The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Language/'The Linguistic Turn'

Language…what is it? Why did it originate? What does it do? What is the relationship between language, mind, and world? is John 1:1 ‘in the beginning was the Word’? ‘In the beginning was the Speech’? ‘In the beginning was the Discourse’? Why does the Vulgate say *Verbum *(Word) rather than something rooted in *Dicere *(to speak), and what impact might this have had on Western Thought?

I am interested in any of your thoughts on these questions or related others, as well as any sources you might recommend. As for me I am mostly stupefied, struck dumb by mystery. You see I lived for years with what I might call the Thomist Imperative, since to be saved in Catholic thought involves - but is not exhausted by - affirmation of concepts, dogmatic concepts to be precise. Of course, this seems to me to demand a certain position with respect to the cognitive status of language. In short, I always assumed that Christianity involved linguistic realism. Now that I am broadening my conception of salvation, also a plethora of new possibilities regarding language has appeared/is appearing…Platonic, Eastern, Apophatic, Postmodern, Romantic, Heideggarian, etc etc. So I welcome any thoughts, any words, and hope that they might be preceded by the fruitful silence in which the Logos might uncover something of the truth.

PS I am not particularly talking about God-language - i.e. verbs and nouns predicated or negated with respect to God - and not even particularly theological language, but language in general…normal language, poetic language, mystical language, and any sort of language whatsoever.

Blessed be the Logos! Can one say Makarios ho Logos, or is there a subjunctive or something else needed? (excuse the script!)

If you haven’t already, you could read Wittgenstein - the Tractatus, the Blue and Brown books, Philosophical Investigations, On Certainty, and then some of his lesser works.
And of course the book you mentioned in your title is pretty good too.

linguists do have theories on the historical origins of language. See these articles:

6 Early Theories About the Origin of Language

The Origin of Language (by Edward Vajda)

Origin of Language

Words on the brain: from 1 million years ago?

As someone who is basically good with Latin based languages (i.e. French, Spanish and Portuguese), and started learning Mandarin (different characters, a Roman based pronunciation language, 4 different tones, radicals, etc.), I can say this. Language is a fascinating journey.

Thanks Dave, I am going to read him rather soon. I think I am about to start an MA thesis on Heidegger and language so I will have plenty of scope for reading around. You mean the book by Richard Rorty?

Yes it sure is Randy. In my experience there are roughly two or three good days for every bad day. I will use these articles for my studies perhaps, thank you. If you ever come across any scholarly material on the relationship between Quantum Mechanics and Language please tell me.

Yes, the Rorty book is what I was referring to.
Your project sounds very interesting, good luck. :smiley:

From what I’ve learned lately, English “Word” and Latin “Verbum” are rather inadequate or at least misleadingly over-restrictive translations of the concept John is using when he mentions Logos in Ch. 1 of his scroll. As you might know, he was employing a Greek philosophical idea which apparently had been pioneered by the Ephesian Herakleitos roughly 400 years earlier, and the Greek term has a much broader semantic range than its most common English and Latin translations. It could therefore be translated Reason, Account, Plan, Formula, Reckoning… and more to boot; and all of these, I’d like to think, were intended by John in the sense of an all-encompassing concept inside of which all of creation is contained and by which it began to exist and through which it continues on.

Having said that, however, “Word/Verbum” is in fact a legitimate translation of Logos, and even though it may not necessarily mean “word” in the sense of “[audible] speech,” there are quantum physics considerations to be made regarding the nature of the universe, such as the idea that what we experience as (or at least refer to as) matter is all actually energy, waves, sound that is/are moving, flowing from a primal Source-Point. In the beginning was the Vibration through which and in which absolutely everything that exists began to exist. John continues to say that this Vibration was the container of life itself and qualifies that further with the statement that that life was the light of humans. Why humans specifically and not generally that of the entire universe as Genesis 1:1-4ff seems to imply? Well, as we now know, human eyes actually are naturally incapable of seeing all the light which exists in the electromagnetic spectrum. So there literally is light which shines in the darkness but which the darkness [human blindness/ignorance to the rest of the spectrum] does not grasp/comprehend/understand (as per John 1:5). Darkness, for humans at least, is therefore an illusion and the universe is literally filled with light [that humankind cannot see, not without the help of contraptions].

