I am taking a class called anthropology of language and culture, and of course, our readings so far have dealt with how language affects the way we think and behave (our culture)—and vice versa.
English speakers have a vastly different view of time, space, and matter than do, to use the example that my reading uses, speakers of the Hopi language. For example, English speakers are able to group days into plural periods of time, because of our cultural notion of past, present, and future. Hopi speakers, on the other hand, cannot conceive of using the phrase “five days,” because they have a different conception of time. To the Hopi, time is a relation between events, as compared to the English notion of “length of time.” English is very linear, and when we think about a phrase like “five days,” usually in our minds we have those five days lined up in a row.
Also relating to conceptions of “day,” the Hopi language demonstrates the cultural belief that days are not separate, that a new day is not another day. Rather, Hopis view a new day as a returning day, as our reading expressed it: “a little older but with all the impresses of yesterday” Of course, English speakers do not view days in this way, but as components, as illustrated above, that can be added up.
Words like “summer,” “winter,” “morning,” and “sunset” are nouns in English. It’s hard for an English speaker to wrap his or her mind around these words as something other than nouns. In Hopi, however, these words are adverbs in a way. Hopi instead has phrases like, roughly translated, “while morning-phase is occurring.” Like “summer,” etc., English speakers (and most of these examples apply to other European languages/cultures, as well) tend to noun-ify concepts. Think of time, again. We “spend time,” “waste time,” “manage our time,” do or don’t “have time,” think something is “worth our time.” Time is precious. Time is money.
In English, we take for granted the concepts of “substance” and “matter.” We instantly accept these categories; they are common sense to us. To talk about masses like “water” or “air,” we use just that: “water” and “air.” But we also differentiate between the mass and other, smaller forms of the substance, such as “cup of water” or “pool of water.” In the Hopi language, a speaker would just say, “water;” no distinction like “cup of” or “pool of” is needed, because different variations of the word “water” exist that denote whether it’s a cup or a pool, etc.
Now that I have learned a bit about different linguistic conceptions of space, time, and matter, I wonder what the implications are regarding our interpretation of Scripture. How do we ever correctly understand what the Bible is trying to communicate? For example, Genesis 1 deals with space, time, and matter, but the author came from a specific culture—one that is vastly different from ours. And what about the other languages/cultures that are wrapped up in the rest of Scripture? That’s where scholarship comes in, I suppose, but then I still wonder about our own linguistic/cultural assumptions that we bring to Scripture—ones that we may be unaware of.