In this tenth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the shape of letters in the alphabet and how this can be used to make word connections. Just as the order of letters was borrowed in part from Egyptian hieroglyphs, so the shape of some of our capital letters was taken from here. This video focuses on the similarity between lower-case letters, which can be turned back to front, upside down, or continued. This enables us to make connections between birth and death, the Old and New Testaments, opposites such as “north” and “south” or “east” and “west”, and love and money. Language is full of information, words carry spiritual meaning, we only have to have “eyes” to “see” it.
In this ninth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the order of letters in the alphabet and how this can be used to make word connections. It was foreign workers in Egypt in the second millennium BC who came up with the idea of using not hieroglyphs for writing (hieroglyphs represented words or syllables), but letters that represented individual sounds, a much more cost-effective way of writing, since you only need 20-30 letters to write down the different words, but hundreds of hieroglyphs. This idea was taken on by the Phoenicians, the traders of the ancient world, from where it passed to Greece and Rome, becoming the Latin alphabet we use today.
In this fourth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the twenty-six letters that make up the Latin alphabet as it is used in English – h, five vowels, three semi-vowels, fourteen consonants, and three “redundant” letters (c, q and x) – and sees how these letters are used to represent the three elements of speech which are also the three elements of creation: breath, water, and flesh.
Having looked at the line, which represents the ego in English (I) and the number 1, in this second video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the three ways of moving away from the line – the triangle, the cross and the circle. Truth is paradoxical, so while a cross represents suffering, it is also a plus-sign. This is the meaning of Christ’s injunction to lose our life in order to find it.
In the first two parts of this short course in English, we have seen how word connections – connections that reveal the hidden meaning inside the words we use every day – can be made by keeping the letters in the same order, by rearranging the letters, by replacing the vowels i and u with the corresponding semi-vowels j/y and w, by using the fact that the letter c can be pronounced either k or s, by making changes to the vowels according to where they are pronounced in the mouth (for example, a-e, e-i) and by making changes to the consonants, again according to where they are pronounced in the mouth (the seven phonetic pairs – especially d-t and l-r – and b-v-w).
We are now going to look at changes made to letters according to their position in the alphabet and according to their appearance. In the fourth and last part, we will look at the addition of letters. The important thing to remember is that we must continue to apply the rules we have learned – word connections often involve several changes, not just one, so we may have to change a vowel and take a step in the alphabet, or change a consonant and a letter according to its appearance. The most important changes are those made to the consonants – the seven phonetic pairs and b-v-w. Then come the changes made to letters according to the alphabet and their appearance. Vowels flow, they change easily (in some languages they are not even written down). We may need to double a letter. And we may understand i-j/y, u-w and c-k/s to be interchangeable.
Before we start looking at the alphabet and appearance, here are the words we are going to connect. I have put the changes you need to make in brackets, so have a go at making the word connections. You will need to shuffle the letters and to apply some of the rules we have already studied. There are ten words according to the alphabet:
BIRTH (b-c) COG (c-d) WORLD (d-e)
LEFT (f-g-h) WICKED (k-l) LOSE (l-m, r-s) MUTUAL (l-n)
GRAIN (n-p-s) ERROR (r-s) SHARE (s-t)
and ten words according to appearance (which are written lowercase to make it easier to see the resemblance between the letters):
birth (b-d) cross (c-e) free (f-t)
faith hide mouth (h-n) I’m sane (i-l)
alone (l-t) north (n-u) devil (v-y)
The English alphabet has twenty-six letters. We have already looked at the letters that make up the alphabet. When we change letters according to their position in the alphabet, we take a step forwards or backwards, we turn the dial. It is as if the letters were on reels in a slot machine and they spin. We rotate them, sometimes one notch, sometimes more than one. We saw the examples of GOD and EGO (d-e), FATHER and GATHER (f-g), OTHER and THEOS (r-s). They are like the dates that appear in the little window of a watch. We may make several changes at once: JERUSALEM-JESUS AMEN (l-m, m-n, r-s). We may go in alternate directions, one letter forwards, the other back: MOTHER-HER SON (m-n, s-t). But it is clear to me that the letters in the alphabet are ordered in this way for a reason.
So if we apply the alphabetical pair b-c, we will find that BIRTH gives CHILD (also the phonetic pairs d-t, l-r). And this is true. Birth does give a child. I think of birth as an equation: 1 + 1 = 1. Two bodies come together to make one body. Three people in one. It’s quite a good analogy for the Holy Trinity, for how three can be one. If we apply the phonetic pair b-v-w and add final e, we will see that BIRTH is connected to THRIVE and WRITHE. It is also connected to BRIDE and TRIBE. The first three letters in reverse spell RIB, which is how the first woman was born. And RIB gives RIP (phonetic pair b-p) – the ability to give birth leads to our physical death, but it also gives us the opportunity to have children and to form the body of the Church.