Additionally, we don’t actually know just what light is. Like sound “energy,” it appears to move in waves but also it seems sort of like a substance. And time itself is relative to the speed of this “energy-substance.” Light is the beginning and the end of time. The same author, if John of Patmos is the same as the writer of what we call “John’s Gospel,” quotes Jesus saying that He, Christ, is the Light of the kosmos/mundus (John 8:12) as well as the start and the conclusion of the alphabet (Revelation/Apokalypsis 1:8, 21:6 & 22:13). Now the latter of those quotes (which incidentally appears towards the start and towards the conclusion of Apokalypsis) often conjures up in people’s minds the images of written words: letters, characters, symbols. But what if it’s yet another reference to the original sound/vibration/light-wave of which everything that lives and moves and breathes is an extrapolation and a metaphor? Maybe Christ is telling John of Patmos that He is the origin and the termination/culmination of language itself (whatever language is and in whatever forms it exists).

We do know that there were more ancient Latin translations of the Bible than the Vulgate, at least in fragments. I don’t know if any of the surviving fragments have a different rendition of John’s Logos from Jerome’s choice of “Verbum.” But Western thought definitely has been affected to a great degree by the use of this terminology, which, as I pointed out earlier, I believe to be overly restrictive because translators, when they see “Verbum,” are generally inclined to think no further than “Word” in the sense of speech, and if they really stretch themselves then they’ll stumble into the idea that the Bible itself is “the Word,” both here as well as in numerous other instances in the Hagiographa. Because Western thought has spread around vast areas of the world through colonisation and “missions” (the two often going hand in hand) I’d hazard the guess that most people, upon reading or hearing Acts 15:35 or 2 Timothy 4:2, wouldn’t think twice about assuming that what is being preached and taught in these instances is the Bible in an academic sense, generally through sermons, homiletics and commentaries.

This is over against the idea that what is being preached and taught is actually a Person Who is the Reason for (or the Logic Logos] of) all things (which should include the Reason for the Bible as well). So we have expressions used in faith communities like “People aren’t learning enough Bible,” the assumption being that “Bible” = Word = Verbum. All of this is well in keeping with Western notions of self-improvement through formal academic education and the general absorption of intellectual information. This is in contradistinction to my understanding of those references about the heralding and teaching of the Word, which is that that objective was achieved relationally and that none of it (announcing/preaching a Person) would have made sense outside the context of the community’s interaction as a family rather than a schoolhouse. From where I’m standing, your expectation, therefore, that John 1:1 is referring to a Discourse (assuming you mean a Conversation/Exchange) is quite fair and on point.

To put the matter more succinctly, “ο λογος” (the logos) might be translated as “the expression.” Jesus is the expression of God. He expressed and revealed his Father in all of his life and teachings.

Along the lines of the translation Paidion pointed to in the above quote, the following is one path of understanding Jesus the Messiah, in John 1. This is copied from the Christian Monotheism website (an excellent source) :

John has no definite article before theos, God. The
logos therefore, is not identified as God or with
God; the word theos has become adjectival and
describes the sphere to which the logos belongs.
We would therefore, have to say that this means
that the logos belongs to the same sphere as God;
without being identified as God. Here the NEB
[New English Bible] finds the perfect translation
“What God was, the Word was.”

This passage then does not identify the logos and
God; it does not say that Jesus was God, nor does
it call him God…

*In other words, when we read the phrase “the word was God”
the original intent of the Greek text was to convey the idea that
the “word” was fully representative of God. The word was and is
a revelation of God’s heart and character. If we understand God’s
word we know what God is like. The logos fully expresses God’s
purpose and mind. *
Therefore you could very accurately paraphrase John 1:1-3 like this,

"In the beginning God had a creative and
redemptive plan. And this plan or purpose revealed
His heart and was fully representative of all that
God is. All things were made through this plan
and without this divine plan nothing was made. "

With all of this in mind John 1:14 reveals a wonderful truth.

"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only
begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. "

The word, the logos, God’s plan, His purpose, became flesh
and dwelt among us. With the coming into existence of Jesus
Christ at his conception4 and birth, the full plan and heart of
God was expressed as a human being. Jesus Christ was full of
divine grace and truth. What became flesh in John 1:14 was not
a preexistent or eternally begotten Son of God. What became
flesh was God’s full plan of salvation revealed in the Man Jesus

A plan can take “flesh” when it is carried out or acted upon.
When an architect’s plan actually becomes a building it becomes
“flesh.” In the same manner God’s plan became literal flesh in
Jesus Christ who fully revealed His will. Hebrews 1:1 declares,

"God, who at various times and in various ways
spoke in time past to the father’s by the prophets,
has in these last days spoken to us revealing His
word, [logos] by His Son "

The Son of God, Jesus Christ is not a preexistent being. He
is not the second person in the Godhead. He is simply and
uniquely the Son of God who fully reveals God to us.

