Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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In the mood for a little subjunctive?

I made it through high school without ever encountering the subjunctive mood. Then I decided to learn French. I fought my way through the bewildering thicket of conjugations of regular and irregular verbs, then I was introduced to the subjunctive mood. My head hurt for weeks.

I didn’t seem to have any reference point in English to help me comprehend this way of expressing oneself, yet it seemed an essential part of French. Every English grammar book I looked at devoted about a paragraph to the subjunctive. They told me the subjunctive mood was on its deathbed in English and I would never have to worry about it.

Then an amazing thing happened: I finally got my head wrapped around the use of the subjunctive in French and I realized that it is still very much a part of English.  So here I go where most grammarians fear to tread.

Subjunctive, from French, originally from Latin, means subjoined. (That little bit of information does nothing to understand it.) The best definition is from Oxford via Fowler’s: a  verb form different from that of the indicative mood in order to denote an action or state as conceived (and not as a fact), and expressing a  wish, command, exhortation, or a contingent, hypothetical or prospective event.

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When used to express a wish, a phrase in the subjunctive mood normally begins with let or may, though they me be omitted. All greetings are subjunctive:
– May God bless you!
– May you have a good day / May you have a happy birthday (even when shortened to Good day or Happy birthday, they are subjunctive).
– Good-bye (drastically shortened form of May God be with you).

Commonly used expressions in the subjunctive:
– Come what may
– Be that as it may
– Far be it from me
– I wish it were over
– If he were here now
– I move that nominations cease
– I move that we elect a committee to . . .

The Sunday School lessons that are used in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite usually contain a sentence or two in the subjunctive mood; for example:
– Let us conduct ourselves accordingly
– May we never forget . . .

Examples of the subjunctive in the Bible:
– Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done (all three of these phrases in the Lord’s prayer are in the subjunctive mood).
– Let not your heart be troubled (let not  . . . is found in many places in the Bible, it always indicates the subjunctive mood).
– Let no man despise thy youth (1 Timothy 4:12, Paul is expressing the wish that Timothy’s conduct would be such that no one would find fault with him because of his age).
– James 5:13, 14: Let him pray / let him sing psalms / let him call for / let them pray (these are all exhortations).
– Genesis 1: Let there be light, etc. (The creation account has many examples of God expressing a wish for something that was not a reality at the moment the wish was made, but immediately became reality.)

I hope this helps a little to understand the subjunctive mood, especially when it is encountered in the Bible. The translators did not drop in all those subjunctives to confuse us, they were subjunctive in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts; may they be less confusing to us as we recognize the subjunctive mood. 

To better understand English, learn a little French

In its grammatical structure, English belongs to the Low German language family, a group of languages that developed from a common early Germanic root. The group includes Flemish, Dutch, Frisian, Afrikaans (the Dutch that is spoken in South Africa), Plautdietsch, English and Scots (not Gaelic but the variety of old English spoken by the lowland Scots, such as the poet Robbie Burns).

However, something like 40% of English words come from French. Oftentimes meanings, spelling and pronunciation have shifted to the point that the French roots are almost invisible. Take geezer for instance. This is a word that was originally applied to someone who went about in a disguise, or more simply, in the guise of someone different from himself. Since guise is a word of French origin it was originally pronounced geez. Over a few hundred years the meaning of geezer shifted to where it is now used only for an older person who has become a little different in appearance and mannerisms.

In many other words the French roots are plainly visible, though often not understood by English speakers. Take grammar for instance, which is what I want to talk about in this article.

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All English grammatical terms are French, beginning with grammar itself. Grammar comes from grammaire in French, which comes from a Greek word meaning the art of reading and writing. A noun is the name of a thing, chair for instance, and comes from the French word nom, meaning name. Most other grammatical terms are spelled the same, or almost the same, in English as in French: verbe, adverbe, adjectif or adjective, préposition, article, objet direct or indirect, conjonction, etc.

