James Hoscyns, Oct. 13, 2014
creating the old & borrowing the new
Language is undeniably an important facet of spiritual practice. As an aspect of simple communication, it lets us convey our beliefs to others. We raise words up to the divine through the shaping of intent and the molding of prayer. We lurk on web forums and set fire to the comment sections in defense and make war with trolls. No matter what, we are surrounded by and immersed in language at every point. Despite this envelopment, or perhaps because of it, I’ve noticed two particular questions on the importance of language in spiritual practice tend to be met by universal pauses. The first is “why is it important?” and the second is “how is it important?”
Language is complicated. Language is big. And it connects us to something larger than ourselves, and even larger then. Languages old and new alike serve to connect us to the spiritual genetics of the gods we worship, connecting us with the people and places that have come before and to those who will yet, and in that way, we identify ourselves as being part of this same spiritual current. Our ethnic and national identity is inconsequential; our biological genetics erode away when we enter into this space where we belong, because we are made to belong there.
Of course, a language itself isn’t always the reason why. For us, Old High German and Latin and Thracian, among many others, are not our native languages, and the reason why becomes the act of acquiring a language itself. Through learning a language, we develop a deeper understanding of our own spiritual practices. In the same vein as crafting our own statuary or writing our own devotional poetry, learning a language of spiritual value itself becomes another way of ‘getting one’s hands dirty’ and doing a work which demonstrates our piety, respect, and love. Is it required? Is it a divine necessity? Not necessarily, but it certainly enriches the experience.
There are limitations to this question, though. ‘Because’ gives away our motivations and our intention, but can fail to recognize that our languages, like our faiths, while informed by the past, are also vibrant traditions that are exceptionally alive right now. So, if I’m an American-born Celtic reconstructionist, shouldn’t I be learning Old Irish instead of spoken dialect-neutral standardized Scottish Gaelic? Well, maybe not…
Language may serve as a timeless highway connecting us to the past and future, but the scenery changes along the way, and language just isn’t the way it used to be, or will yet be. Things change. Constantly. Right now, I fight with different speech registers in my head and avoid all the easy colloquialisms that come first out of my mouth (languages, rawr!), and remain resolute to keep writing in English, despite all the other languages floating around me. Instead, I’m making a choice to write the way I am, because it serves to separate these words I have to say from the words I use when I lament the line at the self-checkout, because this deserves focus and respect, something very much the same as when we use specific languages to serve specific ritual purposes.
We switch forms of our language and the very language itself in order to mark the difference between the spiritual and the mundane. It is an alarm, reminding us that there is a different place to be, a different time to be, and one that reinforces our otherworldliness. This is not the grocery store, after all—this is holiness.
Assuming some givens, that gods = respect and mundane = supermarket, then why use a modern language? A Celtic reconstructionist from anywhere obviously should be using Old Irish, naturally, instead of any of the living Celtic languages, right? A native speaker of Scottish Gaelic, knowledgeable in the modern written form, may not use their regular speech for ritual purposes. It’s too close to the words for the self-checkout, and who wants to sound like that in the presence of gods? But for a native speaker of something else, it isn’t necessarily this way. The ritual use of standard modern Welsh is just as much an acknowledgement that this spiritual current has continued on as it is a sign of respect from someone identifying themselves as belonging. Simply because Middle Welsh doesn’t have a word for ‘computer’ and modern Welsh does (cyfrfiadur, for what it’s worth) is not of and in itself an indicator that a language is inherently any more or less holy or profane than another.
Language is not a single point in space; it writhes its way through the bends of time just as we do, conforming to fit at one period and bursting through its containment at others. The names of languages and the words we use change, the ideas we have and the ways we view and express them change, just as the historicity of names and words themselves do, but we continue to use them in every way we can: uninterrupted and heavily changed, frozen in time with no new speakers; others are resurrected, some forgotten, some borrowed, some blue. This is how we go about creating the old and borrowing the new. It is our fundamental method of demonstrating our capacity to form self-identity and connections. Language is a ritual tool, used properly and with respect, through which our individual selves fit into a community, both human and divine.
James Hoscyns is a former recovering child prodigy and professional translator and language teacher who can be found at www.hoscyns.org. He lives in Seattle where he prefers his coffee hot and his rain falling.