a linguistic being?

Just towards the end of my holiday there was an interesting series of posts on Language Log about the possible religious significance of linguistic diversity. One was this, which gives details of an argument presented by Mark Baker in the concluding pages of a 1996 book, The Polysynthesis Parameter.

The book itself consists mainly of a description and analysis of Mohawk, with the theoretical aim of seeing how polysynthetic and nonpolysynthetic languages can both be accommodated under Universal Grammar, but in the very last couple of sections there is a very brief discussion of not only biological and sociological but also theological attempts at explanations of language and linguistic features, with a nod to origins and diversity.

The whole discussion is a refreshing and intriguing break from the norm, and it seems to me sensitively handled and presented (see in addition to the excerpts quoted on Language Log the parts available from Google Books). But, pedantic as it might be, I’m not entirely convinced.

Here’s the section at issue:

“… humanity is given a spiritual nature that is specifically said to be parallel in many respects to God’s. Among other things, this means that since God is a linguistic being, so are humans. (The Scriptures do not explicitly state that language is part of the divine nature, but this seems clear from context, and as far as I know has always been understood to be so by the Christian church; see, for example, Bavinck (1977: ch XII especially p200).” (Baker 2006: 512)

Basically I’m not sure whether it’s entirely accurate to say that “God is a linguistic being,” or that “language is part of the divine nature.” I accept of course that the three persons of the Trinity have communion and fellowship with each other, and they are represented in scripture as taking counsel together and making agreements with each other. It is also the case that God uses human language as a way of communicating with human beings – the scriptures themselves being an obvious example. But is this sufficient ‘context’ to make this claim tenable? (I haven’t read the Bavinck (1977) reference, which happens to be Our Reasonable Faith, but it’s not something I recall ever coming across in other similar books.)

But I have to say I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that the persons of the Godhead use anything like human language in their internal relationships. Obviously there are differences between the language that Adam and Eve would have known and used prior to the Fall, and the language that we know now, in an imperfect and fallen environment. Obviously too, there is some scope for discussion about what we mean by language, but, for me, language is just a bit too human to be attributed to the divine nature.

Whether you think of language as a tool for communicating information (either propositional or non-propositional (indexical/pragmatic/etc)), it is clear that God who is omniscient doesn’t need to be told anything for information. Or if you think of it as however it’s meant to be understood within the framework of Universal Grammar, it’s clear that the mind of God is nothing like our human minds, and whatever cognitive structures and properties our minds might be possessed of must necessarily be vastly different from the infinite, eternal, unchangeable mind and purposes and thoughts of God himself. And that’s language considered at its least flawed – ie without mentioning the other factors that we deal with in everyday communication – the inadequacy of words for some situations, the underdeterminacy of spoken/written language and its need for being supplemented by context, the potential for unhelpful-through-to-misleading ambiguity, and the general messiness of human socio and psycholinguistic interaction.

What seems to be the source of the claim that ‘language is part of the divine nature’ is some sort of conjunction of two separate arguments – (i) that there is a uniquely human capacity for language, which was the gift of God given at creation, and (ii) that Adam was made in the image of God.* But not everything that’s human is part of the image of God (if that makes sense) – so although it’s true to say that “humanity is given a spiritual nature that is specifically said to be parallel in many respects to God’s,” it’s important not to find parallels where none exist, making God in the image of man.

That’s not to undermine the fact that God uses human language to communicate truths about himself (and about us, and about how sinners can be reconciled to him) – truths which can be understood by humans and then further communicated between humans. And I agree with what Prof Baker says on the Judeo-Christian view of the origin of linguistic diversity at Babel (foot of p513), and his comments on God’s goodness shown at that time (p514). It’s just, as I say, a slight discomfort about whether language, even granting that it is the gift of God, can really be viewed as something belonging to the being or nature of God himself, without adopting an anthropocentric perspective which goes beyond what scripture would license us to believe.

* On only just a slight tangent, and if it’s not too (academically-)heretical to say so, I have sometimes thought that a Chomskyan Universal Grammar coupled with claims about innateness can sit very comfortably and appealingly beside accounts which take the scriptures for fact and believe that language is a gift from God. The kinds of generative theories which conceptualise language as sufficiently complex and mysterious to necessitate invoking an innate language acquisition device seem equally ripe, you could envisage someone saying, for being counted as the kind of complex and mysterious thing which could only have come from some kind of deity. But that kind of superficial affinity is insufficient to make the case – ie, there’s nothing theological to oblige us to accept this particular kind of complexity as preached by any particular school of linguistics, especially if it seems more scientifically responsible (descriptively or analytically) to adopt an alternative theory. There is, additionally, no way that scripture can be used to arbitrate between competing academic theories of the nature of language. Believing or disbelieving Universal Grammar, and believing or disbelieving that ‘language is a gift of God’ are entirely independent, I think.

5 thoughts on “a linguistic being?

  1. Coming to broadly the same conclusions thought with different trains of thought, you might be interested in this response to the idea of God as a linguistic being.
    WRT language as a gift of God: well there’s an ambiguity in Genesis 1-3 about it: God verbally communicates with Adam (apparently within the parameters of the story), but then brings the animals to be named implying a human constructedness which is endorsed by God. In contrast the Qur’an does see language as given. See http://nouslife.blogspot.com/2007/05/naming-god-or-adam-role.html


  2. As with all your language-related posts, I am completely out my depth here…

    But I have found it intriguing all the same! Since without realising it, I have always been firm in the belief that God doesn’t use language Himself (except, of course, in communication with us). A vague justification for it nods agreement at your points concerning Gods omniscience, and far-above-us abilities and relationships within the Godhead.

    Not that this is conclusive proof in any shape or form… but just curious that this impression (within a fairly sound theological environment :-P ) has been created in my mind from a young age.

    In one way, it is almost refreshing to me to even consider the possibility of God being a “linguistic being”.

    *is off to ponder… while tidying the flat up a bit* ;-)

    On a big tangent: have you ever come across the book “Words that work”? I’ve currently got it borrowed from work, and am finding it quite interesting. The title ought to be self-explanatory, or else it has failed at the first hurdle ;-)


  3. The corroboration is v welcome. I have to confess I’d never given it much thought before – and would be very interested to know what that chapter in Bavinck actually says – but it did jar with me and one other theologically trustworthy person who i consulted.

    Never heard of your book i’m afraid :)


  4. Mark Thompson in A Clear and Present Word says we need “a theological perspective on the phenomenon of human language,” but he doesn’t develop that in the way that Baker suggests Bavinck does:

    “Embedded within such an understanding of the text [ie scripture] and its relation to God as its ultimate author is a theological perspective on the phenomenon of human language. It is not enough to speak of human language as a creaturely phenomenon that is commandeered, or even ‘sanctified’, as a vehicle for divine self-revelation. God is himself the source of human language. He is the first speaker and invests language with a deep significance for generating and nourishing personal relationships. Far from being an unsuitable or inadequate vehicle for God’s revelation of himself and his purposes, the first use of human language has precisely this function. God makes promises that can be trusted…” (Thompson 2006, p166)

    As suggested in the final couple of sentences, the central argument he’s making is that the meaning of the scriptural text is accessible – its humanness is not an obstacle to our understanding its message – so it’s not directly relevant to the issue in the OP. But still, it doesn’t sound like he’d go on to say that language is God’s chosen method of communication because language is somehow ‘part of the divine nature’. Bavinck’s Gereformeerde Dogmatiek is listed in the bibliography, but not the volume that Baker cites. In his argument it is important to recognise that language is a divine gift, but he seems to go no further than that in outlining the theological perspective he’d like to see adopted/recovered.


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