It is the glory of the Lord to conceal things.Proverbs 25:2
One of my all-time favorite movies is Arrival where a renowned linguist is called upon to figure out how to communicate with aliens (who don’t have mouths…). I love this movie because I now have a point of reference to describe my work to people: “What I do is like what the linguist in Arrival does except that it takes a lot longer and we work with humans, not aliens.” People seem to get that.
And, within the movie, my absolute favorite part, which totally describes how I feel every day on the mission field is when the government agent walked into the linguist’s office with a tape recorder. He sits down and plays sounds that are totally incomprehensible and asks her to translate it. Her deer-in-the-headlights look is my life.
Swimming in Linguistic Theories
This past semester my husband and I took a class called Advanced Grammar and found ourselves burning the midnight oil over books describing this linguistic theory or that. An overarching goal that we found in some of the literature was to come up with a “Universal Grammar” that could account for every system of grammar of every language in the world (close to 7,000!).
We spent hours unlearning how we were taught to diagram sentences (or more precisely, draw trees) in Intro to Grammar in order to learn how to diagram sentences within the framework of the newest theory. The goal is essentially to come up with the perfect tree that could be used to diagram any sentence in the world’s languages.
I had to ask myself if I would have to unlearn this newest, greatest way to diagram on our next furlough in order to adopt a better theory.
The Blurred Line between Scientific Theory and Makin’ Stuff Up
In reading all these newest and greatest theories, my husband would often say, “They’re just makin’ stuff up.” And, in a sense he is right. Linguistics can be defined as the scientific study of language. What we do is: observe, then make theories based on what we observe, and then test these theories with a native speaker. After that we revise our theories based on the response of the native speaker. It is cycle that we do over and over again as we seek to come to an understanding of the structure of the language. We have been told by some professors that we will do this for the rest of our lives as our understanding of the language grows and grows.
A hypothesis is an educated guess, but it is still a guess nonetheless. At some point a linguist has to say, “Hmm…maybe this verb construction is indicating…past continuous action?!” This proposition is based on years of in-class, then in-the-field study, but, at the end of the day, it is still just an educated guess.
One professor told us a story of how a linguist was able to formalize a particular language in the model of his day (which is no small feat). He sat his language partner down and showed him how the sentence is diagrammed. Then, he continued, when the sentence is turned into a question, one particular word is moved here or there. The language partner listened quietly and then, when the linguist was done, said, “Very interesting, but there is no way that any of that is true.” A theory and structure of understanding a language that was accepted without question in the mind of the linguist was totally rejected by the native speaker. Interesting.
A Call for Humility
After getting my feet a bit wet in the scientific community (by analyzing what is heard as opposed to what is seen, touched, smelled, etc), I am all the more baffled that people place so much faith in Science. Science is almost personified as this all-seeing, all-knowing force that is able to explain everything about life. What I think it really is is a bunch of humans thinking long and hard about what can be observed and then coming up with theories about what is unseen.
As linguists, we write down what can be heard and then theorize as to what rules might govern the forms that we find. Other scientists observe what is seen and then make theories, based on what is seen, as to what cannot be seen (i.e. we see the Earth and then make theories as to how it came about). What we all (mostly) agree on is what is perceivable in the here and now: “I heard a ‘g’ and so did my partner.” But what is most difficult to prove is why, in this situation, he produced a ‘g’ and not some other consonant. It is through theory and speculation that we write our theses and dissertations regarding the unseen (or unheard).
But God does not have to make educated guesses. He knows everything. Linguists are not the makers of language. God is. He made thousands of languages in a matter of seconds and he understands every conversation that is spoken in every language all over the world. Some of the brightest linguists speak maybe 6 languages, which may seem impressive…until you compare that linguist to God who speaks 7,000 of them. Studying language should lead to a great humility before the brilliance of God, not arrogant pride.
Linguistics, and the discipline of Science in general, is simply a tool that opens our eyes to the wonder of God’s creation. His creation is fashioned with such brilliance that I am sure I will not be able to plumb the depths of the intelligence of just one language within my lifetime.
Learning and studying languages is meant to show us that we are but creatures at the mercy of our Creator. We are not the creators of language and we do not hold them together. It is Jesus who does that, as it says in Colossians 1:16-17:
…by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
I think those in the scientific community should be the humblest people in all the world because they study the brilliance of God day-in and day-out. They study how God pieced together the human body, how he made fish with flashlights on their heads, and how he made some languages where the pitch of one’s voice changes meaning of words. Instead, I fear that those within the scientific community compare their “vast” knowledge to those outside of their discipline and develop a sense of pride. What we should be doing is looking at the vastness of our field of study and admit that we will only scratch the surface in our analysis and understanding of one of many of God’s creations within our lifetime.
And so, to those in the scientific community, may the magnificence of what you study humble you. And may you be honest about what you do not know. Giving the impression of omniscience is deceptive. And to those who place their trust in Science, know that what you put your faith in is a theory that is here one day and gone tomorrow. Put your hope instead in Jesus who is the one who created everything and who holds everything together.