Y and Z”—why the “and”? “Ampersand” was part of the alphabet in the early 1800s. Students sang “X, Y, Z, and per se and.” “And per se (‘by itself’) and” eventually ran together into “ampersand.” Over time it fell out of our rank of letters. As the runic Anglo-Saxon that gave us English was absorbed into Latin characters, the Teutonic “thorn,” or th sound, went extinct in our alphabet as well. As any student of German knows, “th” has distinct pronunciations in Germanic languages. It has its own letter of the alphabet in both Arabic and Greek. Since the Latin “y” resembled “thorn” the letter was replaced by ye olde “y.” The archaic letter “wynn” looks like a flattened “p” but was pronounced as “w.” As Latin superseded runic forms “wynn” was written as a doubled “u,” literally “double-u,” which, in Latin was scripted with a “v” shape. This gives us the anomalous W written with what looks like two “v”s.

The alphabet, second to writing itself, is perhaps the most important invention that humans have devised. The alphabet made writing much easier to learn and with writing ideas could be preserved for centuries and could be sent vast distances without changing. Writing allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants. As the school year is beginning again and kids everywhere feel the strain of losing the freedom of summer, I think back to the purpose of education—teaching our young to read, write, and calculate. Language has been guiding us all along. It may evolve, shed a letter or two, frequently grow by taking on entire new words, but it still cradles us as we struggle to find the perfect expression. We should take a little time to get to know our own language better, for without it we are merely biological entities.

An Ugaritic abecedary

For God and For Gold

The Associated Press today released a story about an Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard discovered in England this summer. The trove, which likely contains at least 1500 items, many of silver and gold, is calculated to cause substantial reassessment of Dark Age England. Leslie Webster, a former curator at the British Museum, suggested that given the nature of the artifacts, new light could be cast on the relationship between warfare and Christianity.

Apart from the obvious deliria of daydreams of wealth that such finds always drag in their cloaks, this treasure once again underscores the connections between religion and violence. The Anglo-Saxons, Germanic invaders of England following the decline of the Roman Empire, had been early converts to Christianity. Even Alaric the Goth was a good Christian, although he had little patience with the oversight of Rome. The recently uncovered hoard contains mostly military trophies, but among the finds was a gold strip reading “Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face” (Numbers 10.35). Already bloggers are drawing comparison with Jules’ quote from the fabricated Ezekiel 25.17 in Pulp Fiction, but the connection of Christianity and conquest is much more intimate than that. Once Christianity became the official Roman religion under Constantine, the imperial imperative took over. It became a religion of conquest. A similar phenomenon occurred after the advent of Islam. The zeal of the converted should never be underestimated.

I'm trying really hard to be the shepherd

I'm trying really hard to be the shepherd

So, what are we to make of this scriptural quote among sword knobs and doom sticks? Is it simply more evidence that religions, like the Roman Empire (according to Octavius) “must grow or die”? Those who believe carry a deep-seated fear that their religion might be proven false. On it ride serious (and often eternal) consequences. One way to ensure the quelling of that fear is to silence the heretics who decry the one true faith: take up your swords and nukes and threaten the infidel. The road less traveled, however, is to rise above our insecurities and simply enjoy the ride.