by Christine Sine
Yesterday, my morning contemplation was derailed by a book… and a novel at that. It is called The Dictionary of Lost Words, and tells the story of Esme whose father is one of a group of lexicographers who are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. One day, as Esme sits under the table where they work, a word flutters to the ground. She rescues it, discovering that the word means slave girl and so begins a delightful adventure in which the rescuing of words becomes the center of Esme’s life. She realizes that the words and meaning relating to the lives of women and ordinary peoples’ experiences were often deliberately ignored by this and subsequent groups of dictionary men who consciously or unconsciously worked to shape the dictionary based on their own view of the world.
So, Esme complies her own dictionary – The Dictionary of Lost Words, a title and a story that deeply impacted me. A couple of years ago, I read another fascinating book, Landmarks by Robert McFarlane. He, too, was a gatherer of lost words, mainly, words about nature. He, too, discovered that when the Junior Oxford Dictionary, was updated a few years ago, some words were deliberately removed and others added. All those removed had to do with nature, and those added were about technology. He talked about how our loss of descriptive words for nature meant that we are losing “a literacy of the land” and, as a result, see nature more as a thing that does something for us rather than something to us so it easily becomes “more vulnerable to unwise use and improper action.” Our selective use of language, he argues, has “stunned the world out of wonder”.
As I thought about this yesterday, I was reminded that throughout history we have deliberately “lost” words and languages as an intentional way to suppress cultures and races. Terrible, you might think, but we all consciously or unconsciously “lose” words so that the world around us reflects our own world view or so that we can fit into the worldview of those in power over us. We consciously or unconsciously judge people accordingly. We love that English has become a universal language, but rarely think about the impact on other languages and their cultures. Even the English that is acceptable is shaped by those in power, once by Britain and now by America, and by white America, at that. That is the English we view as superior, we teach it at school, and we expect people to speak it in order to get a high paying job.
I must confess that when I first travelled to non-English speaking countries, I was relieved that I did not need to learn another language. I could easily and lazily communicate, unconsciously communicating my superiority to those around me. Even the English I used, grounded in a university education, was more complex and difficult to understand than what some of my colleagues used. Changing my language so that others understood me was called “dumbing down” the language. I was definitely superior. My use of words said so.
Christian world views, too, are defined by language. In conservative circles, one only calls God, Father. In more progressive circles, one calls God everything but Father. All of us, I feel, have lost the rich array of words we could embrace to describe the Creator of the universe.
Love Your Neighbour – Create A New Dictionary of Lost Words
Has it ever occurred to you that loving your neighbour could mean loving their language as you love your own? Could loving your neighbour mean helping them rediscover their own language with pride?
Imagine how fun it could be to create a new dictionary of lost words, one that helps all of us keep cultures and nature alive and vital. Maybe one of the spiritual practices we all need for the future is to rediscover a lost word each day and then use it at least 5 times each day for the next week. Or we could help someone else rediscover a word that our superior attitude towards them has forced them to discard from their language. The challenge would be learning how to adopt that word into our own vocabulary without making our friend feel put down or ridiculed. Wow this dictionary of lost words could be quite a challenge.
Here are a few prayerful exercises for you to consider over the next week:
- Make a list of 10 words you used as a child but have lost from your current vocabulary. Which ones would you like to transform into “found” words? What is one step you could take to make that happen?
- When I left Australia and settled in the U.S I had to lose some of my favourite words like “fair dinkum, G day and arvo. Talk to a friend from another English speaking culture. What are words they have lost in order to fit into your culture? In what ways could you help them embrace these words again?
- If you are white, talk to a black friend. What are words they have had to lose from their vocabulary in order to feel accepted in white society and be able to get a job? How has this made them feel? How could you learn from them about how to reintegrate these words into not just their culture but into your’s as well? If you are black you might like to have this conversation with a white friend and help them to understand what you have had to give up in order to fit into white society.
- In your Christian worldview what are the acceptable words for God? Speak to a friend with another Christian perspective. Make a list of 10 words that are acceptable to them that have been “lost” from your Christian world view. What do you feel you have lost by not using these words? Choose 2 of these words. What are ways that you could comfortably reintroduce these words into your language?