And that type of theology can lead to this, which was found on parchment at the demolishing of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, erected in 1821:

“This house we appropriate to the honour and sole worship of the High and Lofty One who inhabiteth eternity; the Blessed and Only Potentate, whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain; who dwelling not in temples made with hands, but in unapproachable light, is not worshipped by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth unto all life, and breath, and all things: This is that One God, beside whom there is no other; and who, being rich in mercy, for the great love wherewith he loved the fallen race of mankind, hath sent them the message of grace, truth and salvation by his beloved and chosen Son, Jesus of Nazareth, whom by anointing with the Holy Spirit and with power he hath constituted the Messiah, the Christ, the one Mediator between God and man, and in whose resurrection and exaltation he hath given assurance unto all men that he will by him judge the world in righteousness.”

Could anything be clearer?

The Vetus Latina, of which the Vulgate is an update, and whose manuscripts antedate the Vulgate by at least two centuries, also use the term Verbum (or rather uerbum); in fact most of the Vetus’ manuscripts of John render its 1st verse practically identically to the Vulgate, from what I was able to find anyway. So it would seem that, at least from the beginning of the 3rd century AD, Verbum/Uerbum—however we translate that into English—was understood as a normative rendition of Logos.

Hopefully the basis of my thinking regarding this won’t be considered too restrictively “theological,” but your question and how it starts out with John 1:1 got me pondering some more about the 1st chapters of Genesis. These are my musings about language origins thereat.

The first line of human dialogue recorded in the story, as at 2:23, is on the first occasion upon which one human being meets another. This of course does not prove that the first Human [the [i]adam] never spoke before this, since 2:19-20 has him giving a name to every living nephesh, literally “each living soul/psyche” of the animals. This need not necessarily mean that he audibly gave voice to labels that he randomly came up with for these creatures. The climax of this part of the story is the creation of another creature, a nephesh, with whom the Human can interact on a “comparable” level (as per the description in 2:18). The One Who Exists [YHWH], Who has traced the Human out of the dirt a little bit earlier in the chapter, now forms beasts and winged creatures and brings them to the Human “to see what he would call them.”

The term for “name” in Ancient Hebrew and Egyptian as well as in other Near Eastern cultures of the time does not denote merely a designator label such as names are in modern Western[ised] society. It carries the sense of one’s character and personhood in the same way that to do something “in someone’s name” means to wield or to appropriate his/her power or authority. To acquire the knowledge of the name of a thing or a person, “to see what it/he is called” is to gain power over that thing or person, even if that thing is divine. This was especially true for the Egyptians, for whom to “tarnish someone’s name” was to actively destroy a portion of their makeup, because a person’s ren, “name,” was one of his/her constituent parts just as literally real as the aḫ, “body,” was. Therefore, through most of the empire’s history, Egyptians, especially their kings, traditionally went by nicknames, and would never reveal their real renu, “names.” More can be said on this but that would digress yet further from my point, so back to our story.

The punchline of the Human’s naming of all the creatures is that none of them is “comparable” to him. The point was not simply to give them labels. It was an exercise in the Human distinguishing himself, in character and essence, from the other creatures “taken out of the ground.” Moreover the Human was exercising power over all the other souls by bestowing upon them their characters: their identities, linking back to the blessing of dominion in 1:28. This becomes the first function of human language and the first reference to human thought in regard to anything.

Indeed, the Human is furnished with the injunction about not eating from a certain tree prior to this, but then before any instance of a response to the injunction from him, we quickly switch to the declaration by the One Who Exists, saying that it is not good for the Human to be alone (2:16-18). After Woman is created we hear the Human speak for the first time. It might be that this is the first time he is actually able to speak, the previous naming exercise having taken place in silence, in his mind. Perhaps communication between him and his Maker occurred mentally up until this point, at which he is now no longer alone; and maybe a link can be made between this and what the “Word” does in John 1:14.

