Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

The Gods Must Be Multilingual

"The theory of the divine origin of language furnishes a rational explanation of all the facts and phenomena of language, and is sufficient to meet all the demands made upon it; a statement which cannot truthfully be made of any other theory."
—from "The Origin of Language," Christian Review, July 1863

A recent article in Science News reports an intriguing theory about the many animal mummies that were artifacts of ancient Egyptian culture. The idea put forth is that they were actually intended as messages to the gods. The theory is bolstered by the fact that a few of the mummies contained within them written messages, including complaints, proposed quid pro quos, and polite requests. The low incidence of such written messages is attributed to the fact that literacy was not widespread.

From a linguistic point of view, the message-in-a-mummy story is yet more fodder for an age-old problem: how do we reconcile our dependence as humans upon language to communicate our wants, needs, questions, complaints, and torments, with or without mediation, to divine beings who in nearly all cases are thought to have pre-existed the emergence of languages that we use and who could never have learned them in the natural way that we do?

With due respect to centuries of religious scholarship, this is not a question that has been simply swept under the carpet. The problematic relationship between language and gods has in fact obsessed the minds of thinkers for millennia. Scholars whose faith binds them to a belief in the omnipotence of God (or gods) usually account for language in fairly simplistic and absolute terms. The quote at the beginning of this article is a good example. The author, a 19th-century professor who was obscure at the time and now is completely forgotten, simply declares that language is divine in origin — thus dispensing with the question of how gods might be familiar with it.

Science is inclined to view language as a human invention: a complex system of symbolic communication that has co-evolved with homo sapiens and that has not developed in other species. Some science is also inclined to view gods as a human invention; to express that view in a quote attributed to French sociologist Emile Durkheim, "religion is society worshipping itself."  Others take a view that the existence of things supernatural is not an area for science to investigate, owing to the absence of devisable experiments that would lead to proof or disproof. All of that notwithstanding, the problem of bidirectional communication with divine beings using the medium that has evolved for communication within the human domain persists, and the perspectives of different faiths on the matter are food for thought.

A road into the subject is scripture. The word scripture, though originally denoting the religious texts of Christianity, is derived from a Latin root that means "text," and scripture is now usedmore generally to designate the sacred texts of any religion. Interestingly, the word hieroglyph, which we use to designate the pictographic scripts of ancient Egypt, is in fact of Greek origin and means "sacred writing." The relationship of the languages of scriptures to the adherents of a particular religion is extremely varied. The Qur'an, the central scripture of Islam, is believed to be a revelation (like many scriptures), transmitted by God to the prophet Muhammad, who was (by prevailing opinion) illiterate. Its revelation in Arabic (from the mouth of the angel Gabriel) is thought to make translations of it into other languages impossible.

The Christian Bible, by contrast, is known even by ardent believers to have been written in multiple languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) but despite that is taken to be the revealed word of God in any of the thousands of translations that exist in hundreds of languages. The Book of Mormon is reported to have been recorded in "Reformed Egyptian," a language that linguists do not acknowledge to have ever existed. The book's scribe, Joseph Smith, is said to have found, along with the golden plates on which the text was inscribed, handy translation tools that enabled him to render the text into English. Most scriptures, many of which may be characterized as myths to outsiders of a particular faith, are filled with stories of the sayings and doings of divine beings. The God of the Hebrew Bible can be credited with the greatest speech act ever accomplished in the history of the world, a speech act which is surely impossible to follow: "Let there be light." And there was light. (Genesis 1:3)

The idea of prophets and prophecy appears widely and independently in many religions and represents a good compromise position on the question of human comprehension and divine expression. When prophets and their communications are available it is not required that everyone be able to decode divine messages; the prophets, through their special gifts, do the work for us and are revered on account of it. The work of the shaman, who mediates between the spirit and the human world, is comparable and may even be a precursor to the emergence of the idea of prophecy in the religions that are widespread in modern societies.

Those inclined to have a two-way with the One (or ones) up above would probably find it difficult to conceive of the means of doing this without language. The notion that you can get your ideas across the human-divine barrier via language has long pervaded nearly all monotheistic and many polytheistic cultures; evidence of it can be seen, for example, in this music video of the Oak Ridge Boys performing, in full 1970s regalia, "Just a Little Talk With Jesus."

