Wednesday, March 10, 2010

...about language

I wrote this for our local paper.  It should appear on Friday.

In last week's federal throne speech, the governor general made mention of the government considering a change to some words in our national anthem.  There were a few reactions to the proposal.

Some jumped on it as another instance of political correctness gone too far.  Some welcomed the debate or discussion in an effort to make a symbol of our nation more inclusive.  Some thought it was a red herring thrown in by the government to deflect some attention from other more delicate and possibly embarrassing issues.  If that was the intention then I think it worked for a time because it resulted in numerous news stories and editorials.

It got me to thinking about language, and the power or language.  A song by the Police back in the '80s had a line that went "Poets, priests and politicians / Have words to thank for their positions."  But it's more than that, everything depends on our language and how we're able to communicate things.

I found early in my career as a pastor that the way I say things is very important because if I'm not clear then people can take things in the wrong way, take them in a way that I never intended.  I think we all learn at one time or another, in one situation or another, that you have to be careful what you say and how you say it.

In the case of our national anthem, some people take issue with the line "True patriot love in all thy sons command."  In the original English words, written in 1908, that line said "True patriot love thou dost in us command."  Those words are more inclusive, but nobody talks like that anymore.  Language changes over time.  The use of "sons" to refer to all Canadians and the use of "man" to refer to all of humankind regardless of gender was at one time commonplace and implicit.  It's not strictly the case anymore.  Language changes over time.

In the church there are often objections to newer, more modern translations of the Bible.  The King James Version was produced in the year 1611 and portions of that version are well known, not only in church but in society.  That version has a very poetic and majestic quality to it.  But people don't talk that way anymore and language has changed over the past 400 years.

Some words have just gone out of use.  Who would know that 'gins' actually means 'traps' or 'wist' actually means 'knew'?  Other words have changed their meaning like 'carriage' which sounds like something that would be drawn by horses but used to mean 'baggage.'  Or 'prevent' which sounds like you're keeping something from happening but which used to mean 'precede.'

Similarly, the word 'men' used to be used to refer to all people whether male or female and for many people it still does so they don't see a problem in using it that way (though not when it's a sign on a door).  But for more and more people the word 'men' refers specifically and only to males and it's not a matter of them being stubborn and refusing to let the word refer to all people, it's a matter of language changing.

Now, in the case of changing a lyric in O Canada maybe the timing of this latest proposal is suspect.  But I disagree with people who say it's a non-issue.  For them it might be a non-issue but for some it is an issue about how they know and see themselves.  We can't discard the issue by saying "oh, they're just words."  Words have power.  The childhood saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" is just wrong.  Words have the power to hurt and words have the power to heal.

Just think about the effects on someone who repeatedly hears things like:  "you're worthless," "you're ugly," "you're stupid," "nobody loves you," "you disgust me."  And then think about the effect on someone who gets to hear things like:  "I love you," "you have a beautiful smile," "I'm proud of you," "well done," "I'm blessed to know you."  They're not just words.  They can be weapons used against the soul and they can be an ointment to soothe the soul.

In the church we believe that words can work miracles.  "Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17).  We believe that hearing the Good News about Jesus Christ produces faith and faith is what makes us right with God.  Words matter.  Words have power.  Words heal the soul and give life.

May we all use words carefully, respectfully, and honourably.  And may the way we use our words show love for all of our human family.

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