The way words are used in Western societies today should give serious concern to every responsible citizen.
An Address by Professor Barry Spurr at Formal Hall, Campion College, on Monday 3 September.
The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, said that ‘words alone are certain good’.
I want us to think for a few minutes this evening about words and language. At the beginning of the human story, so the prologue to St John’s Gospel tells us, there was the word. This is a translation, as I’m sure you know, of the Greek term, logos, which means more than simply the word or words in terms of vocabulary, but refers also to reason and thought, as well as to speech. Yet we notice the primacy and priority given to the idea of the word there, however broadly interpreted: ‘In the beginning was the word…’ and, further, the word was with the Creator God and, climactically, the Word was God. No-one can doubt the importance of words in the Christian story, nor, for that matter, in the Jewish and Muslim stories. All, with their different beliefs, are peoples of the book and, so, of words. The Bible at large, revered as the Word of God, is presented to English monarchs during the ancient coronation ceremony, which, in its most recent form, followed the accession of Her Majesty the Queen sixty years ago, and at that ceremonial presentation the Book of the Scriptures is described as ‘the most valuable thing this world affords. Here is wisdom. This is the Royal Law. These are the lively oracles of God.’ At Mass, the ceremony of kissing the Missal at the conclusion of saying or singing the Gospel at the beginning of the passage that had been read or sung is another ceremonial sign of the veneration of the words of the Scriptures. There is much self-referential commentary on words, speech and language in the great linguistic code of the Bible itself. And so many of the profound occasions in its narrative turn pointedly and precisely on words and their meanings, and their formidable implications. At the Annunciation, for example, Mary responds to the angelic salutation by being ‘troubled’ at the angel’s ‘saying’, ‘and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be’. It is not the only time where we find Mary pondering words and their meanings. Also memorable is the rhetorical statement of Simon Peter (speaking for all the disciples) who says to Jesus (so John’s Gospel records), ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life’.
Words define and express who we are, what we are and what we think, believe and feel as human beings.
Words define and express who we are, what we are and what we think, believe and feel as human beings. They should not only be cherished, therefore, but they should be used accurately, carefully, wisely and beautifully.
It was edifying to read the biography of our most recently appointed justice of the High Court, Stephen Gageler, the son of a hairdresser and a sawmill worker, who was elevated to the bench a fortnight ago. His mother recalled that, as a teenager, her son ‘loved to take the Reader’s Digest and find a new word and use it all the time for a week or two until he managed to fit it into different contexts’. No doubt this dedication to words, springing from a love of them – in his mother’s phrase – has stood him in good stead in his studies and practice of the law and has played a significant part in his elevation, now, to the nation’s highest court.
More than ever we need such philologists in our society. A philologist is, from the Greek, a lover of the word and all students of the Humanities, as we all are here, tonight – and you never cease to be a student of the Humanities, no matter how many degrees or diplomas you may acquire, throughout your life – should be philologists. One is always learning more about the riches of language and its inexhaustible ability to express our humanity and our response to and evaluation of our human experience, in all its variety.