The chorus proclaims:

Now let us have a little talk with Jesus
Let us tell Him all about our troubles
He will hear our faintest cry
He will answer by and by
Now when you feel a little prayer wheel turning
And you know a little fire is burning
You will find a little talk with Jesus makes it right.

Definitions of the various senses of prayer are filled with words that we can hardly conceive of apart from their language component: petition, communication, supplication, thanksgiving, appeal, text. If the idea put forth about messages in cat mummies is true — and like many speculations about the distant past, it cannot be proven — but if true, the implication is that the ancient Egyptian petitioner's ability to actually encode the message to the gods in language was a kind value-added proposition, perhaps a method of disambiguating a complex intention by stating explicitly in words what the main purpose was. Were those supplications any more effective than the ones couched in little talks with Jesus today? It's impossible to know, but it's likely that the ancient Egyptians, like modern worshipers today, felt better after putting it into words.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday March 3rd 2014, 11:09 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
"message-in-a-mummy story"
"the human-divine barrier"

These both made me lol.

I'm no theologian, but I have to imagine that there are three possible beliefs about how prayers are understood by the recipient:

My deity speaks my language. This would seem to work well for relatively localized religions, especially those who did not have an evangelical bent. The next tribe over babbles to their (obviously false) gods in whatever jabber they happen to speak, but we're ok.

My deity speaks A language, namely the sacred language. In the Abrahamic tradition, I believe that Hebrew and Arabic have a special linguistic place in the channels to the deity. Possibly this special language is limited to that in which the deity speaks revelation, but does not limit the deity to understanding only that language--? (See below.)

My deity speaks all languages. So, for example, and again in the Abrahamic tradition, the languages to which deity turned men's mind during the Babel Incident were already pre-known to said deity.

My deity is beyond language and understands the supplicant's intent regardless of what language it's expressed in.

Anyway, interesting article, as always!
Monday March 3rd 2014, 11:09 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Did I say three? I meant four.
Monday March 3rd 2014, 12:36 PM
Comment by: Roy Roebuck (Folsom, CA)
And when is the vote for Mike P's options for which is "true"?
Monday March 3rd 2014, 3:19 PM
Comment by: John P.
On the origin of language, the well-known lexicographer Ludwig Koehler wrote:

“There has been, especially in former times, much speculation as to how human speech ‘came into being’. Writers strove to explore ‘animal language’. For animals also are able to express audibly by sounds and groups of sounds their feelings and sensations, such as contentment, fear, emotion, threat, anger, sexual desire and satisfaction in its fulfilment, and perhaps many other things. However manifold these [animal] expressions may be, . . . they lack concept and thought, the essential domain of human language.”

After showing how men can explore the physiological aspect of human speech, he adds:

“But what actually happens in speech, how the spark of perception kindles the spirit of the child, or of mankind generally, to become the spoken word, eludes our grasp. Human speech is a secret; it is a divine gift, a miracle.”—Journal of Semitic Studies, Manchester, 1956, p. 11.

It would seem the question of communication with a God / gods would be academic if there was no divine being / beings.

But if there was a God / gods then people / peoples would really need to ask / asks God the question and then see if he gets an answers / answers to his question / questions.

I hope the singular and plural pauses placated the material masses.

- Snarticle
Monday March 3rd 2014, 4:31 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
As Darth Vader put it, "I find your lack of faith disturbing". It seems any God worthy of the name wouldn't have much problem with something as picayune as human language, particularly a God who gets the credit/blame for the universe and everything in it. And language does seem optional: St. Francis (who probably didn't have heavy mechanical breathing, or his own ominous theme song, but he's still a pretty cool source) is credited with saying (writing?) something on the order of "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words." That's a handy point of view if you're into preaching to wolves or birds.
Monday March 3rd 2014, 5:53 PM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
God is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. what can he not know?
Friday October 19th 2018, 9:49 AM
Comment by: Cheryl H.
Reading this late from a link, but loved it. Orin Hargraves: You rock as a thinker and writer!
Monday February 11th 2019, 5:20 PM
Comment by: Harold W.
Dear Chandru: If the big G. is so, how come there exists
so much evil and suffering?
(Theodocy 101.)

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