If we apply the alphabetical pair c-d, we find that COG gives GOD. We are cogs in a machine designed by the Creator. Each one of us has his or her particular function. When we work together, everything goes smoothly. When we fight or think only of our own needs, the machine starts to malfunction. What is most remarkable for me, however, is how the Son of God, through whom the world was created – who was outside the world, therefore, as well as in it – deigned to become a cog in that machine so that we could find the way to salvation. God became a cog. He entered his own machine in order to fix it.
WORLD is connected to LOWER. This world is lower than heaven. According to the celestial hierarchy, there are another nine levels above us, rising to God and ending with the seraphim and the cherubim. So it is appropriate that WORLD is LOWER. This reminds me of another two word connections: HEATHEN-NETHER and HEAVEN-NEVER (you have to read the words in reverse). If we are pagan and do not believe in God, but only in the things of this world, we remain here below. Heaven is a kind of Never Never Land, outside time. There is a paradox here – the place it seems we are never going to reach lasts for ever.
We have seen other examples of paradox in Christianity. Opposites are connected. For example, LEFT and RIGHT (take two steps in the alphabet, f-g-h, change the vowel and apply the phonetic pair l-r). Everything is contained in God. Things that seem disconnected are not so far apart.
Remember the connections DIFFER-DEVIL and FATHER-GATHER? It is the devil who would make us differ, who would lead us into STRIFE (the contest to be FIRST). This is why GOD is GOOD and the DEVIL is EVIL (their etymological roots are different, but the words are practically the same). DEVIL is also connected to WICKED by the phonetic pair v-w and the alphabetical pair k-l (the c in wicked is just reinforcing the k).
And here’s another paradox. LOSE gives MORE (alphabetical pairs l-m, r-s). Christ enjoins us to lose our life for his sake, and we have seen how by denying the self and forming a cross – † (the I with a line drawn through it) – we also make a plus-sign. This is how we lose our life in order to find it.
MUTUAL gives AUTUMN. I find this a beautiful connection, but I cannot say quite why. There is something borrowed in autumn, something we must give back, a change taking place between the warmth of summer and the cold of winter. In autumn, the weather can be lovely, a kind of bonus summer – we call it an Indian summer. I have climbed to the Rila Lakes in Bulgaria with my wife and son in November! Autumn is like an extension that God offers us for free. It is also the season for harvesting, when we gather crops and fruit.
Crops are stored in the form of grain. We use GRAIN to make bread. We use the GRAPE to make wine (I have taken two steps in the alphabet, n-p, and changed the vowel, e-i). Bread and wine are the elements of the Eucharist, which are translated into the body and blood of Christ. How are they translated? By the descent of the Holy Spirit, by GRACE (another two steps in the alphabet, p-s; c corresponds to s). GRAIN-GRAPE-GRACE, the ‘materials’ we need to celebrate the Eucharist.
ERROR is connected to EROS (r-s). There is no doubt that eros can be used in error when it seeks to take pleasure at the cost of the other. This is one of the devil’s main strategies – to convince us that EXCESS in SEX, or alcohol, or drugs, is an affirmation of the self, an assertion of freedom, an act of independence, when all it is doing is destroying the self we are purporting to raise on a pedestal by linking it to the passions, by enslaving it, in short. Eros is when two people come together, openly, knowingly, in full possession of their faculties, and commit to each other. It is a private affair, in which God is present.
In SHARE we find HEART (s-t). We open ourselves to the other, share with them what we have. This is why both these words have HEAR in common. We hear the voice of the other, and not just our own selfish demands.
Let us turn now to word connections made by changing letters according to their appearance. For these connections, it is better to write the letters lowercase so their resemblance becomes more obvious. Letters can be turned upside down: f-t, m-w, n-u. Back to front: b-d. They can be continued: c-e, h-n, i-l, n-r, v-y. They can be crossed out: l-t. We have seen the examples ‘breath’ and ‘thread’ (b-d, breath is the thread that links birth and death), ‘hope’ and ‘open’ (h-n, hope keeps us open), ‘venom’ and ‘money’ (v-y, money acts as a poison).
We now find that ‘birth’ gives rise to a ‘third’ person (b-d). We have seen this is the case in the equation 1 + 1 = 1.
The word ‘cross’ can be likened to ‘eros’. This is not eros in error. This is the true meaning of eros, in which we are fully open, fully vulnerable before the other. Is there any way of being more open in a human body than on the cross, with your hands and feet nailed in place? Is this not what God asks of us, to become increasingly vulnerable, which paradoxically constitutes an ascent to heaven (Never Never Land). The answers (the certainties) seem to evaporate. They leave only one. That God is love. It is that LOVE that will make us WHOLE.
We want to be free and, in order to achieve this, we travel in all directions, we seek forms of entertainment, things that will occupy our attention, distract us from the futility of death, we search for ways to give our life meaning, to justify our existence. We think that ‘free’ means asserting our own will. This forms the basis of our modern society – the ability to do what we like (within reason). But freedom is not to do what we like, to go wherever we want. Freedom is to remain in one place. To go through the pain. To endure. And what better example of ‘free’ than a ‘tree’, which is rooted to the spot? We may pollute it, surround it with concrete, cut it down, but still it continues to give fruit, shade, warmth, oxygen! You may say that it has no choice, but I think that is exactly the point. It is our choice that kills us. Freedom is submission to God. Freedom is to bow our heads in worship. To reach down to the ground, so that God will lift us. This is why language – and life – are so paradoxical. The answers are not where we would find them. They are somewhere else (and not generally in our brains).
