The language spider sometimes bites you in an unexpected way!
by Stephan Joubert
Language really is something, right? Just as you’re thinking you said the right thing, in your very best language, you realize you are gravely mistaken. Different words simply have different meanings for different people. Not even to mention different languages… I’ve put my foot in it by using Afrikaans language in Holland — since it’s such a close derivative of their native Dutch. I’m involved on a part-time basis with the Radboud University in Nijmegen. I spend about a month per year there among the fourth happiest people in the world (like a recent study by the UN on happiness found).
To my detriment, I have realized that dead-simple, decent Afrikaans words stop these good and happy Dutch folks dead in their tracks. On one occasion, I bumped into a student when exiting a lift. I immediately said: “Verskoon my!” This is the normal Afrikaans phrase for “Excuse me!” but it has the Afrikaans word for clean as its root. Oh dear, and I’ve tried to condition myself to never use this phrase in the land of the happy ones. If I did they might just fall back to fifth happiest in the world, right there and then. Immediately the student gave me a shocked stare, while I tried and explain that I actually speak Afrikaans and not Dutch. I stuttered that the true meaning of this phrase in Afrikaans, and apologized for any wrongdoing. All she heard was that my dirty nappy needed to be cleaned. That’s what “Verskoon” means in Dutch — to “clean” or change a baby’s nappy.
Language easily gets stereotypical. It keeps us captive in the ice age. It freezes us. Further, we’re lazy to adopt new language. Shakespeare was one of the brave ones who created about 400 new words for fresh use in his mother tongue. Still, the average English first-language speakers uses merely 20,000 of the hundreds of thousands of words in the British language.
On religious turf, we also constantly get stuck in hackneyed language. We speak the same anxious phrases over and over and use the same words in all our songs, sermons and bible studies. Maybe that’s why we just read the same bible texts over and over and aren’t open to new voices in the bible. Or open to fresh insights. Without new language we’re going nowhere. We become life-long prisoners of our preferred religious language, which prevents us from experiencing God’s grace and closeness in crackle-fresh new ways. This is why G.K. Chesterton’s words made such a great impression on me. He made the following remark somewhere about people who are caught up in their own safe little social environment: “It is that they cannot see the problem itself because they have no language for it.”