Re: Sin and Language

From: Will Wagers (
Date: Thu Jan 04 1996 - 11:34:48 EST

Rodney J. Decker writes:

>> In many ways Islam is right to say, "If it is not in Arabic it is
>>not the Koran."
>I would suggest that this reflects an inaccurate view of language in
>general. There is no concept that cannot be expresed in any other language.
>Some may do a particular job more concisely, etc., and technical terms may
>need to be created to deal with some things, but if it can be expressed in
>words, any language can do the job. (The Islamic claim is linguistic

Linguistics and related studies are coveniently simplified by the
assumptions that languages can be accurately translated and that
concepts in one language can be transposed to another. However,
strictly speaking, these assumptions are false.

1. Despite the "mechanical" drudgery involved in translation, language is
a biological, and, in our case, neurological process. When we learn words,
other factors are incorporated into the memory besides the dictionary
definition. If we learn a word from our mother, her smell and smile
might be included in our neurological lexicon. This would cause us to
have good feelings *every* time that word is recalled. If we learn a
word from a book by candlelight, the flickering of the light, the musky
smell of the book, and other sensations are encoded at the same moment.
If we learn a foreign language at the foot of a cruel taskmaster, that
language will forever be to us symbolic of authority, and, for example,
pain, humiliation, submission, guilt, etc.

(Does "mechanical" mean clean, simple, efficient, perfect, runs-by-itself
to you, or does it mean fallable, error-prone, idiotic, hard-to-keep-running?)

For an author, these recorded sensations are present with every word
written. They invisibily play off of each other in the text, influencing
word choice, etc. Unpleasant associations are stronger and more
influential than pleasant ones. Since these factors are rarely, if ever,
known and considered, the written texts are merely the dry husks of
the living words in an author's mind.

2. The learning process changes us. The language we learn first, the
manner in which we learn it, the type of language we learn, etc.
condition our brain both chemically and structurally. Thus, the meaning
consists of both the authoring mind and the text.

As T. E. Shaw learned, no degree of language facility, cultural inculcation,
or cultural sympathy can turn an Englishman into an Arab.

Reading someone else's words is a bit like viewing old movies on
a modern projection system - they use different speeds in frames
per second: a great deal of information is preserved and a great
deal is lost and distorted.

It is probably true that any concept can be "expressed" in another
language, but this is not to say that the two terms will represent
the two side of an equation. Two concepts are necessarily different,
even between two minds, much less between two languages. Languages
are no more intertranslatable than sets of footprints: both have
meaning, but they are not strictly equivalent.

Useful abstractions are made by ignoring differences between minds,
concepts, and words; but, to be unaware of the loss of information is
to fall into a number of subtle intellectual traps.

Try (mentally) re-creating a beloved painting by clipping pictures of the
objects represented from magazines. In my case, Van Gogh's Starry night.
This is what translation is. We tend to recognize this in terms of works
of art, and ignore it in terms of intellectual works.

If you met Paul in Heaven, imagine how long it would take before you
were be able to speak with him conversationally.

Nothing should make the problems more clear than trying to
communicate via e-mail. Imagine that God begins to speak to us again
- directly - via e-mail. See the difficulties?



P.S. When I say or imply "you", I do not mean Mr. Decker personally.

When someone says "imagine" and you don't, but use a language shunt
instead, you've missed the point.

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