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 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