Can We Understand Each Other Anymore?

When I was in college, I accompanied my father on a trip to Europe, visiting London and Paris. On a day trip up to Oxford, I stopped for a sandwich at a deli. The friendly Brit across the counter spoke to me. Then he spoke again. He repeated himself a third time, but I still had no idea what he was saying. It was English, but not my English.
 
Later on the same trip, I sat down at a Parisian café. Having studied French in high school, I was confident of at least being able to order. Once again I faced a question repeated and repeated again. Finally, I understood. “Yes, I’d love some lemonade.”
 
Not being able to communicate with people drives me crazy. I felt stupid, ignorant, and out of place. It wasn’t enough I was alone in a foreign city. I couldn’t even talk to people in a language I allegedly knew.
 
Communication is key. So say marriage counselors, marketing managers, and high school English teachers. Our society depends on conveying information from one person to another.
 
Not surprisingly, technology is changing the way we communicate. SMS, Twitter, and Snapchat have introduced new forms of communication. These, in turn, have given birth to abbreviations, acronyms, and new slang.
 
How should we feel about this transformation in communication? Encouraged, nervous, or fearful? Are there principles which could help guide this evolution toward a better result?
 
In the biblical story, God delights to watch his creation establish their first forms of communication. We’ve defined technology as a created tool which extends human capability. Language itself becomes the first technological creation of mankind.
 
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. — Genesis 2:18-19
 
It’s almost as if God pulls up a stool to watch with fascination as the man forms the first words to spoken by a human. God parades each of his various created animals before the man for a label. But this was not a simple exercise in creating a directory of names.
 
The Need For Language
 
Deep desire drove the creation of language. Even in the paradise of the garden, something was wrong and needed correction. Man was alone and this was “not good.” He lacked partnership, companionship, and intimacy — everything that comes from knowing someone else.
 
Adam craved relationship. When he named the animals, he began to relate. He didn’t find the companion he was looking for until encountering the woman. But when the first animal received a name, relating began.
 
The Hebrew word used for namingqara, is a rich term. Its range of relational meaning includes proclamation, summoning, announcing, encountering, and inviting. God calls the light; Adam calls to his wife; God calls to the man and the woman; Eve called her son; and eventually people began to call on the name of the Lord.
 
When my first daughter was born, I marveled at the responsibility of choosing her name. I felt as if that decision would determine her entire future. I would use her name when I put her to bed. I would use it as I greeted her in the morning. Her full name would be useful when I scolded her for disobedience. I would proclaim her name in praise of her achievements. Hundreds of forms and permission slips would be filled out in her name. Choosing her name was no formality. It marked the beginning of an exciting, new father-daughter relationship.
 
Can you imagine a relationship without any form of communication? Take away the words. Remove body language. Ignore the subtle cues of eye contact. How would any connection be possible?
 
Verbal language manifests some essence of reality within us, making it accessible to someone else. Language expresses the inexpressible to create relationship.
 
The Language of God
 
Language is so important it features prominently in a remarkable re-telling of the creation story by the New Testament prophet John.
 
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. — John 1:1
 
The Greek word logos is another term rich with meaning. With roots in philosophy, Brittanica suggests a definition of “the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning.”
 
It would go too far to say our God is language itself, but that idea starts to get close to the truth of the matter. There is something divine in the act of communicating. When man called out to the creatures around him, he began a participation in the divine nature.
 
Since God used language to call creation into existence, it make sense that man’s first act of his own creation was to form the technology of language.
 
To speak is divine.
 
Our New Language
 
If speaking is divine, what do we make of this recent post from TUMBLR?
 
I CANT EVEN what is this life ruiner. having ALL THE FEELS akdfhakdghoghsgds what is air
 
I showed this to a mixed-age group of 40 men and asked them what the speaker was trying to communicate. None of them recognized the message of excitement and romantic infatuation presented in such eloquent terms.
 
Technology has changed our language. But our forms of communication are more than simple tools. They are integrally connected to the nature of our relationships.
 
If language lies at the heart of who God is, his followers ought to be concerned about how it is changing.
 
That isn’t to say we should be alarmist. Language is always changing. Relationships constantly shift as cultures evolve. But shouldn’t we be active participants in the process?
 
As Adam crafted language to form relationships, can we shape our culture through communication?
 
How does the 140 character limit on Twitter affect the way we relate? Did changing the limit to 280 have a later effect? Do programming languages teach us to communicate in different ways (look for an upcoming post on this)? How do we optimize our language as technology to distant parts of the world?
 
Perhaps the reminder that language is born out of the need for relationship can guide these questions. How can we use emerging languages toward the goal of real relationship? Do some tools obscure or even prevent connecting with other people? Do others enhance intimacy or make new options possible?
 
I couldn’t order a sandwich in the UK or lemonade in Paris. And the opportunity for any kind of a relational connection dissolved. Could technology have helped? Or would it have made things worse?
 
We have a lot of questions to consider. Let’s talk.
Paul Taylor

Father to five; husband to one; helping Christians engage thoughtfully as they follow Jesus Christ.

Pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, CA since 2007. Graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for Oracle Corporation as a Senior Product Manager designing software solutions.

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[…] a previous post, we saw how language become man’s first technology. Adam named the animals, giving meaning to words and creating the possibility for relationship. […]