Thursday, September 27, 2007

How do you say that in…

I am reading a book for my anthropology class by Angela Robinson. She has written an ethnography on the Mi’kmaq or Nova Scotia. Bored yet?
Actually her work focused on religion: the affects of European religion (namely Catholic) on this indigenous people way of life and their own religious perspectives. What she encounters is actually quite fascinating…
She describes how language affects the way we perceive our world. The very words we use can affect how we interact with the basic elements of life. English is a noun based language whereas Mi’kmaw is a verb based language. And this has some very interesting implications for religious understanding. She quotes a Mi’kmaw linguist who suggests the important aspects of the difference in this area, “the language is not capable of seeing the world and the universe as any other way except as being in constant flux. So, it would be difficult to pin down any particular dogma and expect Mi’kmaw people to follow it to the letter a thousand years from now. A concept of ‘god’ in Mi’kmaw culture and language is also not stationary. In fact the words, or many of them that we have for ‘god’ are all verbs.”
So what would that mean if God was referred to using verbs instead of nouns?
English Christianity is famous for developing complex doctrinal positions and theological systems. All of that would be very different (if they would exist at all) if the way we referred to God was in verb form. Personally, I have a hard time even thinking about how you would do that. You know what a sentence using the idea of God as a verb would look like in English.
One of the things that I got to thinking about was how we often complain that we have put God in a box and that we need to re-evaluate how we think about God. Well maybe this problem would not exist in the same way if we didn’t have to use a noun to talk about God. Nouns seem more measurable, quantifiable I guess. Verbs seem to indicate flux, action, or movement. I don’t know stuff to think about I guess…


Hilda said...

our language does shape what we believe - or is it the other way around?? For example: in Spanish when you drop something you say "it fell on me" (se me cayo). We found that for the Nicaraguans it was very difficult to accept responsibility for a wrong word or action. It just "fell on them". My guess is that since language is very fluid, perhaps our language is more influenced by our beliefs and worldview than the other way around. Just a thought early in the morning :)

Anonymous said...

take this story - it happened to me
I was a post-graduate research student (very mature) in the medical faculty of a British university. I went into the kitchen to make myself the essential stimulant of students - coffee - but the jar was empty. The Professor's secretary who held the key to supplies was talking to a Chilean woman another mature student. My statement that the "coffee has run out" brought a look of amazement from my colleague who said "I did not know coffee could "run out"".

Since that time I have been involved in management development when one of my tasks was to persuade newly promoted managers that they were now required to use active forms of language suitable for instructing, coaching and ordering, not the passive form they were used to using as subordinates.

This task follows the maxim of desing "Form follows function" but where does the coffee incident spring from?