The Secret to a Pure Language

I love words.

That’s a good thing for a writer to be able to say, but what I mean is, I love what you can do with words.

Here’s an example. If I told you, “Hank gave me five dollars,” what information would that give you? Well, you’d know that someone named Hank had five dollars and then gave it to me.

But what happens if I start putting emphasis on different words? If I say, “Hank gave me five dollars,” suddenly there’s a lot more information in that sentence. I’m telling you that what I consider noteworthy is the person who gave me the money. Is it because he’s stingy? Is it because I was expecting the five dollars to come through someone else? You’d need a little more context to be sure, but you know I’m pointing your attention in a certain direction.

If I tell you, “Hank gave me five dollars,” you might surmise that I’m shocked Hank willingly parted with his money. Or if I say, “Hank gave me five dollars,” maybe the point of the sentence is to highlight that Hank didn’t give you five dollars. I can do that with every word in that sentence, and it changes the message every time.

Then there’s punctuation. “Hank gave me five dollars?” is a totally different sentiment than, “Hank gave me five dollars!” And if I add in quotation marks, I can tell you that the words I’m using don’t actually convey the whole picture. “Hank ‘gave’ me five dollars” implies that the money was really a loan and not a gift, or else it came with some unwelcome terms and conditions.

With just those five different words, depending on how you mix and match punctuation and emphasis, I count at least 33 unique messages you can communicate:

* * *

But there’s more to language than Hank and his five dollars. Sometimes, like with Hank, we can use words to communicate even more than we’re actually saying, but other times, it turns out the words we’re looking for… just aren’t there. When that happens, we run into something called “lexical gaps”—words that could exist in our language, but don’t.

Let me paint you a scene. You’re in a cozy little cabin in Colorado. You’re in a chair, comfortably wrapped in a blanket, sipping hot cocoa and staring out the window as snow gently drifts through the frosty, moonlit air.

What’s going on outside is beautiful, absolutely gorgeous. But you don’t want to be out in it. What do you call it?

There isn’t a word for it in English, but you probably know that feeling I’m describing. It’s a concept, it’s a thing, that we lack a word to properly describe. In English, it’s a lexical gap.

But not in Icelandic. In Iceland, they have a word for it. Gluggaveður. It roughly translates to “window-weather”—any kind of weather that’s beautiful to look at through a window, but miserable to be out in.

Other languages are great for showing us are lexical gaps. What do you call an overly-inquisitive person who asks too many question? In English, we’d call him… “an overly-inquisitive person who asks too many questions.” In Russian, you’d just call him a pochemuchka.

What about when your teeth start chattering uncontrollably, either because of the cold or out of anger? The Perisans have a word for it: zhaghzhagh.

When you run your hand through the hair of someone you love, the Portuguese call that cafuné.

And then there are big, complicated feelings. Like longing to return home, but knowing it’s impossible, because your memory of home isn’t the home that exists in reality—or maybe it never really existed at all. The Welsh call that hiraeth.

* * *

Like I said. I love words. So it shouldn’t surprise you that, for a long time, I’ve been fascinated by the prophecy in Zephaniah where God promises to “restore to the peoples a pure language” (Zephaniah 3:9).

I find the idea of a pure language intriguing.

What does that mean? How would it work?

We just explored a handful of things that words can do, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. With the right words in the right combination, you can encourage someone, make them laugh, offer them a new perspective, help them understand something confusing, repair a relationship, and inspire them to overcome tremendous odds.

But there’s a dark side to words. With the wrong words in the wrong combination, you can verbally assault someone, bring them to tears, entice them to sin, burn bridges, misrepresent the truth, and ruin their future.

For a long time, I’ve wondered how a pure language would fix those problems. I’ve heard people theorize that God will give us all a language with no bad words in it—with no way to say bad things.

It’s a nice idea, but I’ll say this: Anyone who thinks you need bad words to say bad things has never been a boy in middle school.

I promise you, it is possible to say terrible, awful things without ever using a taboo word. I mean, I just made Hank sound stingy and tight-fisted without using either of those words, and I wasn’t even really trying to. Imagine the damage someone with an agenda could do, even with those restrictions.