But ‘faith’ can grow ‘faint’ (h-n). Sometimes the journey seems long, unending, without purpose. This is where we must dig in and stay in one place. STAY provides YEAST (addition of e). STRAY doesn’t. Even the DEVOUT can DOUBT (b-v, addition of e). But when the wind blows and life seems most pointless, when we are at our most vulnerable (and the devil chooses that precise moment to attack us), we must stand firm. Like the tree.
Then we will find God. In the eye of the storm. The word ‘hide’ gives ‘find’ (h-n, alphabetical pair e-f). What is hidden comes to light. If we persevere. Word connections are often confirmed by other word connections. So it is with ‘hide’-‘find’. Compare SEEK and SEE (addition of k). Or SEARCH and REACH (addition of s). We find an answer, but it may not be immediate.
The ‘mouth’ is a ‘wound’ (two physical pairs, h-n and m-w, phonetic pair d-t). The mouth is like a wound in our body, a kind of gash. It can also wound others. As Christ says, ‘It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles’ (Mt 15:11). Note the connection between DEVIL and DEFILE (phonetic pair f-v).
Here is one of my favourite connections. The world thinks it is sane. It puts other people who don’t agree with its point of view in hospital. But ‘mental’ spells ‘I’m sane’ if we apply the alphabetical pair s-t and the physical pair i-l. There is a corresponding connection: ‘normal’ reads ‘I am wrong’ in reverse (physical pair i-l, addition of g and w). What is considered normal – making money at the expense of the other – may not be right. The one who is marginalized because of his opinions may actually be saner than we are. As a translator who lives on the margins, I begin to think that holding fast to your beliefs inevitably leads you to the margins; it is compromising on your beliefs that takes you to the centre, to a place by the fire. Christ was the most marginalized figure of them all (Mt 8:20, Mk 6:4).
But alone we can do nothing (Jn 15:5). We need the Cross to make sense of our existence. Cross out the I in ‘alone’ and you get ‘atone’, which is what Christ did: lead us back to the Father, the source of life.
We have seen how opposites are connected: LEFT and RIGHT. Let us take another two directions: ‘north’ and ‘south’ (n-u, alphabetical pair r-s). They also are connected. God is everywhere; there is nowhere he is not. This is why his name, Alpha and Omega, is left over in the other two points of the compass: EAST and WEST. These two words share the letters est. What is left over is AW (the Greek letter omega is written w).
But the ‘devil’ would have us stray. Abandon our post. Succumb to the difficulties. Seek amusement, satisfaction, elsewhere. The devil does not want us to withstand the pressure. He wants us to fracture. He wants us to ‘yield’ (v-y).
We have now seen all the ways of changing letters:
– i-j/y, u-w, c-k/s;
– vowels (u-o-a-e-i);
– consonants (seven phonetic pairs, especially d-t and l-r, plus b-v-w);
– alphabet (d-e, f-g, r-s, s-t);
– appearance (b-d, h-n, i-l, m-w).
But not all words that are connected contain the same number of letters. We now come to the richest source of word connections – the addition of letters. We continue to apply the rules we have studied (phonetics, alphabet, appearance), but also add letters.
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com
Ideally, human life, like the Greek alphabet, should be a progression from the letter A to the letter I to the letter O: AIO.
A represents the act of creation described in chapters 1-2 of the Book of Genesis, in the beginning, when God created the world. It is the first letter of both the Greek and Latin alphabets, so it represents the first act in the history of time, the first thing we have to write about.
We already saw that the name God reveals to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3:14 is AM (in this word we see both the A and the O – the latter written W, like the Greek letter omega – because God stands outside time, of which he is the beginning and the end). AM created AN, the indefinite article, the article that is used for countable nouns, for nouns that we can see and draw a line around, that we can separate from ourselves and give free will. AM and AN combine to give A MAN, whose name was Adam.
ADAM also contains the name of God in Exodus 3:14 – AM – as well as both ways of writing the final letter of the Greek alphabet: O/W (D closely resembles O, M is an upturned W). It is as if the new Adam is already present in the old. These two ways of writing the last letter of the Greek alphabet, O/W, can be used to describe the Holy Trinity: O3, or 3 in One. Adam is not a chance name assigned to the first human, it has the imprint of God stamped all over it.
ADAM in reverse reads MADE, just as EARTH in reverse reads THREE (because it was created on day three and is the third planet in order of increasing distance from the Sun). Adam was made by God, who shaped him from the dust of the ground and breathed the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of life, into him.
