Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Words Are Only Symbols

One of the things I do when I teach gospel concepts is ask my students who speak foreign languages to explain the word for the concept in their language. For example the English word repentance comes from Old French words which mean “to be sorry again.” And the Old French comes from the Latin poena which means “punishment.” This means that the original meaning of the English word repentance is to suffer the punishment of being sorry.

In Hebrew the word for repentance  is shoob which mean “to turn back or return to recompense, recover, refresh, relieve, rescue, restore.” And the Greek word for repentance is metanoieo which means “to think differently.” Each of these meaning is part of the concept of repentance, but each language focuses on a different aspect of the concept for their word that identifies the concept. 

This illustrates the point that sometimes we think of words as concrete objects, but what these differences teach us is that words are only symbols. Every act of communication is also an act of translation. When I say repentance to you (I try to communicate) the immediate thought that comes to your mind (your translation of what I am saying) may be like anyone of the above definitions or it could be something entirely different.

So what am I getting at? When we communicate with others we need to be aware that they are translating what we say into their own language (like you are doing right now!), and when we are aware of the imprecise nature of words it can help us to communicate more effectively.

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