There’s a saying that communication is the key to life. Much of human interaction is characterised by the failure to effectively communicate, even—and maybe often especially—while speaking or writing in the “same language.” In a big way I perceive the term language as a word that we use to describe this dismal failure. Or to put it differently, no two humans actually speak the same language. Once upon a time they—the Two of them—did, but not no more. And that is, in a very real sense, what death is: the failure to communicate, with one another and with the Source of Life. There are many ways in which I understand the subject of the warning given to the Human about the fact that the very same day that he ate of the aforementioned tree, he would surely die.

The Human and his Woman were (truly) one. They communicated successfully. Once they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge, communication started to break down and thus so did their oneness. Where there was once clear signal they started to hear static, manifested shortly afterwards by fear and by the Human accusing both Woman and his Maker for [his] internal conflict. The static got louder when a misunderstanding of some kind erupted between the One Who Exists and the first son of the Human (4:5). There’s still quite a bit of debate to this day about the precise terms of that misunderstanding, but whatever the case, it led to fratricide (4:8), which was then perpetuated in a flurry of static and violence that culminated in a crescendo of the primaeval waters of creation washing beasts, winged creatures and humanity off the face of the ground from which they were taken (Chs. 6-8).

After the immersion of the Earth, humanity appeared to be one again, united in a sense of purpose, a goal which was based on the first thing acquired after the meal from the Tree of the Knowledge: fear. Not wanting to be scattered abroad over the face of the ground, the thing which humanity wanted to attain was a name, a sense of true identity, which in Hebrew is shem. When the One Who Exists descended upon them to mix up their speech so that they might not hear one another out, the static interference resumed and the one thing which was feared is what occurred: scattering. Immediately after the end of that story is the start of the toledoṯ or, in Greek, genesis of Shem, one whose name is literally “Name,” who has an Identity, connecting his place in the new creation upon the new earth which has arisen from the flood-waters to those who come after him in the remainder of the chapter.

From a somewhat different angle from what I’ve suggested above regarding the origin of language, I’d like to believe that humans learned to speak by listening to their Father’s Speech. In the account of creation at the beginning of John perhaps they are learning Speech anew. And when the One Who Exists descends upon them, His Breath dispels the static interference so that the people might hear one another out. And become one.

Centuries before Herakleitos developed his Logos philosophy which was eventually appropriated by John, much farther eastwards, Indians bore the notion of the exact same phenomenon: a sound-based concept which encapsulates every extant thing. This was called Vāc Vaach, pronounced pretty much like “watch” {i.e. the North American English vocalisation thereof, with a long “A”} except with a V in place of the W] in Sanskrit, and is cognate with the Latin word vox, “voice.” One particularly striking difference between Greek Logos and Sanskrit Vāc is that whereas the Greek noun is masculine the Sanskrit one is female, and this had an effect on the philosophy which was extrapolated from the latter.

This is how George M. Williams breaks it down in his Handbook of Hindu Mythology:

From the preceding, yet another Biblical figure bears striking resemblance to Vāc. In this case it is Wisdom, who speaks in Proverbs 8, giving yet another account of the universe’s creation apart from those in Genesis, John’s Gospel, and the Apokalypsis. The character’s gender is much more obvious in her name when we have it in other tongues like:

  • Hebrew, as Ḥāḵmāh, “Prudence” (the ability to distinguish been good [correct function] and bad [dysfunction]);
  • Greek, as Sophia, “Skill” or “Discernment”;
  • Latin, as Sapientia, from which we get English sapient as well as the “sapiens” in Homo sapiens; or
  • Swahili, as Hekima, deriving from Arabic Ḥikma, which is cognate with Ḥāḵmāh.
    Like Vāc, Wisdom/Ḥāḵmāh derives her origin very directly from the creator of the cosmos, regarding which she says in Proverbs 8:22-25 that

Additionally, Vāc is a lot like Ḥāḵmāh in that she is likewise connected with primordial waters which are older than creation or that are at least the same age as the oldest sections thereof. As with Latin vox, Vāc can be translated “Voice” or “Oath.” If there was more direct ancient Indian influence among the first translators of the Bible into Latin perhaps today in English we might’ve been saying “In the beginning was the Voice”. The Hindi translation of the same passage of Yuhanna [John] uses a modern form of the Sanskrit word in question: Vachan, which can mean “Speech,” “Discourse,” “Word” or “Promise.”