It may be helpful for English speakers to understand the roots of terms like tense and mood. Both are mispronunciations of French words, which led to misspellings, making them homonyms of English words with completely different meanings.

Tense comes from temps, which means time. Past, present and future should be called times, not tenses. Obvious, eh? But the French pronunciation of temps is something that is beyond the capacity of the vocal apparatus of someone who grew up speaking English, so it drifted over to become tense.

There are three basic past tenses: simple past, imperfect and pluperfect. Perfect is another word of French origin that we often misunderstand. It simply means finished or complete, or, in the case of people, grown up or mature. Neither in grammar nor in the Bible does it ever mean faultless. Imperfect means incomplete and refers to an action that began in the past and is not complete. Pluperfect (plus-que-parfait in French) means more than complete and refers to an action that was complete in the past before something else happened.

For instance: I had gone (pluperfect) into Tim Horton’s and was ordering (imperfect) a coffee when my cousin walked (simple past) in.

Mood comes from the French word mode and should be mode in English also. Once again, a native English speaker cannot really duplicate the sound of mode in French. Nevertheless, the grammatical term mood in English refers to a mode of expressing one’s meaning.

The indicative mood (mode) is used for an action that has actually happened, is happening, or that we know will happen. The conditional mood (mode) is used for actions that could, should or would happen if some other condition is met, had been met or will be met.

Examples: The plane will be landing in fifteen minutes (indicative).
The plane should be landing in fifteen minutes if it left Toronto on time (conditional).

And then there’s the subjunctive mood, but that is going to require a whole article of its own.

Who let these people in?

There is a fine Christian lady doctor of our acquaintance who believes Canada is letting in way too many people from Asia and Africa. She is originally from South Africa, but left when black people were allowed to form the government. She fears for Canada’s future.

She’s wrong of course. The native people of Canada tell us the problem began when English-speaking people arrived over here. The first white people to arrive, those who spoke French, respected their elders and their women. The second white people, the ones who spoke English, respected neither their elders nor their women.

I am inclined to agree. Many French-speaking fur traders married Indian wives. Some of them brought their wives and children back to Montreal, which was the headquarters of the fur trade. Others settled down in the West with their wives and children. The English-speaking fur traders, mostly Scottish and fine upstanding Presbyterians, scorned such intermingling with non-white people.

Of course, many of them had summer wives in the West, as well as a Scottish wife in Montreal. What’s a man to do after all? Neither family was to know anything of the other. And when they retired, either back to Montreal or to Scotland, their western families were conveniently forgotten.

Other people of Scottish background came to Canada from Ulster, bringing with them their fierce Orange sympathies. The Orange men had a visceral hatred of anyone who was Roman Catholic, did not speak English, or did not have white skin. They did their utmost to make governments conform to their beliefs, leading to numerous riots, the burning of the parliament buildings and military action against the Métis in the West.

When the Canadian prairies were opened for settlement, many of the immigrants came from Eastern Europe and gradually the Orange sentiments became submerged in the new reality. Thousands of Chinese men came over to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway, then stayed to run Chines restaurants in every little prairie town. Eventually, Chinese women were allowed in too. Nowadays of course, Chinese immigrants have money and that makes them much more welcome.

A few years ago a small town in Scotland discovered that there was an Indian community in Saskatchewan whose people had the same last names as they did. After some investigation and a few visits it was found that they were indeed long lost cousins. Their ancestors never would have conceived that such a thing could be cause for celebration, but it was.

Some Christian denominations attempted to transform the Indians into Christians by forcing them into residential schools. That did not work out very well. Then they tried to force the government to make the whole country more Christian through prohibition. That didn’t work either. So now we content ourselves with sending missionaries to all the heathen lands and often express regrets that many countries won’t allow missionaries in.

In more recent years, people from all these countries begin to show up in our towns and cities. We worry about all these strangers in our midst and complain that we can hardly understand them when we encounter them as store and office clerks. We are afraid that they may bring with them much of the strife and animosity that exists in their home countries.

