There are very few books that I look forward to reading. I mean really look forward to, like the way a tweenie looks forward to the next Twilight. Though not so much interested in adolescent vampire fiction there was one book published at the end of last year that I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into: Vern Poythress’ In the Beginning Was the Word: A God-Centered Approach to Language. (You can grab a free PDF of the entire book through Poythress’ site.)
Having come through the undergraduate linguistics program of a state school I can tell you that the last thing you’re going to hear in any linguistics classroom is a God-centered approach to language. The only mention of God you’re likely to hear is a confused reference to Genesis 11 and the tower of Babel. Linguistics is very much a natural science.
This is why I greatly anticipated Poythress’ work. If well-done, this book could be a valuable contribution to the field of linguistics and give voice to an alternative viewpoint that’s all too often not even considered. A God-centered approach to language makes sense given that the universe itself is God-centered, something most Christians will willingly concede over against a strictly naturalistic cosmology. Also, there’s a certain apologetic force to a God-centered approach to language that could really put a pebble in the shoe of the relatively unchallenged notion that language is the happy result of evolutionary processes. Yes, there is something inexplicably preternatural about language that points to the triune God.
Poythress in In the Beginning Was the Word, however, fails to harness the full force of the sleeping beast on which he rides. All in all I was greatly disappointed by In the Beginning Was the Word and would be surprised to find it having a lasting impression on the field of linguistics outside of Christian circles and even within. We need a book like this, but we need it to do more, and to do it more convincingly.
In the Beginning Was the Word
First, I was disappointed that in the book Poythress fails to interact with contemporary linguists and linguistic theory, not merely because this is the kind of thing that good scholars do, but more so because I believe there’s much in contemporary linguistics that could be used to bolster support for Poythress’ argument that a divine origin of language has more explanatory power than the strictly naturalistic explanations that prevail today. It should go without saying that a book published today on language should interact with Chomskyian linguistics, especially a work that bears much in common with and could find much support from his nativist approach to language. Chomsky has been called a “closet creationist” for instance. Steven Pinker in his The Language Instinct has to go to some surprising lengths to try to convince his readers that universal grammar is still compatible with the theory of evolution and that people needn’t run hastily to God for answers. This seems like an appropriate place for someone like Poythress to step into the discussion and proffer God. Instead, In the Beginning Was the Word strips itself of much of its potential power by not taking a broader look at what a God-centered approach language entails. Poythress commendably reasons from the Scriptures but in only doing so he fails to employ all available arguments for a God-centered approach to language. So much more could be said that the book’s almost a frustrating read.
Secondly, prior to reading I had in mind to offer the book as a giveaway at a linguistics meeting on campus I was planning and even possibly to send a copy to one of my old college linguistics professors. After reading, I felt uneasy doing so and thereby endorsing the book for the simple reason that the argumentation within is incredibly weak. For example, consider the analogies Poythress attempts to draw between language and the triune God in order to establish the thesis that a biblically-faithful approach to language will start with communication between the persons of the trinity:
Let us now focus on the character of the rules of language. They reveal God in some striking ways.
First, the rules of English hold wherever English is spoken…Spoken English, and human knowledge of English, are not omnipresent. But the rules are.[1. Vern Sheridan Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word: A God-Centered Approach to Language (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 64-65.]
In the above language is thought to reveal God on the following logic: God is omnipresent. Rules of language can be thought of as omnipresent. Rules of language therefore reveal God. I don’t find this as striking as the author does. It could be argued on this thinking that whatever is omnipresent “reveals God.” Seems like a stretch to me.
The author continues this way showing rules of language to be omnipresent, eternal, immutable, invisible (“We do not literally see the rule that ‘moved’ is the past tense of ‘move.’ We see and hear only the effects of the rule on our use of language. The rule is essentially immaterial and invisible . . . Likewise, God is essentially immaterial and invisible, but is known through his acts in the world.”[2. Ibid., 68.]), truthful (“Real rules, as opposed to linguists’ approximations of them, are also absolutely, infallibly true. Truthfulness is also an attribute of God.”[3. Ibid., 69.]), powerful, immanent and transcendent, rational, good, and beautiful.
Then watch his conclusion to this chapter:
“Rules for language are a form of the word of God. So they reflect the Trinitarian statement of John 1:1, which identifies the second person of the Trinity as the eternal Word. . . .
Man is made in the image of God, and so his language is in the image of God. And so his language reflects the Trinitarian pattern.”[4. Ibid., 77.]
I find this argument very unsatisfying for two reasons: (1) again it seems like a stretch and (2) so what? What’s the importance? It seems to me to belabor the thesis to multiple evidences by stretching analogies. The thesis is straightforward enough that in my mind little is gained by the above evidences.
Third, I have a very hard time swallowing many basic statements in the book that attribute to God everything from etymology to grammar to the correspondence between the signified (a dog) and the signifier (“dog”). Are we only able to trust language if we endow words with a logical, God-established connection to the thing for which they stand? I think not. Again, I see little gained when Poythress asserts that God has designed the contemporary English word “dog” to represent perfectly the idea of a dog. I see no need to be this specific in a God-centered approach to language, especially on a matter on which we cannot be certain (regardless of the view of divine providence one subscribes to). I see no damage done to a God-centered approach to language by granting the abstract relationship between words and concepts.
Additionally, denying the abstract relationship between what we call a dog and the English word “dog” flies in the face of every and any linguistics book you’re likely to come across. Fair enough they are not working from a God-centered approach to language, but I’ve yet to come across any linguist finding rational links between signifier and signified (the small number of onomatopoeia excepted of course), something one would expect if indeed God has linked them together on rational grounds. Therein would lie great apologetic force if such a link could be observed. We must, however, look elsewhere for hints of God in language.
Seventy-five percent of the book is only tangentially related to language or linguistics. Of the six parts, the book could conceivably be condensed down to the first section (pp. 1-78), the sixth section (pp. 289-297) and the appendices. The rest is largely unnecessary, especially part two.
I hope I have not been too harsh in offering my thoughts on In the Beginning Was the Word. If I am wrong or misinformed or misguided on any of the above, I will gladly and humbly lend my ear to the many whose understanding on the subject surpasses my own. As I have not come across any reviews of the work I hoped to present my thoughts in order to offer some follow up to the hype the book enjoyed in the weeks leading up to its publication. Finally, if I come across as harsh, it’s only because I had high expectations for this work.
Call for Review
In the interest of fairness I want to do something a bit different. If you are a linguist and have not read In the Beginning Was the Word and would like to read it and review it, I will send you my copy for free. You must only agree to read it, review it, and have your review published on my blog. Easy enough, right? But, if you’re a linguist and you’ve already read it, I’m still interested in your thoughts and/or review, although nothing free for you.