“The language of a people is its fate.” So says Amos Wilder in “Early Christian Rhetoric.”
This quotation has bothered me for years. Maybe, virtues determine the fate of a people. Perhaps government or economy or faith. But language? How so?
In order to understand Wilder’s comment, let’s look at a few examples.
The French protect their language in order to protect their culture. When too many foreign expressions enter the French language, it waters down their cultural identity.
So, the French ban the expressions before they become rooted in their language. The agency charged with monitoring the language has banned expressions like email, hashtag and Facebook.
Comment est-ce de travailler pour vous? If Google Translator is working correctly, that means “How’s that working for you?”
Americans think the French are silly until we admit growing resentment among many in the U.S. over federal workplace guidelines posted by the water cooler, billboards or Department of Motor Vehicles tests in Spanish! “Make them learn English” is the mantra.
What is the problem unless, instinctively, we understand that our language is our fate and perceive changes in our language as a threat?
How does this dynamic play out in daily life? How does it affect me?
The first place may be profanity. Baby boomers think they pioneered the anti-puritan movement when Archie Bunker started using four-letter words on “All in the Family.” That Archie was a hoot.
Over the next four decades, we were amazed at what people could say on TV. George Carlin’s list of banned words was no longer prohibited.
Younger readers can search any of these historical references. The fact that you may not know about them makes my point: times have changed and what can be said on television was once a very big deal, but not today.
Now anybody can say anything at anytime. Ask a teacher.
The “S-word,” both “B-words” and combination words are commonplace in the classroom as children bring to school the language they hear at home.
And this is not happening only in public schools or among children of poverty. An informal sampling of teachers and other school workers would indicate it is more common in certain areas, but profanity exists everywhere.
Children hear it at home and on television as the normative way people talk to each other. One child of a middle-class family dropped the “F-bomb” in casual conversation – just as natural as you please.
Aghast, the mother asked, “Where did you hear that word?”
“From you,” was the child’s response.
Remember, “The language of a people is its fate.”
The problem is not simply bad words at home and at school. Profanity is a primary vehicle that brings disrespect, anger and hostility into our lives.
Try to imagine using profanity in a kind, civil way. Go to an SEC football game and try to ask fans around you to be considerate of your family with their language.
Even if you wear the same colors and cheer for the same team, you will likely hear that they paid their money and have the right to say anything they want.
I know I sound like a prude, and I accept that I am swimming upstream against the culture on this subject.
The prevalence and acceptance of profanity, however, has altered the way people treat each other. Society is less civil than it was a few decades ago.
Our language has become our destiny.
Joel Snider is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga. A version of this column first appeared on his website, The Substance of Faith, and is used with permission. Joel’s sermons appear on EthicsDaily.com and are available here.
Editor’s note: A second column by Joel on the impact of language on culture and society will appear tomorrow.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.