But they left their home countries because of that strife and animosity. We claim to have something better because we know the Prince of Peace. Why not share that acquaintanceship with these newcomers?

Writng tips #2: 10 tips for writing more simply

[I have borrowed, translated and adapted these tips from a French website. That explains the references to French authors, in case you were wondering. These tips are intended for use in writing for the web, but would be useful in many other types of writing as well.]

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1. Thou shalt write short sentences.

You are not Proust! So do not write sentences of more than one or two lines. If you hesitate between several constructions, always choose the one with the fewest words. Your texts will be more rhythmic.

Tip: exchange semicolons for periods.

2. Thou shalt limit thyself to subject, verb and object.

The subject + verb + object scheme is the simplest grammatically. It is instantly recognizable and understandable to the reader. So avoid complex grammatical constructions, subordinate clauses, interpolations and parentheses within the same sentence.

Tip: turn most subordinate clauses into independent sentences.

3. Thou shalt write one idea per sentence.

One idea per sentence, one point per paragraph, one subject per article. Don’t try to say everything at once, at the risk of drowning your reader. Prioritize your ideas and start with the most important.

Tip: If your article is too long, divide it into several articles grouped by folder or series.

4. Thou shalt simplify thy vocabulary.

You do not write to amuse yourself but to make yourself understood. Don’t try to dazzle your readers with exotic words or literary style. Favour simple words known to all.

Tip: use only words that you know how to spell.

5. Thous shalt translate jargon.

You don’t need to eliminate all trade or professional jargon, but ensure the first occurrence of such a word is translated into plain English, including all acronyms and words from other languages. Not only will your readers thank you, but it will be easier for search engines to find your page because you will broaden your semantic field.

Tip: imagine you are writing for your grandmother.

6. Thou shalt avoid negations.

It is forbidden to forbid! It is not always easy (as in this article which intends to be educational), but avoid negative terms as much as possible. Opt instead for positive constructions, more involving and more direct. Flee double negatives that need to be read twice to get the meaning.

Tip: always replace “do not hesitate to do this” with “do this”!

7. Thou shalt avoid the passive voice.

Better to write “The cat eats the mouse” than “the mouse is eaten by the cat.” Not only does the passive use more words than the active form (7 words against 5), but it is also more complex to analyse. Therefore reverse passive sentences, transforming the object into subject.

Tip: choose action verbs like create, produce, decide, etc.

8. Thou shalt avoid adjectives and adverbs.

“Journalists (…) who want to use an adjective come see me in my office. Those who will use an adverb will be shown out the door,”wrote Georges Clemenceau in a memo while he was editor of L’Aurore. Years have passed, the media have changed, but the counsel remains valid.

Tip: first remove all useless instances of “true” and “genuine” from your texts.

9. Thou shalt avoid the subjunctive.

Avoid the subjunctive: limit yourself to the indicative. Also avoid the tenses we learned at school like the pluperfect, future anterior, etc. Try to stick to the present, the past, the imperfect, the future and the imperative.

Tip: use the infinitive as much as possible.

10. Thou shalt read thy article out loud.

Proofread your text carefully before publishing it. Locate the long sentences, overly complex constructions, etc. Check that you have applied all the above rules.

Tip: re-read aloud to identify difficult to read sentences. Flaubert called it the gueuloir test, you will see, it works!

(I presume Gueuloir was Flaubert’s invention; it’s not found in any dictionary. Gueuler means to speak very loudly, to yell.)

If you read French, the original article is found at: http://editoile.fr/10-astuces-pour-ecrire-plus-simplement/

The joys of English

Earlier this week, the sisters of our congregation had their last sewing day of the winter season. Why is sewing pronounced so-ing and not soo-ing? There is a word in the AV (KJV) Bible that is spelled shew. A lot of people pronounce it shoo, when it really should be sho; it’s just an old-fashioned way of writing show. A shoo is something that I wear on my feet, though to look at the way it is spelled (shoe) it seems like it should be pronounced sho.