Adam’s task was not to create all the creatures, it was to name them – that is, to translate – and we see this purpose accorded to Adam in the reverse of MAN, which is NAME (with addition of final e, very common in word connections).
Now NAME, if we rearrange the letters, spells MEAN and AMEN. When we name someone or something, we give them meaning. We acquiesce in the process of God’s creation, we accept our role in the same, and say AMEN.
But, in chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were tempted to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. See how EVE is already taking us away from the letter A and towards the letter I. If we apply the physical pair (pair of letters that look alike) v-y to EVE, we get EYE, and EYE sounds the same as the letter I (which, if we rotate it by ninety degrees, represents a closed eye).
We can see this progression away from the letter A towards the letter I in the name of the garden where Adam and Eve lived, EDEN, which is connected to ADAM by the phonetic pair m-n and the pair of vowels a-e.
With the Fall, described in chapter 3 of Genesis, we have turned our attention away from God and towards ourselves. The Fall corresponds to time. It is the era we live in, the timeline drawn by a teacher of English on a whiteboard, the letter I, when despite being surrounded by all of God’s goodness – the earth and all it contains – we think we can do very well without him (despite the fact we could not even breathe without him).
So, instead of calling on God, AM, we start to say I’M. Instead of saying AMEN to God’s commandments, we lay claim to our surroundings and say MINE. We have made the progression from A to I. This means that, while our physical eyes may be open, our spiritual eyes are closed: I.
Put three of these Is together, and you get the word ‘ill’, a triple ego if you like. We are spiritually sick because we have detached ourselves from the source of all goodness, the Holy Trinity. If you don’t believe me, look at what happens if we make the progression from A to I to I: we get the word ‘ail’. But God in his ineffable mercy always offers us a way out, because if we add breath to the start of this word and slightly alter the vowels, ‘ail’ gives rise to ‘heal’.
We saw in the article Alpha and Omega that one of the ways to escape the ego, I, is to treat it as a number, 1, and to count down to 0. This can be likened to opening our spiritual eyes: I to O. We turn our hearts to God in repentance, we realize we cannot live without him, or at least our life is ultimately without meaning if we do not live in, for and with him. This is the purpose of human life – to realize our need. There is nothing wrong with this. We sink to the bottom of the overturned pyramid, to use St Sophrony of Essex’s image, we descend into the hell of uncertainty and emerge the other side, strengthened and joyful.
Now, instead of saying I’M, we say OM, but I do not mean the mantra, I mean the Holy Trinity: O3. We redirect our sight away from ourselves to the centre of all being.
We saw in the article Chemistry that God the Father can be written O1, or no one. OM is connected to NO by the phonetic pair m-n, and ONE is NO in reverse with the addition of final e. So when we turn away from the I with all its hereditary fears and selfish demands, instead of saying I’M, we call on NO ONE, as we were meant to do because we are human.
The name of God is spread throughout language – language is insisting, albeit unobtrusively, that salvation for ourselves lies in calling upon God, but it must be a question of free will, a freely taken decision. We are given all the time in the world to make this step.
Instead of saying MINE, we say NEMO, which is the Latin word for NO ONE, or OMEN, a sign for the future, perhaps.
We make the progression from A to I to O, the progression of human life, which involves committing a mistake (or many mistakes) and then owning up to it.
AM – I’M – OM/O3/NO ONE
AMEN/MEAN/NAME – MINE – NEMO/OMEN
Now perhaps I have just made this all up. Well, not exactly. We also saw this same progression from A to I to O (AIO) in the question words WHAT – WHY – WHO.
‘What?’ is the question word of Creation: what is this creature? What will you call it?
‘Why?’ is the mantra of modern society, of the Fall: why should I do this? Why should I believe you? (‘Why?’ simply indicates a lack of obedience.)
The real and only valid question is ‘Who?’ (or ‘How?’, it makes no difference), and the answer is Jesus Christ. We see this progression in the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, YHWH, which corresponds to WHY, and in the Greek Septuagint translation of the name of God in Exodus 3:14, O WN (or O WH), found in icons of Christ Pantocrator, which spells WHO and HOW. We have made the progression, we have gone from the letter of the law to the spirit of the law, to the law in human form.
WHAT – WHY – WHO/HOW
Another example. The name of God in Exodus 3:14 is I AM, which gives us ‘law’ if we apply the physical pairs i-l and m-w (one letter is an extension or a reversal of the other). We associate LAW with the Old Testament, a set of rules which must be blindly followed, even to the detriment of people (for example, not healing on the Sabbath). This LAW, as we all know, can be a WALL. It protects us, but it also stands as an obstacle, especially when it is the letter of the law – and not the spirit – that is being applied.
If we make the progression from A to I, from LAW we get WILL: we apply our own will. We don’t obey the commandments to love the Lord our God with all our being and to love our neighbour as ourself. We seek our own will, we place ourselves – our profit, our comfort, our status – above the other and pursue our own self-interest. We have gone from the PROPHETS of the Old Testament to an obsession with PROFITS, as if the purpose of human life was solely to make money. It is not. The purpose of human life is to turn to God and, in God’s love, to show concern for our neighbour. That is to restore God’s image in us, to become properly human. We see many examples of this transformation in our everyday lives.
