Ours is a word-formed world. God spoke, and it came to be; echoing Him, we speak, and our words also form “worlds.” Not ex nihilo, but as sub-creators, our words shape the raw facts we encounter into meaningful entities among which we can dwell. There is a tree: the pagan calls it a deity; the Puritan calls it a cipher of God’s attributes; the scientist, a specimen; the lumberjack, a commodity; the child, a fortress. Repeated a million times over, this naming shapes the whole meaning we make and response we owe to the world. Interpretation, much more than observation, forms our worlds.
And interpretation happens through language. Etymologies, idioms, intonations delimit the ways we are able to interpret the world. The history of the English language brims with fascinating case studies of how language coincides with the worlds of its speakers.
In one famous example, modern English employs Anglo-Saxon-derived words like cattle or pig to describe animals, but French-derived words like beef and pork to describe their meats, evoking the contrast between the conquered Anglo-Saxons who tended the animals and the conquering Normans who ate them.
Idioms, too, reflect world-shaping experiences, as I remember weekly when working with ESL students: an unknown idiom bars them from cultural experiences, while learning the meaning of an idiom opens the experience and widens their worlds. Language shapes the ways we can and cannot interpret the world, and interpretation in turn shapes the worlds in which we live.
Thus, language shapes our worlds whether or not we are conscious of it—indeed, perhaps it wields the most power when we are not conscious of it, when we do not consider and select our words, but simply assume them. But words can lie; and what if, in taking words as they come, we become entrapped in a world of illusion?
Words can also tell the truth; and as those made in the image of the Creator, with power to sub-create our worlds with words, should we not use them with all the earnest and energy we can summon?
“Man takes his stand in speech and talks from there,” says Martin Buber; or in Wendell Berry’s words, “We are speaking where we stand, and we shall stand afterwards in the presence of what we have said.”
I have been contemplating this in Rhetoric class as students and I explore other writers’ voices and attempt to train our own. It seems to me that linguistic sub-creation begins with two questions. First, we are most likely to use language the way that we hear it, so what sort of speech fills our airwaves, and what sort of world does it voice? Next, flip the question: we who recognize the voice of the Creator echoing throughout the world He called into being—what sort of world is it, and how must we speak to blend our voices to His harmony?
Listening to literature prepares us for these questions. We must read for the voices, not only the stories they tell. Do the strong, simple, earthy words of Beowulf communicate some essential quality of the world its teller knew? Does the extravagant ornamentation of Renaissance prose reflect a perception of the world as an ordered, decorated, purposive place? Does Shakespeare’s astonishing inventiveness in diction and syntax echo the sense of possibility that shone in a world of rebirth and reformation? Do Dickens’s meandering sentences communicate anything about the swollen, wandering world of Industrial England? Does the hyperbole-filled prose of The Great Gatsby voice the extravagance, the larger-than-life-ness, the bursting-balloon fullness of the world of the Roaring Twenties or Gatsby’s imagination? Or both?
Once we have learned to listen in this way, we can hear the voices of our own day more clearly. To the ear grown accustomed to voices like those just described, the ubiquitous clipped accent of the twenty-first century dins dismally. We hear clichés replace thoughts, passive voice suffocate subjects, and vocabulary shrink till our diction drones on like a percussion ensemble minus all but the snare drum. Sentences are vehicles to transfer information rather than instruments to stir minds. All writing imitates the scientific abstract and the news article, our two dominant genres.
Our language is disenchanted, and this goodly frame, the earth, becomes a sterile promontory; this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, becomes a foul and pestilent congregation of H2O, CO2, and ozone.
Disenchanted language is spoken from and gives voice to a world that is also disenchanted. We fixate on facts because we believe the world is only material. We reduce our vocabulary and accept clichés because we affirm efficiency as this world’s chief virtue. We speak passively because, in a world grown so global, we suppose that individual action signifies nothing.
This, then, is the language we hear and the world it shapes; this is the language we will, by default, use, and the world we will, by default, inhabit. But is this the world God spoke into being? Is this the language His sub-creators should speak?
Counter to the voices of the day calls the voice of Scripture—the enduring Word that must shape our worlds, and our words.
This voice is not sterile. It speaks in allusions, forming a world in which times are interwoven, in which history and eschatology press up against the present. It speaks in personification, forming a world in which mountains skip, trees clap, creation groans: nature, though neither divine nor ensouled, nevertheless has being and relation to its Creator and other creatures. It speaks in metaphor, forming a world in which the transcendent can be known by way of the immanent, the I AM appear in a burning bush. It speaks in paradox, forming a world in which God can become man and mingle His footsteps with our dirt.
If we also would speak this world into being before our neighbors, we too must speak in allusion, personification, metaphor, paradox. Our language must be beautiful, not barren; words over which the Holy Ghost may brood.
Each day, as we enter the classroom, or the world, we carry the high—even the holy—calling of those given voice.