Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Nuances of the English language

It all started the other day after ESL class, when my brain was still in grammar mode, and I saw my favorite Bible verse on my wall: "Look at the nations and watch, and be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your day that you wouldn't believe, even if you were told." My grammar-focused thoughts were: why does God make a distinction between "look at" and "watch," and why does he tell Habbakkuk to do both? After some careful pondering, I determined that "look at" is a first impression, to notice and acknowledge something... "to watch" demands your full attention and focus on something that is happening. So God wanted Habbakkuk to acknowledge the nations - not ignore them or reject them - and give his full attention to the work God was about to do in them. Should we not continue to live in this command and its promise?

This led me to ponder other pairs of words in the English language that we tend to assume are interchangeable, but are in fact quite distinct and unique in meaning and intent. I have my friend, Brie, to thank for a lot of these revelations, as she popped in tonight to sit and visit with me and this is the conversation we ended up having...

hear/listen to - You may have considered this one before, but consider again how we hear so many things throughout the day, and we have little control over most of what touches our ears. But listening is a conscious decision we make. Like "watching," "listening" takes focus, and when we truly listen, we interact with the sound and the meaning behind the sound. We take it in, and usually we have an emotional response to it.

touch/feel - How many things do we touch throughout the day? And how many of those things have a lasting impact on us? A touch is a momentary thing that does not require or demand an analysis. Yet when we "feel" something, we interact with it and draw conclusions. I feel a sweater and decide if it is scratchy or fluffy, thin or thick, smooth or bumpy. Feeling something takes a little more time and concentration. Even emotionally, when we consider "feelings" we analyze and describe our emotions.

talk/speak - I think this is Brie's and my favorite pair of words. The concept of talking is pretty casual and personal, but speaking... speaking is much weighter. When a person speaks, they are talking with deep intension and purpose, usually to stir others to action or provoke some emotion or change. It is not about "you and me" anymore - it is about something greater than ourselves. In Brie's words, "The universe is involved." Why do we say that we "speak" English? Because it it our intentional mode of communicating with spoken language... I can talk in Burmese and Spanish, but it's just some words that may or may not have purpose or meaning, but because I am not fluent in those languages, I can't express fully the depths of communication - I can't "speak" Burmese or Spanish.

tell/say - This was the most complicated pair for us to figure out. But what we concluded was that when you "say" something, you are inviting a response. Think about how most dialogues in books use "He said... she said..." On the other hand, to "tell" someone something is more of a command or information that does not request or require a response. Of course, we do use this word when relaying some discussions: "She told me... and I told her..." But this sort of discussion tends to be an argument, and that is just two one-sided conversations, neither side requesting the response of the other.

The pattern we see is that one word references our senses - which God gave us and we should not disregard. But our senses are not essential to our communion and relationship with one another. A person can be blind or deaf or paralyzed, and still be able to interact and relate with others. But the sad truth is that people who have perfect 20/20 vision and perfect hearing can go through life without truly seeing or listening. God built into us this capacity for a deeper layer of sensitivity because He designed us for relationship and community.

And one of the great beauties of the Word of God is that it is alive and active, and speaks to that deeper layer of who we are. When we watch and listen, we see his hand move and we sense his heart beat and his voice resonates across time and space and into our very souls.

At the end of the Habbakkuk verse, God says, "you wouldn't believe, even if you were told." Brie pointed out that if we were told what God is about to do among the nations, we would be so in awe, so overwhelmed, that we could not respond. And we don't need to... we only need to look and watch.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely loved your article, especially the ending. I read the whole article but deeply felt the last part. Wonderful job!

    God bless you! :-)