Theological English (3): The Alphabet

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.

To access all the videos in this course, use the drop-down menu “Theological English (Video Course)” above. The videos can be watched on Vimeo and YouTube.

Word in Language (11): Father (1)

So now we are diving down into the depths of language and discovering that language has a lot to tell us about the meaning of human life and about the world we live in. We are here to count down from the ego, I, to God, O, as we saw in words like LIVE and LOVE, SIN and SON, CHRIST and CROSS. Christ himself, who is God and has no need to count down, came down to earth so that he could show us how to do this. He came down and was incarnate in order to translate for us the meaning of life. He did this by means of parables, writing for the spiritually blind.

 

But we have also seen that the world is a spiritual womb in which the body of the Church is being formed until the end of time. Just as we have physical and spiritual blindness, so we have a physical and spiritual birth. Sadly, many of us in this life focus solely on the physical side of things, to the detriment of our spiritual growth. We must open not only our physical eyes, but also our spiritual eyes. This is why ‘I’ and ‘eye’ sound the same. Because an open I is O.

 

God does not let us dive for too long. We must come back to the surface for air. And just as God separated the waters from the waters in order to create the dome of the sky (Gen 1:6-8), so we see that air is extremely important to us. We started this series of articles by talking about the Coronavirus, which has currently got us practising social distancing, something that was foreign to our way of thinking just a few months ago and is now ‘the new normal’. Viruses make it difficult for us to breathe, they precisely attack our air supply, as if we were divers in the water and our air supply was getting low or the connection with the bottle was faulty. We cannot gulp air as we would like to, and we realize how tenuous our connection to life really is.

 

The ancients spelled ‘air’ like this: ‘aer’. This is how it is written in Latin and Greek, and I find this extraordinarily significant. Imagine yourself on the surface of the sea, this line in creation where so many creatures live, criss-crossing the line in their search for food or to escape predators. A gentle breeze is ruffling the surface of the water, creating an effect like a desert, like pimpled flesh or a crinkled crisp. Our breathing is shallow, barely noticeable, just enough. We are on the line between two frighteningly different elements. And yet for nine months in our mother’s womb the element of water was normal to us and we breathed.

 

We have already seen how oxygen is present in water, so they cannot be altogether so different. Indeed, if we apply the alphabetical pair r-s, we will see that AER in reverse reads SEA. Just a step in the alphabet, that line we were talking about, a murmur in the ear (oh, EAR is obviously connected as well).

 

And we may notice that AER is in WATER if we take away the w and the t, thus confirming what we said about oxygen being in water.

 

AER is also in BREATH, another of the elements of speech/creation, but where does it come from, this element that we breathe? Where does the wind arise? Where is it when we wait in the heat of the day and it seems to have disappeared? Only the other day, I stood in my room and a cold current of air came in through the window, just like the current you sometimes get in Greek seas (off the west coast of Corfu), chilling your feet, providing welcome refreshment.

 

I can only assume that air, breath, comes from the Father, who breathed into the newly created human being the breath of life. Isn’t he the source of life, the source of all creation? Wasn’t it the Father who separated the waters from the waters in Genesis chapter 1? Hang on a moment, though, at the beginning of that chapter I remember there was a wind that swept over the face of the waters. Can that wind somehow be connected to the Holy Spirit? On the day of Pentecost, didn’t the Holy Spirit descend ‘like the rush of a violent wind’ (Acts 2:2)? Didn’t Christ himself breathe the Holy Spirit on his disciples (Jn 20:22), not because the Spirit proceeds from him, but because they are both part of the Holy Trinity and their lives are intertwined? WIND contains the numbers 0, 1, 2, 3 – a reflection of the Holy Trinity, which can also be found in words like GOD, WOOD and ONE.

 

But AER is in other words as well, for example FEAR. When fear assails us, we find it difficult to breathe, our breathing becomes rapid, we hyperventilate. What is fear? Well, it can be unfounded when it relates to our predictions for the future. In fact, I would say it generally is unfounded. And yet it can have a profound effect on our behaviour and make us RAGE (alphabetical pair f-g). Another kind of FEAR is SAFE (alphabetical pair r-s), the fear that makes us cling to our Father, what Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol describes as awe, love and reverence in our hearts.

 

And what is it that pumps the air, the oxygen, around our bodies? The organ called the HEART. AER is there also. If our heart stops, so does our air supply, just like divers in the water (though there is AER in WATER as well). We saw that HEART is connected with EARTH, and I would say that AER is the main characteristic that we associate with the earth – the ability to breathe.

 

We are beginning to see that AER is a crucial component of language. It is in SEA and WATER, it is in BREATH (which as the letter h is also in water or its chemical formula H2O), it is in FEAR and HEART (see how these two words are connected – isn’t this where we feel fear most keenly, when it strikes dread into our hearts?).

 

But interestingly enough we cannot only live by breathing. We must also eat: BREAD. When we are babies, we are reliant on our mother’s milk, which fills our bellies and provides us with protection: BREAST. BREATH-BREAD-BREAST. All three words contain AER and are sources of nourishment. How curious that they should be so similar!

 

BREAD is connected to WATER by the phonetic pair d-t and the ‘eighth’ phonetic pair, b-v-w, which we talked about at the end of the previous article.

 

And ‘breath’, if we apply the physical pair b-d, gives ‘thread’. Breath is like a thread, the thread that the Fates are waiting to snip. It is air – isn’t it? – that provides the continuum to our lives. We are alive inasmuch as we are breathing. This is why we can see that ‘breath’ is connected to ‘birth’ if I use the front vowels (a-e-i), but also to ‘death’ if I use the physical pair b-d and remove the r.

 

Breath is the thread that links birth and death. All this information is contained in language.

 

I open my mouth. Breath emerges from my mouth. God knows where it has come from. If I add voice, I can speak. I can imitate the Father in the act of creation (CREATE also contains AER). After all, I am made in his image and likeness (Gen 1:26).

 

There is the Father again, the source of all things, who begat the Son, who gives rise to the Spirit, who created us human beings and all that we can see (and cannot see).

 

He emerges from the shadows ‘at the time of the evening breeze’. There is AER in him as well. AER is in FATHER, just as BREATH is, EARTH and HEART, FEAR (FAITH) and WATER.

 

Air carries water; air is in water. We associate air with the letter h, but also with oxygen (O2). Perhaps that dividing line is thinner than we thought. Certainly creatures like gannets and flying fish think so.

 

Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com

Word in Language (10): Father (0)

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