Listen To Article
While driving home from my Sunday morning preaching opportunities, I am often able to catch at least part of the NPR radio program “Hidden Brain” hosted by Shankar Vedantam. A month or so ago the first part of the program was an interview with a linguist whose primary point is that language has a way of re-wiring and shaping our brains. How we think and even what we think is influenced significantly by the words and grammar we use every day.
As a German major in college, I resonated with the part of the interview that talked about the long-term effect of being a native speaker of a highly gendered language. Although in English we might now and again refer to a ship in feminine terms—“She’s a fine boat!”—mostly in English nouns are non-gendered. We use the definite article “the” for everything.
But in German the word for “the” depends on the gender of the noun. In the nominative form, Der, Die, Das, Die are the four words for “the” for Masculine, Feminine, Neuter, and Plural nouns. (And just to keep German fun, that changes to Den, Die, Das, Die in the accusative, to Dem, Der, Dem, Den in the dative, and Des, Der, Des, Der in the genitive.) You never know which word for “the” to use unless you know first the gender of the noun in question and then the function that noun has in a sentence (subject, object, direct object, possessive).
Near as anyone can tell, there is not a lot of rhyme or reason behind why certain words are the gender they are. The classic example German teachers use for how crazy this can get is a table setting. If you have a plate, a glass, a napkin, and a spoon, fork, and knife, then the plate is masculine, the glass is neuter, the napkin is feminine, the spoon is masculine, the fork is feminine, and the knife is neuter.
Really, anyone without German as a native language must simply memorize all that.
But for native speakers, the brain gets so wired into thinking of every object in a gendered way that a belief grows that there is something inherent to the objects that dictate its gender. Ask a German why spoon is masculine and fork is feminine, and he may reply, “Well just look at them—the fork is so clearly feminine in appearance.” On the “Hidden Brain” program, the linguist pointed out that “bridge” in German is feminine and Germans will tell you that is because bridges are elegant and beautiful in form. Then again, in another language “bridge” is masculine and native speakers of that language will tell you bridges are clearly strong, sturdy, and with those soaring towers on suspension bridges. Clearly all masculine traits.
The most astonishing part of the program, however, was when the linguist talked about encountering a group of people whose language lacked the words for “right” and “left.” So how does one give directions in this language? How do you tell a doctor your right arm is sore? You use north, south, east, west, and their in-between directions. “Hey, Larry, you have a bug crawling up your northwest leg!” “When you get to the fork in the road, follow the southeast path.” “The baked beans I brought to the potluck are on the southwest table over there.” But because their language is structured this way, these people have developed an outrageously accurate internal compass. They always know which direction is which and never fail to give the right directional indication when a bug is on someone’s leg or when they need to indicate what we would call simply “to the left” or “to the right.”
As a preacher, I am in a profession where words are to me what a hammer and nails are to a finish carpenter. It’s my main tool. But the “Hidden Brain” program reminded me that all of us in wordy professions do well to be highly intentional in the words we employ. This is especially true of something like sermons. It’s not just any one sermon a preacher delivers that is important. Rather it is the arc of preaching over many months and years that will influence how people in the congregation think, how they see the world. Their brains, too, will get re-wired to a degree by what they hear from the pulpit over time. How they view the Gospel, the Bible, the surrounding culture, and the shape of the Christian life will be shaped by consistently thoughtful patterns of speech from wise preachers who know that language should never be treated lightly or as a throwaway sort of prospect.
But since this is not a blog for just pastors, I will expand this to say that how all of us use speech every day shapes not only how we ourselves think and view the world but this can influence those around us too. Mostly we have been too casual in this regard. We don’t ponder the longer term effect of consistently using pugilistic language in our Tweets or social media posts. We don’t ponder what regularly using insults and put-downs and derogatory terms for those who disagree with us may to do our brains and hearts as well as to others who read what we post.
Many key observers of our socio-political culture have noticed that in more recent times, we have been schooled by the language of some leaders as well as by our friends on social media not merely to disagree with someone with a different take on this or that issue. We are being taught we must hate those people. We don’t want to win an argument or score a thoughtful point for others to ponder. We want to bury our opponents, destroy them, hang them out and leave them for dead.
Bit by bit our language influences how we think. It’s never “just words.” In these days of increasing hostility all around, we all need to ponder what our own speech is doing to ourselves and to our neighbors.
As the Heidelberg Catechism says in its commentary on the ninth commandment on lying, it is my duty to “guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.” Language can accomplish that. Or not.