The Church Fathers, including St Sophrony, are always talking about God’s self-emptying (or kenotic) love. We imitate this love, taking ourselves – the I – out of the equation, opening our arms, making space for the other. We humble ourselves (St Sophrony goes so far as to speak of self-hatred). And what is the position of humility? It is LOW. We give space to the other, we ALLOW them. Instead of saying WILL, we say WON’T.
LAW/WALL – WILL – LOW/ALLOW/WON’T
Language is clearly indicating to us the path of repentance for those who wish to follow the example of Christ. I don’t know how to make it any clearer than this, but I will give just a few more examples. Note that all these examples of the progression AIO are between words. There are also examples of the same progression inside words, and we will see some of those in the next article.
Here is one of my favourite examples. In the Garden of Eden, there was no competition: DRAW. The ethos of our modern society, with its competition and counting up from the number 1, is to WIN. But Christ came along and told us to LOSE our life for his sake in order to gain it (Mt 10:39). Look at the vowels, and you will see the progression of repentance.
DRAW – WIN – LOSE
Losing, as we have seen, can be a frightening experience because it looks as if we are condemning ourselves to self-extinction, but I have likened this to the process of translation, where in order for a text to appear in another language, it must first disappear in the mind of the translator. This, for me, is what death is. It is a matter of having faith in the Translator.
Another favourite example. The SWAN may be taken as a symbol of purity. Certainly, it is very white. On the contrary, SWINE are a symbol of filth, the filth the Prodigal Son found himself literally rolling in when he was reduced to feeding his neighbour’s swine after he had wasted his father’s inheritance. What word will take us to the O of repentance? It is said that no one flake is ever the same. It falls out of the sky and alights on our nose. When we step in it, it soon becomes slush, or it can become frozen and cause us to slip, but newly fallen it transforms the landscape, turning it white again, forming a blanket under which Nature has a chance to rewind. I am talking about SNOW, of course.
SWAN – SWINE – SNOW
And one last example. The creature I most associate with the depths of history is WHALE, this creature that swims the world’s oceans and seems to have been doing so ever since the beginning of time. It is a creature I associate with the Creation, primordial and wise. What word do I get if I make the progression from A to I? WHILE, which corresponds to the process of time, time which has been spread out like a carpet for us to walk on while we make up our minds. And if I count down from the ego and make the progression from I to O? I become WHOLE, a combination of the Old Testament name of God, El, and O WH.
WHALE – WHILE – WHOLE
We already saw other examples of the progression from the I of the Fall to the O of redemption: LIVE-LOVE, SIN-SON and CHRIST-CROSS.
Language is urging us not to count up, not to make out that we are the owners of everything in existence. We are not. We are here to act as vehicles of love, to become sons, children of God, to lose our life for Christ’s sake on the Cross in order that we might receive everlasting joy in the resurrection.
Language confirms this. The Greek alphabet does the same, it provides the example. We may associate this with Eastern spirituality (for me, that is Orthodoxy) or with kenotic love and spontaneity, which doesn’t count the cost. There is another example, however, and I’m afraid it is provided by the Latin alphabet, which may be taken to signify a greater reliance on reason. Reason always counts the cost.
And that is because the Latin alphabet, instead of counting down from I to O, as the Greek alphabet does, counts up: from I to Z. This means that you have taken everything that was created, A, and used it for yourself.
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com
We live in the white space of eternity, but we cling to the line of time. It is extraordinary that the word TIME contains DIE (phonetic pair d-t, addition of m), but if we take a couple of steps in the alphabet it also gives LIVE (alphabetical pairs l-m, t-v). We have seen how it also contains MEET and DENY – this life on earth is our chance to meet Christ or to deny him, it is as simple as that. This is the purpose of life – do we choose to count down from the ego, I, to God, O, or do we prefer to attend to our own self-interest and to amass possessions by counting up from the ego, I? Once you start counting up, there will be no end, and we have seen how the English alphabet does this – it goes from the letter A to I to Z (1 to 2), it starts to count up, which may be seen as signifying a Western rational way of thinking, counting the cost, whereas the Greek alphabet, which may be taken to signify a spiritual way of thinking, a spontaneous response, counts down, it goes from the letter A to I to O (1 to 0, or omega).
This is very telling. We somehow have to escape the line that is represented by the ego, I, or by the timeline. LINE is close to MINE (alphabetical pair l-m) – when we draw a line, we are limiting ourselves, laying claim to possession, fencing ourselves in. We may find that the LINE leaves us ALONE, whereas in fact we are ALL ONE, and the one we have in common is God.
We see our life on earth in terms of the tenses: present, past and future. How much time do we spend in the present? Perhaps not very much, we are always thinking about events in the past or worrying about the future.
An example of the present tense is ‘I live in London’ or ‘I like to visit Hyde Park on a Tuesday’. It is used to talk about routines, actions or states that we consider to be fixed.
