Do people understand what you are saying?

Posted: Sunday, April 12, 2009

Oftentimes we use words which the people around us don't understand or interpret differently. This may be because they were born in a different land, with a different language or culture, or it may be our own close friends who have had a different background, upbringing or education and training.

Sometimes even the person using the words doesn't know what they mean. Some words that are a perfectly normal part of my conversation may sound like Greek - or Latin - to you.

A number of years ago, when I was trying to find out what a computer was, Life Magazine published a "simplified" description of how computers work, and I knew less after I read it than before.

In the part of the country where my parents lived, the Southwest, it took quite some time for the missionaries to the Navajos to realize that our word God can be easily confused with the Navajo word for juniper bush. The Navajos consider natural objects as holy, so they saw nothing unusual in the fact that the white man's religion dealt with juniper bushes. Then at Christmas time, some of the missionaries brought juniper bushes - or some other kind of tree - into their houses and strung them with garlands and other ornaments. And another perhaps puzzling item, was the way some of the missionaries knelt before a chair to pray.

Obviously, there are differences in peoples and the way we express ourselves. At the time of their successful climbing of Mt. Everest, both Edmund Hillary, of New Zealand, and Tenzing Norgay, his Buddhist Sherpa guide, were asked, "How did it feel to reach the top?" Hillary answered, "Damn good!" and Tenzing said, "I thought of God and the greatness of his work."

Differences in time also make changes in sounds and meanings, Did you ever take a course in school in Chaucer or Shakespeare? Chaucer wrote about 600 years ago and Shakespeare 400 and sometimes you wonder if the language they wrote in is English.

Words change in meaning over time, too. One classic example that was publicized at the time of the publishing of the Revised Standard Bible was the word "Let." What do you think this word means? Allow? Well, in the time of King James (1600) it meant to hinder or prevent. Do you know why in tennis a ball that hits the net and goes over is called a "let" ball? It's because the ball hit an obstruction, a hindrance, a let.

One important translation of the Bible, finished before 400 A.D. is named the Vulgate because it was the Vulgar edition. Vulgar language was the language spoken by the common people, the vernacular. The word still means that, officially. But if someone called you vulgar, how would you feel? Also, in many places, God is referred to as "awe-full."

Well, the Bible was written down more than 1,000 years before Chaucer and Shakespeare and in a different language than we use. The writers had a different way of living, a different way of thinking, a different way of writing.

Sometimes we try to understand what some of the key words and phrases in our historic Christian faith and in the Bible meant to their users and how we should apply those meanings to ourselves and our faiths today.

Of course, one of the greatest of these words, as we have mentioned before, is "love." Usually, we think of this word as a verb, but it can really be thought of as a noun. In fact, it is a little difficult to separate the verb from the noun.

We find that the Greeks, as usual, had a word for it. That's not all. We find that the Greeks had four words for it (agape, eros, philia, storge). People that know Greek claim that English is quite limited. It's hard to give the different shades of meaning with just one word. Yet, when you think about it, you may begin to think how fortunate we are that we have a word like love - beautiful and all-encompassing. And we don't need to write a book to tell people what we are talking about!

• Bea Shepard is a certified lay speaker in the United Methodist Church and a member of the Douglas Community United Methodist Church.

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