L is for Language

Language is, in some ways, central to everything I do. Writing a blog uses language, for starters (especially as, unlike some bloggers whose work I see regularly, I don’t usually post photographs or videos). Writing articles, giving conference papers, and running workshops all uses language. Even my hobbies – poetry, sci-fi and fantasy, watching TV – tend to use language. Some parts which apparently don’t – the images in a film or TV show – often do use levels of symbolism which can be analysed using the tools of textual analysis.

When people hear the word ‘language’, I think they usually imagine words first, perhaps body language second, and other forms of language, such as signs and diagrams, later on. That doesn’t change the fact that you have to be able to ‘speak’ ‘diagram’ in order to make sense of the ‘intuitive’, but profoundly non-naturalistic, London Underground map, let alone a circuit diagram. In a broad understanding of language, I think these skills should be included.

This has important implications for my consideration of religious language. ‘Religious language’ as a category can include many things:

  • Any language which people use in religious contexts – all of a sermon, the whole of a hymn, even (perhaps) the things we say over tea and biscuits after a service or during a church-related house group. This might include the jargon of the religion – the abbreviations referring to parts of the organisation’s structure, for example.
  • Language about specifically religious topics: about any Deity or Divinity, for example, or about heaven, hell, salvation, enlightenment, cosmology, and other topics regarded as the sole, or main, preserve of religion.
  • Religion as a language – as in ‘learning to speak Christian’ or ‘speaking fluent Quaker’. This is a quite different view, and one which opens up non-verbal parts of the religion to be seen as part of the ‘religious language’: the movements used during prayer, the visual imagery, the narratives which are enacted as well as told.

At one time, I tried to use ‘religious language’ as a synonym for ‘language about God/Spirit/the Divine’ because I was trying to avoid settling on any single term in that list, or offering a list myself. It didn’t really work, because people tended to default to broader interpretations – they expected me to talk about the language of liturgy and prayer, of Meetings for Worship for Business and discussions about current issues. All of those things are fascinating, and some of my work has attended to them, but ‘talking or not talking about God or whatever you call it‘ is actually a much more specific activity. It might even be its own language-game, depending how tightly you want to use that phrase. (Needless to say, Wittgenstein had a couple of different uses and later scholars have developed more, usually tending to broaden it.) Among Quakers, ‘writing about God’ is certainly a language-game in the sense that it has identifiable, if usually unspoken, rules which are followed in all but exceptional circumstances.


4 responses to “L is for Language

  1. It would be very interesting to read your thoughts on what the rules of Quaker writing (or talking) about God are… eg perhaps;
    Don’t use the word ‘God’ straightforwardly, without hedging it around with expressions such as ‘what some people call…’, or a list of possible alternative terms.
    What else..?

    • Well, in the conclusion of my thesis I suggested the following three which relate mainly to the needs of the audience:
      – use words which create for you emotional resonances similar to those created by experiences you associate with that which you are trying to describe,
      – be mindful of the range of connotations those words might have for others,
      – offer others the opportunity to seek words which create for them the emotional resonances they perceive you to be experiencing, even if your words do not create that for them directly and their words do not bring those emotions to you.
      (It’s in making the second and third of these visible that people end up with the lists, I think. And there are some Quaker documents – especially our more formal or centralised documents – which go ahead and use ‘God’ or ‘Spirit’ plain.) I also added these two which are more focussed on the needs of the speaker:
      – use words which you can speak honestly, which seem to you to most closely fit your experience, and
      – do not say that which you do not believe.
      (If you want to read these in context, you can download the thesis from http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/7825/ . These are on p261 and 262, and the section ‘Quaker Question 1’ from p260 to 264 is the relevant part.)

  2. Thanks Rhiannon, that is food for thought.

  3. Pingback: L is for Language-Games | Brigid, Fox, and Buddha

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