If we want to ask a question or to make a negative in the present, we have to use what is called an auxiliary verb – a verb that ‘helps’ us to ask the question or to make the negative – and the auxiliary verb for the present is ‘do’: ‘Where do you live?’ ‘I don’t like going out in the dark.’ We cannot ask a question or make a negative without the auxiliary ‘do’, or we will sound a little foreign: ‘Where you live?’ ‘I not like going out in the dark.’
Auxiliaries are a feature of the English language. Other languages like Ancient Greek and Bulgarian have little particles that enable the hearer to understand that what is coming is not a statement of fact, but a question: ‘ara’ in Greek, ‘li’ in Bulgarian. Languages like Spanish use intonation. ‘You live in Madrid?’ with a rising intonation informs the hearer that this is a question. I’m not telling you, I’m asking. But English has need of auxiliaries.
So it is in the past, and the auxiliary is the same: ‘I went to school in Clapham.’ ‘Where did you go to school?’ ‘I didn’t like it very much.’
So ‘do’ is the first auxiliary. ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘Do you often come here?’ ‘Don’t talk to me like that!’
The auxiliary for the future is ‘will’. This little word expresses intention or a prediction: ‘I will come and help you.’ ‘I think it will rain at the weekend.’ ‘Will you tell me what it is?’ Whereas the auxiliaries in the present and past – ‘do’ and ‘did’ – are only used to ask questions or to make the negative, in the future the auxiliary must also be used in positive statements – precisely to signify that it is the future: ‘I come to lunch on Tuesdays, but next week I will come on Wednesday.’
We have seen how language encourages us to think in terms of the collective, not in terms of the individual, and the future provides us with a wonderful example because if we contract ‘I’ and ‘will’ we get ‘I’ll’ – this is a way of talking about plans in the singular – whereas if we contract ‘we’ and ‘will’ and think about the future in terms of the plural, we get ‘we’ll’.
Language appears to be telling us something: ‘I’ll’ and ‘we’ll’. I’LL and WE’LL. Take away the apostrophe that indicates a contraction and you have ILL and WELL. Isn’t this language telling us to think in terms of the plural? We might also notice that ME becomes WE when we turn the letter M upside down (physical pair m-w). And what is the plural of ‘you’ (think not how the word is written, but how it sounds)? Why, ‘us’ of course!
There is an aspect – the perfect – that we can apply to the tenses we have talked about, the present, the past and the future. This perfect aspect has the amazing ability to connect the tenses, to join them together, but our emphasis is still very much on the line.
For example, imagine that I started to live in London in the year 2000. It is now 2020, and I still live in London. You have a past – I moved to London in 2000 – and a present – I live in London now. What if you want to join them together? You can only do this by using the perfect, the auxiliary for which is ‘have’: ‘I have lived in London for twenty years.’
Imagine a point in the future: when you get home. I want to say that between now and the point in time when you get home, that is between the present and the future, I am planning to finish baking a cake. I will say, ‘By the time you get home, I will have baked a cake.’ There is the perfect again, by means of the auxiliary ‘have’, and it connects two points along the line, the past and the present, the present and the future, even the past and a point further back in time: ‘When you came to visit me, I had already put the things away.’ Before that point in time when you turned up, I had performed this other action, between the past and a point further back in time (when I got home from the office, for example).
Well, after that short lesson in grammar, we are equipped to say that the auxiliaries that cover the timeline are ‘do’, ‘will’ and ‘have’.
But doesn’t this tell us something about how we approach time, our lives on earth? Because the first auxiliary, ‘do’, refers to activity – we must always be busy. The second auxiliary, ‘will’, refers to intention – what I want. And the third auxiliary, ‘have’, refers to possession – how much I have. Couldn’t this be said somehow to sum up our approach to life: what I do, what I will and what I have?
This is because we are clinging to the timeline. We are like vines on an arbour or shellfish on a submerged pillar. We cling to what we know. And what we know is what we can see in front of us, what we can lay our hands on. But there is so much more. There is the enormity of space, to start with. There is also the enormity of ourselves – isn’t the kingdom of heaven within us? There is the enormity of our hearts, of our reaching out to one another, of the many examples of endurance and selflessness that humanity has shown. There is the moment when, albeit we are busy or tired, we take time out to focus on the other’s need. We shift away from the timeline, we take a step over the abyss. We enter the white space of the whiteboard. We realize that the battle has already been won and we are picking up the pieces. We step outside of time and into the light. We cease – for a moment – to linger on the past or to harbour concerns about the future. They are always only moments – the past and future quickly reclaim their place, like a tide coming in. But there are moments when we can separate ourselves from the timeline and enter eternity. We are in eternity. Now.
And what is the fourth auxiliary that is used to represent the continuous aspect, to talk about the moment? It is ‘be’. ‘Where are you at the moment?’ ‘I am sitting in the garden.’ Enjoying life, focused on the here and now, amazed by the wonder of it all. Isn’t this life? Amazement at the other, amazement at ourselves. Little coins that jingle in our pockets. Coins that are like suns, shimmering in the light.
