The Importance of Language: How Meaning Changes Everything

written on 21 September 2020 by Boriana Hadjieva

Art by Brandon Heim

It is practically impossible to divorce words from meaning. The very purpose of language is to use abstract, nonsensical sounds for equally abstract, nonsensical ideas, in the hopes that something would come out that makes sense. Language is a flawed, yet necessary part of human life. How else could we best express love or anger, happiness or sadness?

As a bilingual person I also know first hand how much more impactful your mother tongue is when expressing emotions. Saying “I love you” suddenly feels a lot more personal, more intentional. Conversely, being cussed off also sounds like a much more serious attack. “For God so loved the world” hits me differently when I read it in Bulgarian than when I do in English. The depth of love that I experience translates to this passage in a way that cannot be expressed by the number of words, but the quality of sounds used.

Perhaps language isn’t one of the first major issues you think of when someone mentions the Bible. After all, there are dozens of translations in English alone. But language is powerful, and whoever controls language has the power.

But language is powerful, and whoever controls language has the power.

There are many occasions in history when the church’s overzealous pursuit of preserving God’s word has led to more harm than its intended good. Reaching as far back as the 9th century, the church felt that the purity of Scripture was so integral to faith that they were afraid of recording the Bible in any language other than Latin. The ‘unmediated’ word of God was too much to be carried through translation.

But what of the people who were not in the aristocracy and did not understand any Latin? The Bible had invariably become a status symbol, linked to class, education, even nationality. And in an ironic twist of fate, the message to “go and make disciples of all nations” had been diluted while they attempted to keep the gospel pure! People cannot be made disciples if they cannot understand, connect, and engage with the message they are following.

In 21st century Western Europe, I cannot even begin to fathom not being able to read the Bible in my own language. This is a privilege I cannot take lightly. But at the same time, it’s important to be aware how similar dangers creep up in many international circles. We may not be zealously citing Scripture in Latin, but in our attempt to understand each other easily, most often in English, we tend to forget that the beauty of the gospel is revealed in a multitude of languages.

When I went to the Christian Union in my English speaking high school, I often felt a disconnect from the lyrics during our worship time. At the same time, the thought of worshipping differently was such a foreign concept to everyone else, that my desire to connect to God through my own language left me feeling alienated. While there is room for grace if you don’t understand this experience, we need to be constantly reminded of our call for a global church. The gospel does not get lost in translation. Multilingualism reveals and honours God’s diversity in creation.

The gospel does not get lost in translation.

The power of God’s word lies in our personal connection with Him, and if language helps us to emotionally connect to a message, then diversity in languages should be an intimately Christian concern. Language is power. Although God’s strength transcends all human might, He nevertheless mediates through it.