the humanness of language

Vern Poythress has a new book out – In the Beginning was the Word: Language – a God-Centred Approach (thanks to Jeremy Walker for flagging it up).

It’s available for sale here, accompanied by a publisher’s description which induced some raised eyebrows, I admit, from a linguistic point of view (what can be meant by the specification of the meaning of every word in every language? in what way does language reflect and reveal the glory of the Creator, other than in the trivially true way in which everything in the Creator’s creation does? doesn’t the publisher care about gender-specific pronouns, or is it only Christian men who are supposed to read this book? isn’t the publisher aware of the difference between language and speech? am I, possibly, being too harsh?).

Let’s just overlook all of this and put it down to a non-technical presentation of what must be, at least if you read the endorsements, an insightful, profound, compelling, significant piece of work.

Instead, I’m more interested in what you can see inside the sample pages.

Specifically, this paragraph from p18:

The New Testament indicates that the persons of the Trinity speak to one another. This speaking on the part of God is significant for our thinking about language. Not only is God a member of a language community that includes human beings, but the persons of the Trinity function as members of a language community among themselves. Language does not have as its sole purpose human-human communication, or even divine-human communication, but also divine-divine communication. Approaches that conceive of language only with reference to human beings are accordingly reductionistic.

Now, I find almost everything in here questionable (apart from the first two sentences, I suppose). One – terminology – I’m more familiar with the term ‘speech community’ than ‘language community’ (although I don’t suppose much hangs on the difference; correct me if I’m wrong). I find it odd to say that God is a member of a language community that includes human beings. Surely, it is odd to think of God as being a member of any kind of community that includes human beings: he is infinite, humans are finite; he is eternal, humans are created; he is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being and his attributes; humans are not. If he so much as notices humans, it is infinite condescension on his part – and yet he does more – and even so, he is not part of our communities. Great fear, in meeting of the saints, is due unto the Lord, even and especially when he reveals himself most condescendingly. Certainly he speaks, and we must listen. And through the Mediator we have access to the Father to speak to him in prayer, which in his grace he hears. But this does not a speech community make.

Two – I fail to see how it is reductionistic to conceive of language as merely serving human-human communication. Partly, there’s no ‘merely’ or ‘only’ about it – language is a beautiful, rich, elegant, effective, complex, amazing tool, which only humans out of all creatures have, for communicating with each other. It doesn’t belittle language to say that only humans have it. But partly too – only humans have it! Humans use language for all sorts of meaningful reasons – to convey or take in indexical, social, affective, and propositional kinds of information, and so on. Animals have no way of using such a tool. But also, to speak reverently, the Trinity has no need of such a tool. The Scriptures present the persons of the trinity as taking counsel together and speaking one to another (this is one of the reasons, after all, how we know there are distinct persons in the Godhead). But the three persons of the trinity have always existed in a fellowship of love and harmony with each other. The Spirit searches the deep things of God. The Son knows the will of the Father. As the Father is omniscient so is the Son and so is the Holy Spirit. The purposes of the Father are the purposes of the Son and the purposes of the Spirit. Everything is always present before God. Thus, on the propositional front, he doesn’t need to be told anything for information. Indexical? Each person knows the other persons thoroughly; there is no question about the identity of any person or the relationships each person stands in to the other persons. Affective – he has no parts nor passions: it doesn’t even apply. Or think of the stuff of language – syntax, morphology, phonology – with imagination straining at the limits of what is reverent, without the physical production of some word, spoken through a vocal tract (or gestured by hand in signed languages), there can be no phonology, and without a word, no morphology, and without concatenations of words, no syntax. How sad, to have a concept of the communion between the persons of the Trinity that doesn’t even rise above the possibility that language such as humans have is the only conceivable manner or method of it.

Pages 18-19 do (I should point out) contain discussion of two passages of scripture which are used in support of the position that part of the purpose of language is for communication within the Trinity. One is John 16:13-15, where the Spirit is said to hear (from the Father) of the things of Christ. The other is John 17, the intercessory prayer: “John 17 presents not merely human communication but also divine communication between the divine persons of the Father and the Son. That communication takes place through language. And so language is something used among the persons of the Trinity.” But caution is needed. It cannot be a literal hearing, just as it cannot be a literal speaking – speaking and hearing involve physical, motor and sensory, processes. Further, things are true of the incarnate Son which are not true of the other persons of the Trinity. It is not in question that Christ speaks in John 17 as a divine person, but he speaks as a divine person with a human nature. There is no doubt that the Father heard him (as he “hears” prayer) as he spoke with human language, but the fact that the communication between Christ in his time on the earth and the Father naturally included human language does not automatically license the conclusion that the pre-incarnate Son and the Father and the Spirit communicated with each other using language that is somehow the same means of communication as human beings use among themselves.*

So: I think the case is overstated. There is no doubt that there is communication between the persons of the Trinity. There is no doubt that God speaks to humans using language. There is no doubt that language, which humans use to communicate with each other, is a gift from God (although of course affected by the Fall). But a more compelling case needs to be made – from scripture – that the communication between the persons of the Trinity is by way of language. Language is a special gift for humans – it is suited to human capacities and human needs. By conflating ‘language’ with ‘communication’, you fail to take the opportunity to explore exactly how unique and special language is, you bring divine communication within the trinity down to the level of the finite and frail efforts at interaction which creaturely and fallen humans make, and you make linguists grouchy.

All of which, it turns out, I said before, better, here.

Note too the argumentation in the following pages from the possibility of translating ruach as ‘breath’; and the notion of breath “carrying speech to its destination”; this concept does not strike me as particularly salient in how phoneticians would understand articulation, nor in how semanticists would conceive of the creation or accessing of meaning, although on both fronts I remain open to correction. Phoneticians and semanticists, needless to say, are prone to mistake – but if there is a mistake here, or elsewhere, in how linguists understand language, this needs to be demonstrated through serious engagement with the principles and concepts that are current. Even in something aimed at a lay audience, there could still be a nod to the concerns of anyone with more specialised knowledge.