Faith is stepping off the line. I don’t have enough money, I don’t have enough time, I’m too busy, I can’t do it for you, otherwise…
Faith is being quiet. In the moment, when we prise the timeline open and expand it, blow a little air into the bag.
When we expand the moment, we use ‘be’ (a word that we have seen is connected to ‘we’ and is contained in both ‘die’ and ‘live’). ‘I was reading a book when you arrived’ (I was unaware of time). ‘We will be waiting for you when the train arrives’ (the train will pull up alongside the platform, but we will already be out of time – waiting for you). ‘Be’ takes us out of time – it is used for actions that may be temporary (‘I am living in London at the moment, but next month I may not be’), continuous (‘we were walking alongside the river when it happened’) or repeated (‘I have been trying to get hold of you for ages’). It takes us away from the apparent security of our own efforts (‘do’), our own wills (‘will’) and our own possessions (‘have’).
There is so much noise in the world, but the truth is that the silence is much greater. There are so many words on this page, but the truth is that the white space is far greater. There is so much substance to our bodies, but the truth is that we are peppered with holes and invaded by space.
So it is with time. Time – the cross (†), I and me – is in eternity. It is the only place it can be. At some point, the teacher of English will come along and rub out the timeline. And then our preoccupations, our money and possessions, our frustrated wills, will count for nothing. All that will count is who we have allowed ourselves to be.
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com
What do we know about the Father? Perhaps we know about him as much as our ability to love. He is generally portrayed as an old man with white hair and a white beard, next to his Son, with the Holy Spirit hovering above. We may associate him in particular with the act of creation and the Fall in chapters 1-3 of the Book of Genesis. According to Orthodox tradition, all appearances of God in the Old Testament are by the Logos, the Word of God, that is Jesus Christ. The New Testament is associated with the earthly life of Christ, his birth, teaching, crucifixion and resurrection. And the Holy Spirit is associated with Pentecost, the beginnings of the Church. The Father can remain in the background. Certainly, we cannot know his essence, and of God’s qualities St Maximos the Confessor says that it is only infinity that can be grasped fully by the intellect (see the end of his First Century on Love).
In an earlier article, I made the connection between TREE and THREE and put forward the analogy of the Father as the trunk and the Son and the Holy Spirit as two branches, as in a child’s drawing, the Son begotten and the Spirit proceeding. This is why in the Orthodox Creed it is said that the Spirit proceeds from the Father – not from the Father and the Son, as is erroneously stated in Western Churches – because otherwise the Spirit would have to be a sub-branch of the Son, making for a lopsided drawing. This doesn’t make sense.
Christianity is the only religion that professes God the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is shared love, which crucially involves a third person, otherwise it could be construed as being exclusive. This love among the three persons is not jealous. It is like love in a monastic community – it professes love for the brethren, but also welcomes pilgrims, newcomers. The arrival of newcomers can be very unsettling, but somehow we have to find a place for them, to see that our reaction is immediately, naturally, spontaneously, one of love.
You cannot have the Father without having a Son. His first characteristic is that of being a Father, which immediately places emphasis on relationship. The Holy Spirit can be seen as a kind of conjunction – and – that welds the love together. I have already stated that this little conjunction, AND, contains the name Alpha and Omega (A ’N’ O) and spells DNA in reverse. It is a crucial word in language, and barely a sentence exists without it.
I would like to suggest that there is proof in language for the existence of the Father. This doesn’t surprise me, for from him all things come. The Son is begotten by the Father, the Spirit proceeds from the Father, and we are his creation. We saw in the previous article how the world is a kind of spiritual womb, from which the body of the Church is in the process of being born. We make the mistake of thinking that life in this world is all there is and our birth has already taken place, but I don’t think this is quite true – our physical birth has taken place, sure enough, but our collective spiritual birth is still happening, which is why for me St Paul writes, ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now’ (Rom 8:22).
The first indication that the Father is who we understand him to be – the source of all life – can be found in the alphabet. But we should sound a note of caution: if we can find proof for the existence of the Father in language, shouldn’t that point us in the direction of the Holy Trinity? Shouldn’t that suggest that the Father is truly behind and in his creation, just as we make him out to be? How else could he be in language, a set of words we ourselves have come up with in order to communicate, a set of letters which we use to write these words down? This should give us pause for thought – if we can find proof for him in language.
Language is made up of three elements. The first of these is breath. Breath forms the basis of all language. There can be no language without breath. Without breath, we are in effect dead, and we are not going to communicate by means of our bodies. Breath is represented in the alphabet by the letter h, a very important letter since it represents the basis of all speech, and yet (or because of this) it is dropped in dialects like Cockney and not pronounced in languages like Spanish. That for me is a sure sign of its importance.