These are the little things that trip us up in English. Since the language evolved from a mish-mash of five other languages (Celtic, Latin, Norse, German and French) there are frequent inconsistencies in spelling and pronunciation.

Some folks believe that this makes the learning of phonetics useless in learning to read English. However, 92% of the words in English conform to the rules of phonetics. It is much more effective to learn the rules of phonics for 92% of the words and memorize the remaining 8%, than to attempt to memorize 100% of the words in English. Yet that is the way our public schools teach reading.

The teaching of phonics was abandoned before I started school 66 years ago. Thankfully, my favourite toy was a set of alphabet blocks and through them , with minimal coaching from my mother, I learned to read almost by accident at the age of four.

It is said that roughly one third of children will pick up the sound-letter correlation very quickly, no matter how reading is taught. Another one third will take a year or two longer, but will eventually catch on. The reaming one third will be labelled as having a learning disability.

An article by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail five years ago described a private school in Toronto where children labelled with learning disabilities were quickly taught to read and gained confidence that helped them in other areas of their life. The head of this school says that the children were simply not taught to read in the public system.

There are enormous funds poured into dyslexia research and in developing methods to help dyslexic students learn to read. Some people doubt that there is such a thing as dyslexia; no visual or neurological cause has ever been discovered. This is not to deny that some physical or visual conditions may exist, but most dyslexic students experience dramatic recovery with the teaching of phonics. There is almost no dyslexia among people who speak completely phonetic languages, such as Hebrew or Korean. The massive increase in the diagnosis of dyslexia among English-speaking people occurred after schools stopped teaching phonics.

MRI studies show considerable activity in the left occipital lobe of people who are able to read quickly, smoothly and accurately. It appears that this is the area that stores information about the phonemes that make up language and make this information instantly available when reading. Those who struggle to read are shuttling information between different areas of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, but make very little use of the left occipital lobe. Approaches to reading which does not develop this phonemic awareness are the real cause of reading disabilities.

English has complex, puzzling, often hilarious inconsistencies. Yet learning it is child’s play.

And the darkness comprehended it not

“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (John 1:5).  Here is a verse where the English language seems to lack a word to fully express what is meant.  Darkness, and English synonyms such as obscurity, shadows, blackness, all indicate the absence of light.  The word used in French in this place is ténèbres.  I believe that Bibles in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese also use forms of the same word.

Ténèbres indicates a darkness that has an independent existence, not just the absence of light, but something that is opposed to light.  It is a moral or spiritual darkness, the opposite of the light of God.  In Ephesians 2:2 where the apostle refers to“the rulers of the darkness of this world,” the wording in French is “the princes of this world of ténèbres.”

The apostle John tells us in another place that “the whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5:19).  That is, the whole world is ruled by the powers of darkness.  Jesus came into this world as the embodiment of the light of God.  And the darkness pushed back.

The time came that Satan and the rulers of darkness thought they had succeeded in forever snuffing out the light of God from this world.  Then the light burst forth again with a brilliance that told them that they had forever lost.  The forces of darkness will never again be seen in heaven; the place reserved for them is called “outer darkness.”

Nevertheless, their fury against God, and their hatred of the light, drives them to take as many others with them as they can.  The forces of darkness are very real and they are constantly at work to ensnare people into their darkness.

The apostle Paul tells us that “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14).  He sends his messengers to us, speaking as the voice of sweet reason and offering us a counterfeit of the light.  However, the more we listen to the “light” they are offering us, the darker the pathway before us becomes.

The only way that we can push this darkness back is to allow God’s light to illuminate our hearts and minds and to inform our attitudes and actions.  We are called individually to walk in the light.  One little light all alone is good, but it is better if those lights are gathered together in homes and congregations so that the light shines farther in this dark world.  As we walk together in God’s light, we are the light of the world and we are doing our little part to drive back the darkness that has so engulfed this world.

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