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THE DNA OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
by Jonathan Dunne
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, man and woman. This is the story of creation related in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. God gave the man and woman free will and placed them in a garden, the garden of Eden, where they were allowed to eat of every tree, but he warned them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ‘for in the day that you eat of it you shall die’ (Genesis 2.17). God did not build a wall around the tree of knowledge, fit it with security cameras and lights, he simply warned us not to eat of the tree or we would die.
The man and the woman – Adam and Eve – chose to ignore God’s warning. Tempted by the serpent, Eve ate the forbidden fruit and gave some to her husband. This is the story of the Fall related in chapter 3 of Genesis. Instead of listening to God, they listened to the I (erotically represented by the serpent) and were expelled from Eden. The rest of the Old Testament is about how God’s chosen people, the Israelites, repeatedly ignored God’s warnings, put in the mouths of prophets, followed their own devices, got into trouble (defeat in battle or exile), repented, received God’s mercy only to fall again after a period of prosperity. We still live in the era of the I, a world of conflicting egos: think of a traffic jam, for example.
Before making him the father of many nations, in Genesis 22, God tested Abraham to see if he would sacrifice his only son, Isaac, at God’s command. In anticipation of the road to Calvary, when Jesus had to carry the Cross on which he would be crucified, Abraham even laid the wood of the burnt-offering on his son. God, however, did not allow Abraham to sacrifice his son and provided a ram instead. In the New Testament, God sent his only-begotten son, Jesus Christ, into the world to atone for our sins. Unlike Isaac, Christ was sacrificed. There is no overestimating the majesty, and humbleness, of this act. Christ, who is God, became human to show us how to turn away from following our own devices, from following the I, as a result of which we will die, and how to turn to God and live.
This progression from creation (A) to the Fall (I) to redemption (O) is documented by the English language. In Exodus 3.13, Moses asks God who he is to say has sent him to the Israelites. God replies, ‘I am who I am.’ In the creation, hu made us human, am created an (remember the phonetic pair m-n). An is the indefinite article, the one we use for countable nouns, nouns that have a plural, which is to say that am created a man.
The man was given a name, Adam (very close to made), and he in turn named all the creatures God brought to him. What is in a name? Quite a lot. A name does mean something. A rose by any other name would not spell eros and sore with the letters rearranged.
In the garden of Eden, the newly created man and woman were in danger of need! Instead of saying amen to God’s warning not to eat of the tree of knowledge, they introduced I into the language, took some of the forbidden fruit and said mine. Already we have progressed from A to I. We should say am with reference to God, but already we have started to say I’m.
Can is the most wonderful verb. Using the phonetic pair m-n, we can turn can into make (by adding a final e). This is what God did during the creation: he made the heavens and the earth, he brought order out of chaos. This is what we are called to do during our lives: to make our dreams come true, to turn the chaos of illusion into the order of reality, and for this we need faith, the faith to move mountains, not in one dramatic leap, but slowly, patiently, the way rivers sculpt stone.
In Genesis 4, Eve bore Adam two sons, Cain and Abel. Abel was able, but didn’t do it. In the name Cain, can has already been corrupted by I. Cain could, and he murdered his brother Abel, shedding the first blood on the ground. In Genesis 11, after the Flood, we read how ‘the whole earth had one language and the same words’ and the people set about building the Tower of Babel. Aware of what they might achieve (compare the expulsion from Eden in Genesis 3.22), the Lord came down and confused their language, scattering the people abroad over the face of all the earth. This was the beginning of foreign languages and the need for translation, a discipline we ignore at our peril since we are all required, in one way or another, to translate, to find meaning. Babel is connected with apple by the phonetic pair b-p. I can’t help also seeing a connection between Abel, Babel and Bible, the Word of God delivered to the world of I and which promises life, most usually in translation.
There is a remarkable similarity between the words evil and devil, though they’re not connected etymologically. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, evil derives from the Gothic ubils, devil from the Greek diabolos. It is as if, over successive generations, their meaning has brought them close. We can compare God and good. Again they’re not connected etymologically, God deriving from the Sanskrit hu and good from the Gothic goþs. But God is good and the devil is evil. It’s normal that language should reflect this.
The reverse of evil is live. The reverse of devil is lived. The letters of death rearranged spell another past tense: hated. When we are born, a veil falls over our eyes, such that we think we see. We commit vile acts and do not realize that our sin is seen.