If all we do is huff and puff, we are not going to make much sense, and so, as anyone who has been present at a childbirth knows, the next thing that comes along is voice, the vowels. We breathe out (the baby breathes out) and add voice (the baby bawls – loudly), and now we have sound. We also have words – words like a, I and o! We can even put a vowel before breath and exclaim, ‘Ah!’ We have the beginnings of speech.
If we hold a vowel for long enough, as when we visit the doctor’s, water will collect in our mouth, and this is because vowels are like a river – they flow. We can see that FLOW and VOWEL are connected by the phonetic pair f-v, addition of e. But the vowels do not emerge from our throat, where language originates, in the same order that they appear in the alphabet. Actually, they emerge in the following order, from the back of the mouth to the front:
u – o – a – e – i
forming a V-shape as they do so. This means that the first word the human apparatus is capable of pronouncing is breath (h) plus the first vowel to emerge from the throat (u): hu (I am assuming that breath on its own does not constitute a word, which I don’t think it does).
You might wonder, ‘So what?’ Well, this little word hu is from Sanskrit and means ‘invoke the gods’. So the first word a human is capable of pronouncing is an invocation of God. It is also the root of our word God, as any good dictionary will tell you. This is extremely interesting, but it doesn’t stop there.
Have you noticed that we are human? The science of etymology, which studies the evolution of language over time and, like all science, is limited in its vision (only faith is not limited, which is why we need it), will tell you that human derives from the Latin word for ‘man’, homo. Yes, maybe. But word connections – which are the study of language outside time, and hence far more interesting – will enable us to see that HUMAN is a combination of HU and MAN. It seems that God stamped us with his seal when he made us. We have already seen how MAN contains AM and AN.
But we still haven’t seen any proof for the Father. Let us continue. If all we had was breath and water, h and the vowels, we would do a lot of whining and exclaiming (some people do that, it is true). But to form words, real words, we need to obstruct the passage of air with our lips and tongue to form the consonants. Now we get proper chunky words. The consonants, as I have explained, can be divided into seven phonetic pairs:
b-p d-t f-v g-k l-r m-n s-z
depending on where in the mouth they are pronounced and which piece of flesh – the lips or tongue – is used to obstruct the passage of air when they are pronounced.
That accounts for twenty letters, but the English alphabet has twenty-six. Three of the remaining letters are semi-vowels – that is, the passage of air is only partially obstructed. The semi-vowels j and y correspond to the vowel i; the semi-vowel w corresponds to u (think of the name of the letter).
And the other three are what I call redundant letters. We don’t need them. They are c, q and x, all of which can be written using a combination of the letters k and s: the letter c is pronounced either k or s, q is pronounced k and x is pronounced ks. And yet they serve a purpose, because the double pronunciation of c as k/s enables me to make word connections through both these letters (we will see an example in a moment).
That accounts for the whole of the English alphabet: h, five vowels, seven pairs of consonants, three semi-vowels and three redundant letters. The letter h corresponds to breath, the vowels to water and the consonants to flesh.
What is very interesting is that the exact same three elements – breath, water and flesh – correspond to the act of creation in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. Remember that a wind (breath) swept over the face of the waters (Gen 1:2). Remember that to form the sky (air/breath) God separated the waters from the waters (water) (Gen 1:6-8). Remember that God then gathered the waters under the sky into one place and formed the land (flesh) (Gen 1:9-11). Remember that man was formed from the dust of the ground (flesh) (Gen 2:7) and God then breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (breath).
So the same three elements of breath, water and flesh are involved in the creation. But why should we be surprised, given that we know that God spoke the world into being? Doesn’t almost every paragraph in Genesis chapter 1 begin, ‘And God said’?
Do you remember how the letter c can be pronounced k or s? We might now see a connection between SPACE and SPEAK.
We might also see that WORLD contains LORD and WORD. The WORLD is a combination of LORD AND WORD:
world = lord + word
Hence those three words that are constantly repeated in Genesis: ‘And God said.’
But we still haven’t found proof for the existence of the Father in language. You need to know that there is an ‘eighth’ phonetic pair (and it isn’t even a pair): b-v-w. These letters are closely related. In Modern Greek, b is pronounced v; in Spanish, v is pronounced b. In Latin, v is pronounced w; in German, w is pronounced v. This enables me, through v, to connect b/w with f (the partner of v according to the phonetic pairs), and many word connections are made using this combination.
Now we will begin to see that the three elements of breath, water and flesh – the elements that make up speech, a daily occurrence, and also the creation of the world we inhabit – have one word in common. I am not making this up because I am obeying phonetic rules, so it is in language (not in my imagination!).
BREATH is clearly connected to FATHER by this combination I talked about, f-b/w.
WATER is clearly connected to FATHER by the same combination, f-b/w, addition of h (one of the two most commonly added letters).
FLESH is clearly connected to FATHER by the phonetic pair l-r, the alphabetical pair s-t, addition of a.
The elements of speech and creation have the word FATHER in common. That is remarkable and ought to make us bow our heads in worship. The next time we open our mouths to speak, we might be a little more respectful of what we are doing and remember how the Father is in the elements of speech, in our very human being.
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com