06 January 2017
Language Connecting Us to History
We might think about how we can feel connected to the past when we visit museums and see artifacts from early civilization, or visit places where events occurred. In these experiences we place ourselves in that time for a moment, to try to imagine what it would be like to live at that time. To try to imagine, through the objects or location, as if we were in that time.
I have been fascinated in my learning about how the history of English words does the same thing. We are connected to the past by way of words we use. Each word has developed /changed /modified over time by way of usage in civilizations, and we can trace that as we travel back through the centuries.
Owen Barfield is the one who awoke this in me, in his books Poetic Diction and History in English Words. He draws out the realization that so much of our history lies in the words we use in every sentence. We think of objects from history as artifacts, but do we ever think of words as artifacts? An interesting topic.
He writes about how over time we have bifurcated the meaning of words to mean different things, and he relays the wondering - why can they not have both meanings? For example, the one word in Greek meaning spirit and wind is used to mean both things at the same time. The inner reflection of the spirit as well as an outer source analogous to God's presence. The wind is an outer feeling of wind that we cannot see but it is also a spiritual inner recognition of something stirring. When this word is written in the KJV, its meaning is not necessarily metaphorical, but it means two things at once.
But in our English modernization (and the way we read the passage in Scripture), the meanings of wind and spirit have been separated to mean totally different things. We feel the inner spirit but do not feel anything spiritual about the wind. The wind is an invisible stormy attribute that we do not feel anything spiritual about. And yet, these two words originally did intermingle in meanings. When one spoke of the wind, it was surely a spiritual recognition of God's presence. We do not speak like that today as we use the word wind.
This study of language in the context of history is like opening up a whole new world of discovery. A whole realm that isn't breached while in school. Here is only a tiny snippet of what is to learn. Yet it is part of all our histories, and part of our everyday, unless you don't use words in your days. I suspect that you do.