The Death of Words, the Old Testament, and the Great Books (Explorations in the Art of Grammar Series #2)

In the previous post in this series, I considered how vocabulary and prior content knowledge could perhaps play a significant role in reading comprehension and understanding. In the final paragraph I wrote:

Unfortunately, fewer and fewer students are taught the languages in which the Great Books are written, and not many more are taught the vocabulary they will encounter even in translations of these Great Books. The combination of a lack of vocabulary and background/historical context is perhaps the greatest reason why the Greatest of Books, the Bible, is read less and less. 

“Words in Context” by Kyle Rapinchuk

In his excellent work The Old Testament is Dying, Brent Strawn considers some of these similar ideas. In Strawn’s book, he explores the analogy that “the Old Testament is (like) a language” (Strawn, 6). I will try to summarize briefly, but his discussion, while difficult and lengthy, is well worth the effort to wrestle with and I highly recommend it. Strawn writes:

“What I mean by this linguistic analogy, then, is that the Old Testament, like any other piece of literature or art—like any other way of figuring the world—is, or at least can be, a way of constructing reality, a way of understanding the world, a way of perceiving all that is, including ourselves. Just as a language—preverbal, nonverbal, and verbal—allows us to make sense of the world and ourselves, the Old Testament provides (or can provide) a kind of grammar for constructing, perceiving, and understanding the same.”[1]

Brent Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying, 8

He subsequently shows how the Old Testament, like a language, does in fact do each of these things that a language does and therefore can serve as a helpful analogy. In light of this connection, Strawn goes on to consider why and how languages die. Again, his discussion is worth the effort to read, but in short he discusses how a language is considered dead when it has no native speakers. This phenomenon arises in a number of ways, but it typically results from pidginization and creolization. Pidgin languages “can be described as greatly abbreviated languages that facilitate the bare minimum of communication needs between people who do not share a common language but who must nevertheless interact for some reason—trade, for instance, or residence in highly traveled areas, military defeat, colonization, or, our particular cultural word-slayer, social media. Pidgins are, therefore, contact languages.”[2] The two languages do not mix equally, such that the dominant language (superstrate) may retain more of the vocabulary and form of the original than the less dominant (substrate) language. Nevertheless, the pidgin that results is becoming something different than the original of either.

As needs continue to arise, and the circumstances that led to the pidgin in the first place become more pressing, “it is not difficult to see that, with enough time, enough speakers, and enough expansion, a pidgin could become the dominant, if not only, language of a people group or area.”[3] When a pidgin reaches the point of becoming the dominant language, it becomes a creole language, which John Holm defines as having “a jargon or a pidgin in its ancestry; it is spoken natively by an entire speech community, often one whose ancestors were displaced geographically so that their ties with their original language and sociocultural identity were partly broken.”[4] At this stage, we no longer have the same language—and this signals the end, in many cases of the original language or languages. “In terms of language death,” Strawn writes, “the most telling and deadly of these—indeed the moment that eventually produces the situation where only one speaker survives—is when a generation of speakers stops communicating its language on a regular basis to its children. At this crucial juncture the language is no longer a productive, spoken language.”[5]

These reflections lead Strawn to argue that the Old Testament’s revival requires educating our children. One of the obvious reasons for the death of the Old Testament, as we have already discussed, is that most only know a pidginized, then later creolized, form of it. This sad condition can easily be explained, however, and it relates to our failures to educate. Using the analogy of a language, again, we know that children learn language in a variety of ways, but they usually start by speaking in some kind of pidginized form. For example, Strawn uses the example of the child’s phrase “Go car” as a substitute for the full sentence, “Yes, daddy is going in the car.”[6] Children begin with a kind of pidginized language that helps them communicate in the moment, but we are certainly not content to let them stay there. A teenager who goes to a job interview and explains that he will get to work by “go car” will probably not get the job. Instead, the pidginized form is useful insofar as it permits communication that leads to deeper understanding and use of the language later on. With respect to the Old Testament, however, most children never moved beyond the moralistic, Old Testament story pidgin they are taught. Abraham had faith, so you have faith, too. Noah was righteous, so you be righteous, too. Daniel had courage, so you have courage, too. These are intelligible utterances about the Old Testament only insofar as they lead to deeper understanding and use of the “language” later on. Unfortunately, because the Old Testament is not taught in terms beyond this pidgin, children are becoming young adults who become adults who become parents of children, and these new parents no longer know the language and therefore don’t speak in that language at home. And when a language is not learned in the home as a first language (L1) it rapidly dies.

The most strategic way to save the Old Testament, therefore, also happens to be the most biblically responsible way to disciple: teach our children! There are still those who know the language of the Old Testament, and they need to be teaching this language to the next generation of children, as well as teaching the next generation of parents about the language of the Old Testament and how to teach their children. If we can once again as a united church teach the Old Testament language as a first language, we can recapture the Old Testament as Christian Scripture and revive it as a learned, spoken, and lived language, and this recapturing and reviving will, I think, revive the hearts and minds of those of the Church of any age.

I think this is true of truth, goodness, beauty, justice, and the rest of the Great Ideas, moral virtues, and knowledge as well. And these Ideas, Virtues, and Transcendent ideals cannot be taught well if we lack the vocabulary and language to do so. Like Strawn warns of the Old Testament, the Great Books and the ideas and virtues preserved within them will die. Hence, in the next couple of weeks we will explore the death of words and what we must do to save words and, if you’ll forgive only a slight hyperbole, save western civilization itself.

Featured Image: Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

[1]Brent Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 8.

[2]Ibid., 62,

[3]Ibid., 64.


[5]Ibid., 69.

[6]Ibid., 168.

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