We read about this in the story of the man born blind in John, chapter 9. As Jesus passes by, his disciples ask him who has sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind. Jesus replies that the man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. He spits on the ground, makes mud with the saliva and spreads the mud on the man’s eyes, sending him to wash in the pool of Siloam (which means sent). The reverse of eyes is see, of wash is saw. It is no coincidence, then, that the man comes back able to see. The man, who was created out of mud, must wash the mud from his eyes in order to see.
No one credits the miracle, the man himself is perplexed, but one thing he sees clearly: that whereas before he was blind, now he can see by the action of the man named Jesus. The Pharisees drive him out of the synagogue for suggesting that Jesus is from God. Jesus finds him, and the man believes.
Each one of us is the man born blind. We are born blind into this world. The words born and blind are even connected by the phonetic pair l-r (with addition of d). But, as Jesus warns the Pharisees at the end of this story, it is not if we are blind that we have sin. Our sin remains when we think we see.
Jesus refers to this in the parable of the sower: ‘The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand”’ (Matthew 13.13). The world is full of people who look but do not perceive, who listen but do not understand. They see only what is around them, hear only fragments of words and not the Word itself, forgetting that silence is half of language (the white space on this page) and to listen we have to be silent.
We are all like that until we realize our need, fall on our knees and seek healing. Seek and you will see (or as the translation of Matthew 7.7 puts it, ‘Search and you will find’). Hear and heal are connected by the phonetic pair l-r. As the reverse of eyes is see, so ear and hear are connected by the addition of h (though their etymological roots are different in the OED).
Language is telling us that, to be healed, we need to hear the Word of God, who is Christ, the second person of the Trinity. This is why, at the end of the parable of the sower, Christ cries, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ In the parable of the sower, a sower sows seed. Some seeds fall on the path and are eaten by the birds; some fall on rocky ground and do not have enough soil; others fall among the thorns and are choked. Others, however, fall on good soil and bring forth grain (how similar is grain to rain!).
The earth Christ plants a seed in is our heart. Seed and heart are see and hear with the addition of the phonetic pair d-t. The seed grows in the earth of our heart if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Christ was crucified on the Cross that the veil over our eyes might be torn in two, as we read in Mark 15.38: ‘And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.’ There is a paradox here. After the Fall, Adam and Eve were ashamed of their nakedness. Being clothed, it was as if they were naked (and naked before the Fall, as if they were clothed). So we, having a veil over our eyes, think that we see. Only when the veil separating us from the divine – as the altar curtain in Orthodox churches separates the nave from the sanctuary – is torn, as happened at the Crucifixion, do we become blinded as if by a bright light (like Saul on the road to Damascus) and seek to be healed. We are like creatures that live in the earth, which do not realize they’re blind until they emerge into the open.
Through his Crucifixion, arms stretched wide, belly exposed, Christ teaches us to lay down our life in order to find it. In Matthew 10.39, he tells the twelve apostles, ‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
It is the I that has to go, the I that recoiled from God’s warning not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or else we would die. God was right. We do die. Or, to be more accurate, I die.
One of the things we do in educating our children is teach them to count up from 1. Once you start counting, there’s no knowing where you’ll end up, and this is the dilemma our world finds itself in. Once you start counting in a line, where do you stop? House prices, executive salaries, energy consumption are all examples of this.
The answer is to count down from 1 to 0, from I to O or God. God is much nearer than we think. He is right behind us. Some would say that God is nowhere to be seen. Looked at in another way, nowhere is now here.
By counting down from I to O, we do not turn live into its reverse, evil, but into love. We do not sin, we become a son. We do not say I’m, we say om. It was for this that Christ went to the Cross. Even he was prepared to count down, to lose his life for our sake. So we complete the progression from A to I to O.
Christ asks in return that we lose our life for his sake. He tells us, ‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ Manifestly we cannot keep the life we’ve got. This world full of walking Is must die. But how can we possibly lose our life for his sake and find it? Where’s the sense in that?
It is another paradox of Christianity that when we draw a line through the I, we form two symbols: a Cross and a plus-sign. By following Christ, by walking the way of the Cross, which involves putting down the I (symbolized by the Cross) and is sometimes a painful experience, we discover who we really are. We find our life, our real life, which does not die. Death is like a veil. When we die, we tear it in two, as Christ did, and see the divine. We begin to live the eternal life, however, here on earth. This is why during Orthodox services the altar curtain is opened from time to time, allowing us to glimpse what lies beyond.
By turning to Christ, we reclaim what is ours: eternal life. And this – not flashing lights or unlikely healings – is the meaning of miracle.
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Read an extract from The Life of a Translator
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