The Power of Communication – #1 What’s in a Word?

03 January 2017

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‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.’ I remember repeating this adage as a kid but I always thought how stupid it was. Over the years I have come to realise just how much names, and words, used incorrectly or aggressively, can actually hurt more than sticks and stones. A wrong word, out of place or misunderstood, can leave lasting effects on my thinking, beliefs, and emotional make-up. I think it is truer to say, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but names are sure to hurt me’.

Words matter. Words help define our context, our understanding of our world, our personal existence and experiences. The context of each conversation determines the way in which we communicate as much as what we communicate. For example, we use a different set of words—what we might call a ‘different language’— to communicate understanding, meaning, and experience at a football game than we use at Church or with friends.

Words satisfy the mind as much as fruit does the stomach; Good talk is as gratifying as a good harvest. Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose. (Prov. 18:20–21 MSG)

In the world of learning, words matter even more. In a Christian context, the words we use matter immensely. They carry meaning, authority, theology, and identity. They help define and express our worldview. They help us understand ourselves and God, as well as how we interact with our world. When not understood or used correctly, they can restrict, dominate, destroy, misinform, shut out, shut down, shut off, isolate, confuse, exclude, and reject … and the list goes on.

This year I have had personal experience of the power of words, meaning, and understanding as I have been learning biblical Hebrew and theological German for my PhD work. I can learn the words on a page and their dictionary meaning, but until I immerse myself in the culture and hear them used in context, I remain frustrated with not being able to interpret the words’ meaning quickly enough, and, as a result, the overall meaning of the passage in which the words are used. Furthermore, an actual word changes meaning when used in different sentences. For example, the word lässen usually means ‘stop’ or ‘to leave’. But when used in a sentence with sich—meaning ‘oneself’—the whole term means ‘to be able’: a total shift in meaning! So, in order to understand the word’s meaning within its context, I have to learn the rules of grammar to know where to start. (And I must admit there have been times when I have zoned out, or stopped reading because it becomes too hard.)

I have learnt also, that language can get in the way of words, just as words can get in the way of language. Unless we are on the same page, not only in shared culture, but also in our shared language and in the meaning of the words and phrases we use, then we limit our ability to really connect in understanding each other, listening to each other, and growing together. Filipe Bueno notes, a ‘word has always been described by its concepts of signification, that is, how words and other parts of the speech constitute signs that represent things’.

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Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

This was the underlying principle of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), who suggested that we express reality through language games. The rules of these games are defined by both the individual—i.e. my own internal understanding of what words mean and signify, and words as they are used by given communities. Words as signs to communicate our world are determined by context (Michael Morris 2010). In other words (excuse the pun), words only have meaning within a given language, and the meaning from language is determined by the context within which that language is set. This is why some words have different meanings across cultures and languages, but also why some words have a variety of meanings dependent on the subculture within which the word is used. For example the word ‘sick’ can mean something or someone is ill; or, in recent jargon, ‘sick’ means something is cool or awesome. Because the basis of good, effective communication and understanding is found in the clarity between the message sender, i.e. the speaker, and the message receiver, i.e. the hearer, then we need to be aware of our own use of words and of the meaning these carry by others around us if we are to really hear others and understand each other.

‘We need to be aware of our own use of words and of the meaning these carry by others around us if we are to really hear and understand each other.’

All theory aside, Christianity is full of words embedded with meaning and culture. I grew up in a family and church culture where words were embedded with deep significance and meaning—but this meaning was not necessarily universal, nor was it overtly present and clear (what scholarship calls conspicuous) in the terminology and language used. I was surprised when I continued through school realising many of my friends neither knew, nor understood, many of the words and terms used in my church context. When I came to Bible College I was even more surprised, though we shared similar language and used the same terms, that how we understood those terms was often vastly different—uniquely defined and shaped by our own local church context.

‘OK’, you might say, ‘But aren’t we on the same page when we say “Jesus saves”?’
Maybe.
‘But words like God and Spirit and love and worship have universal meaning … don’t they?’
Again, in my experience, not exactly.
‘But surely salvation, and community, and holiness, and justice, and mercy all mean the same thing! Everyone understands about “sin”, and guilt and shame … don’t they?’

Every language is a world. Without translation, we would inhabit parishes bordering on silence. – George Steiner

All of these terms, commonly used in the Christian world, are seldom defined in the light of our context and culture. As a result, many of us use them in our interaction with each other and our wider communities without really understanding the depth and importance of the terms. Or, more often, we use them in conversation, totally unaware of whether the other person understands the meaning we place behind the words. More often, we retain the ambiguity of the words because they are safe in their ambiguity, and everyone feels happy. This is what I call the performative nature of language: in order to belong to a given group, we embrace the cultural norms that define the group—the attitudes, dress, actions, etc. explicit in the group—as well as the ‘cultural language’ intrinsic to that context which enables us to fit in and belong. As long as we are accepted, we keep using the language and, in doing so, we are shaped by the culture of that language.

But aren’t we reading the same bible and singing the same songs? Yes &/and no.  As many realise, different versions of the bible translate the original languages of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic into modern languages in a way that can quite dramatically shift the ‘meaning’ of the text. So taking a plain reading of the bible and attempting to communicate, let alone live by, the plain reading itself is fraught with linguistic complexity. This is most noticeable across cultural languages. For example, a good friend here at Harvest was surprised when he read the English bible for the first time and saw how it reads quite differently from his native French.

So how do we navigate this ambiguity and ensure we are understanding and effectively and clearly communicating our message?

The first thing we can do is ask questions:

  1. Do we actually listen to our own language and word use—especially those words and phrases that so easily flow off the tongue?
  2. Do we, ourselves, know and understand the words we use?
  3. Are we aware of how these words are understood within our own context and then beyond into our world?
  4. Do we take time to ensure that what we have said is actually what was heard?
  5. Do we take the time to clarify what we read and hear in order to fully understand?

Do we adapt our language to accommodate the cultural accent in which we are communicating? (I will unpack this further in subsequent blogs.)

The language of friendship is not words but meanings. – Henry David Thoreau

In other words, do we understand the signs and symbols that are conveyed within our use of words and language? If you have said ‘no’ to any of these, then the second thing we can do is seek to understand and to adjust our language.

Why does this matter? Because we live in a world of diverse and shifting cultures, and, as Christians, we desire to understand others and effectively communicate our message; we need to adopt the posture of a student of words—not just in meaning, but in the meaning embedded within the cultures of our context. In doing this, we will become more attuned to the subtle shifts in how words are understood and in the more effective ways to communicate our own lives in relationship with others.

In this series of blogs I will discuss some of the key words we use from the bible and within the Christian community, such as grace, love, salvation, holiness, and community, and highlight how rich and diverse these words actually are. I believe that as we explore these together we will gain a better understanding of their meaning and their potential power. My hope is that as we seek to hear, and be heard—to be understood, and to understand—that our colloquial use of words and language won’t get in the way of effectively communicating in our own contexts.

Think about Ask a good friend what they think the words ‘safety’ or ‘security’ mean and compare their understanding with your own.

Ponder What is different and what is the same? Why?

This post was written by Grant Buchanan, Dean of Learning and Teaching at Harvest Bible College.

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