How will this pure language deal with things like innuendo and euphemisms? Or what’s to stop someone from just… adding a bad word? Because that’s the thing about language. It evolves. It changes over time. English has its roots in Old English, which people stopped speaking about a thousand years ago. That evolved into Middle English, then Early Modern English, then our own Late Modern English, which itself is over 200 years old.

Look up the original text of Beowulf sometime, and you’ll discover a version of English with incomprehensible words and a handful of letters we don’t even use anymore (“Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, / þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, / hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon”). Crack open Geoffrey Chaucer’s the Canterbury Tales and you can probably make sense of most of the words, although it’ll take some work (“To telle yow al the condicioun, / Of ech of hem, so as it semed me, / And whiche they weren, and of what degree”). By the time we get to Shakespeare, the words are much more familiar, if a bit more formal-sounding than we’re inclined to speak today (“Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean”).

Words change. Meanings change. Even letters change.

To keep a pure language pure, God would have to put some kind of supernatural boundary on the way language works. He’d have to stop it from changing and evolving the way it has for thousands of years of human history.

Can He do that? Absolutely. He’s God. That’s entirely within His capability. But I think, when we inspect the Bible a little closer, we’ll discover that the real secret to a pure language is a little more elegant than that.

* * *

When God talks about a pure language in the book of Zephaniah, the Hebrew word translated “language” is saphah, and it means “lip.” Sometimes in the Bible, “lip” is a stand-in for “language.” When God confused the language of Babel, the literal translation is that He confused their lips. So here, in Zephaniah, many English translations talk about a pure language.

But here’s where things get interesting. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges says, “The term lip often means ‘language’ (Genesis 11:1), but here it seems rather to denote the organ of speech.” The Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament agrees: “Lip does not stand for language, but is mentioned as the organ of speech.”

When God first called the prophet Isaiah, what was Isaiah’s response? Do you remember? He said, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).

Isaiah and his countrymen spoke Hebrew. Was that the problem? No—they weren’t the people of an unclean language. They were the people of unclean lips. The problem was with the kinds of things that were coming out of their mouths—not the language itself, but the thoughts, the ideas, and the expressions.

In other words, this verse in Zephaniah is not necessarily a prophecy about God providing the world with a brand new language, but a prophecy about how God will change the way we use our words in the first place.

Jesus told the Pharisees, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things” (Matthew 12:33-35).

Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. If we want to change what comes out of our lips, we have to start by changing what’s in our hearts. That’s something God helps us to do as we seek Him, repent of our sins, and strive to emulate His perfect character. The more our hearts are in line with God’s heart, the fewer impure things we’ll have trying to scoot their way out of our lips.

There’s another prophecy I want to take a quick look at, this time in Hosea. God is talking about Israel as His unfaithful wife, who ran off to commit harlotry with the Baals—false gods of the surrounding nations:

Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
Will bring her into the wilderness,
And speak comfort to her.
I will give her her vineyards from there,
And the Valley of Achor as a door of hope;
She shall sing there,
As in the days of her youth,
As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.
“And it shall be, in that day,”
Says the LORD,
“That you will call Me ‘My Husband,’ [Ishi]
And no longer call Me ‘My Master,’ [Baali]
For I will take from her mouth the names of the Baals,
And they shall be remembered by their name no more.”

(Hosea 2:14-17)

* * *

When the true God takes the names of the false gods from the mouths of His people, He’s not going to just supernaturally stop them from talking about false gods. He’s going to remove the false idea of who He is—the false idea spread by Satan—and replace it with the truth. The change in their mouths will begin with a change in their hearts.

Which brings us to the scripture that started this whole thing: “For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language”—why?—”that they all may call on the name of the LORD, to serve Him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9).

The whole point of the pure language—the pure lip—is to bring us all into unity with God. We can’t serve God when our heart is wrong, and when our heart is wrong, that’s going to have an impact on what comes out of our mouths.

As Christians, we shouldn’t be waiting for God to divinely impose a pure language on us. The time for a pure language—a pure lip—is now, and it has to begin with our hearts.

(Oh, and Hank, if you’re out there, reading this…

…you still owe me five bucks, man.)

Until next time,

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