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Friday, 28 November 2014

Words and Reality

   One of my high school English teachers was adamant that I take philosophy in university.  She noticed in my writing that my way of thinking would be amenable to this area of study.  The four philosophy courses I took (Introduction to Philosophy, Philosophy of Language, Asian Philosophy and Philosophy of Education) all expanded my mind and contribute to the way I "see" things around me.
   One key term that Dr. Theodore Plantinga, now deceased, impressed on his students was "reification."  It means how we can make a concept into "a real thing" by the fact that we talk about it or give it a name.  For example, the fictional sport of quidditch from the Harry Potter series of books has been "reified."  Even though it cannot actually be played in the way that Rowling envisioned it, quidditch is now a defined thing that people are able to talk about and imagine.
   When humans invent a word, it is almost as if they bring it into existence in some way.  Of course, God Himself from the beginning had this ultimate power.  By using words, He brought the universe and its component parts into existence.  He continues to bring about new realities for those who trust in Him.
   I find words so fascinating and pay attention to words in different languages.   Four non-English words come to mind as illustrations of the relationship between a word and reality.


   This Chinese character and word means "elder brother."  When I first learned that this language has a separate word for an older brother and a younger one, I was intrigued.  It tells something about the importance of age in Chinese culture. During my research I came across the suggestion that the small square (symbolic of the mouth) appears in this character (and not in that of younger brother) because the eldest male in the family would be a kind of spokesperson on behalf of the family.   This idea of designating family relationships by age also presupposes a family size larger than one or two.   As I explored further, I discovered that in Chinese, there are distinct words for aunts and uncles, depending on whether they are older or younger than your parent.  In addition, the word of aunt, uncle, grandmother and grandfather also includes the information about whether they are part of the mother or father's side of the family.  Each role in the family is valued not generically but in terms of age and the precise relationship between one nuclear family and another.


 This word belongs to a Nigerian tribal language called Tiv.  My aunt and uncle lived among these people for more than five years when I was in early childhood.  They explained to me (or at least in my presence) that when Bible translators came to this tribe, they had great difficulty because one of the key biblical concepts, love, had no equivalent in this language.  Without a word for love, how could the missionaries fully express God's character?  In the end, they combined two word to form the concept dooshima, literally "good heart."  Wherever the Scriptures referred to God's love, the idea of "good heart" was substituted.  And as the people became infused with the concept of what a "good heart" is and looks like, I am sure they could apply it to their marriages, parent-child relationships, and beyond.  


   This term appeared untranslated from Aramaic in the Latin Vulgate Bible as well as many early English Bibles because there was no equivalent word for what it is expressing.  Think of  Matthew 6:24 in the King James Version:
  “No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (emphasis mine).
   Simply translating this word into the English "money" as some more modern Bibles have done does to get at the deeper meaning of wealth and riches as a force that vies for our affections and attention as a rival to God Himself.  There is a system underlying monetary transactions and the desire for gaining more and more wealth that is insidious and warrants the separate name of mammon.


   This Japanese word/concept means waste or uselessness. [1]  Within Toyota's manufacturing plants, the word muda is used to instill in all its employees a consciousness of waste  The company wants to avoid any waste that comes as a result of overproduction, unnecessary transportation, defects, waiting, and so on.  Not only is muda avoided in the production of a vehicle, the plant I visited in Cambridge, Ontario has made the notable achievement of producing zero land-fill waste.  Products are recycled and reprocessed, with labelled bins all around the plant.  Biodegradable cutlery and plates are used in its cafeteria.  This one word is the basis for an ethos of stewardship for all kinds of resources, human and material.

   Even though I do not speak Mandarin, Tiv, Aramaic or Japanese, I am grateful that they have words for certain ideas so that they can be discussed and thus become a part of reality.

[1] http://www.thetoyotasystem.com/ explains this part of the car company's way of doing things.

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