Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: language

The genius of French

Yesterday’s word from Mot du Jour, a French word of the day app, was adulescent. It is one letter short of adult, one vowel different from adolescent and describes a young adult who behaves like a teenager. Another word used in the description was quincados, which means people in their fifties who try to appear much younger. Ado is the French equivalent of teenager.

I have met people like that, haven’t you? It must be a hard life, always trying to avoid confronting the reality of who you really are.

At 76 I am still very much alive, but I am not young. Seventeen was a long time ago and I don’t wish to go back. I have lived all those years, I don’t regret any of them, at least not the lessons they have taught me, but I have no longing to relive them.

That quality of being at peace with who you are is described in French as being bien dans son peau, comfortable in one’s own skin. Mine has a few wrinkles, that’s just part of being 76.


The Dene (pronounced Denay) people speak a language which has 39 consonants and 116 vowel sounds. That is a total of 155 phonemes. For the sake of comparison, English and French run from 40-45 phonemes (total consonant and vowel sounds).  These people are indigenous to the northern regions of the four western provinces of Canada, plus Yukon and Northwest Territories.

About 600 years ago (the timeline is sketchy), large numbers of these people migrated to the southwest part of what is now the USA. There they are known as Navajo and Apache and their languages are just as complex. It is said that Dene and Navajo people can still understand each other.

The Iroquoian people of Eastern North America, Cherokee in the south and Six Nations in the Great Lakes area, developed permanent settlements sustained by the cultivation of corn. The cultivation of corn originated in southern Mexico and spread south and north from there. It appears that the Six Nations people originated in the south and moved northward.

From where did all these people originate? The most likely explanation is that they came from Asia and travelled to North America over a land bridge that once existed in the area of the Bering Sea. Some indigenous people reject this explanation, because some whites use it as an excuse to claim that the indigenous people are also immigrants.

That is not very valid. The indigenous people have obviously been here thousands of years, spreading throughout the Americas and differentiating into a multitude of linguistic and cultural groups. White immigration to the Americas goes back just over 400 years. We are obviously the newcomers. My family came to North America 380 years ago, but the indigenous people were here long, long before that.

Many of the early European settlers hoped that the indigenous peoples would fade away and disappear. That hasn’t happened. North Americans of European, African and Asian origin are not going to disappear either. What will it take for us all to live together in mutual respect and appreciation?

A first step might be to admit that Charles Darwin was wrong, the white race is not a more highly favoured race destined to supplant all other peoples. DNA testing confirms what the Apostle Paul told the Athenians: God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” There is no white race, or black race, or red race, we are all part of one human race.

Is the trumpet giving an uncertain sound?

For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:8-9)

The issue in question when Paul wrote those words was the disruptive influence of incomprehensible ecstatic speech in a worship service. I don’t believe it does any violence to the Apostle’s teaching to apply it in other circumstances.

Immigrants arrive in a new land – for instance Canada, USA, France, or Brazil – and they establish places where they can worship God in their mother tongue. The children learn the language of their new homeland much easier than their parents, but still have some attachment to the old mother tongue. But the third generation speaks only the language of the land of their birth. Their parents and grandparents continue to worship in the old language, but for this generation the preachers are speaking into the air. They have two options: look for another church; or forget about God entirely.

This happened to one congregation of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite almost 100 years ago. The congregation had begun 50 years earlier, and the first and second generations were faithful Christians, worshipping God in the German language. The third generation knew only English and joined other churches in the community. Finally, the last surviving member passed away and the congregation was officially defunct.

The same thing almost happened in another, much larger, congregation. Young people were growing up, getting married, living honest, respectable lives, but never heard the gospel preached in a language they could understand. Finally the congregation called a minister who only knew English to come for revival meetings. Frank Haynes returned several times over a period of almost 10 years, and during those meetings at least 200 were converted and baptized. The congregation switched to English preaching.

But I am thinking that we may have a more subtle problem in our day. We are living in a post-Christian society, yet we continue speaking and preaching in Christian jargon that is incomprehensible to most people around us, perhaps even to many of the young people growing up in our homes. Is the trumpet giving an uncertain sound? Those of us who have grown up with this kind of language, or who have been Christians long enough to be familiar with the jargon, may not even realize that the words we use are not really getting through, but to most people today they are just words in the air.

The deceptive thing is that we are speaking important, eternal truths, but if others do not understand what we are saying, we are speaking in an unknown tongue. “Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me” (1 Corinthians 14:11).

It is surely our intention to speak words easy to be understood. Perhaps the first step would be to ask people if they really understand what we are saying. If they seem in doubt, or if they are confused by the jargon we use, we need to make efforts to find a way of speaking those eternal truths in a form that they will understand. That will mean leaving out a lot of the Christian code words and slogans that are so familiar to us. It does not mean watering down the gospel; if anything it means finding words to make the message come through more strongly, in clear unambiguous terms. We owe it to all the people around us who have never heard the gospel in a language that they could understand.

The curse of knowledge

“Once you know something, it’s hard to imagine not knowing it.”

The title for this post, and the quotation above, are taken from the book Made to Stick, © 2007, 2008 by Chip and Dan Heath, published by Random House.

The curse of knowledge is a stumbling block for every Christian who attempts to speak of his faith to non-Christians.  We have developed a whole jargon of “spiritual” terminology that is so familiar to us that we cannot imagine what it was like before we were converted.

“Converted” – there I go.  What does that word mean to me?  How can I make it clear to someone else who may not have a clue what I am saying?

I remember the time before I became a Christian and thought that people who claimed to be born again were hypocrites boasting of being better than other people.  No doubt some of them were, but I have since come to know many people who have been changed through and through by the love of God.  And it has happened to me.  How can I communicate that without using hackneyed expressions?

I don’t believe we can get the message of Jesus Christ out to people in our post-Christian society while using the kind of language we use in talking with one another.  The curse of knowledge is a great impediment to that, at least until we realize that it exists.

The apostle Paul writes about becoming “all things to all men.”  The whole passage reads as follows:

“And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.  To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.  And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you” (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).

He was not pretending to be two or three different persons, depending on who he was with, but he could understand each person’s way of thinking and speak with him in language he would understand.

In the public square, or marketplace, of Athens, Paul spoke of Jesus to any who would listen.  They took him to Areopagus, Mars Hill, the site of the highest court of Athens and asked to explain himself.  He spoke to them of the altar dedicated to the Unknown God and told them he was only telling people about this God whom they worshipped in ignorance.  He continued his defence with many quotations from Athenian philosophers that would have been familiar to his listeners.  It was only when he spoke of the resurrection that he introduced an unheard of doctrine.  At this point the hearing broke up, some mocking Paul, others saying they would like to hear him again some other time.  A few people in Athens were converted, including Dionysus, one of the judges.

Oh to have that kind of wisdom, to be able to present the gospel in the language and terminology of the listeners!

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