December 2015

The power of language and literature

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, if I could grant a special mercy to the women of Australia, it would be this: to amend the English text of Scripture used in our Bibles and liturgy to be inclusive, writes Margaret-Mary Flynn.

BY Margaret-Mary Flynn

I was 18. I walked into the Public Lecture Theatre in New Arts, and took my accustomed place somewhere towards the back, arranged my lecture pad, and waited for my first lecture in Epic and Romance in English Language and Literature to start.

I had no idea of the privilege of my position, of the heritage of struggle that had assured my place there, or indeed of the long and winding road ahead. I simply took for granted the rhythms of lectures, tutes and essays, and my life in College. I did not know then that I followed the trail blazed by Bella Guerin, the first woman to graduate from a university in Australia in 1883. (It would be another 18 years before she would be allowed to vote).

A tiny old man entered, and took the podium. He was dressed in a buttoned-up duffle jacket, reaching below his knees. He wore the hood up. The buzz of the auditorium immediately ceased, and silence fell. He rested his hands on either side of the lectern, then, looking at us and past us, he began.

It was poetry he spoke; I knew it to be so from the cadences and rhythm of his beautiful voice, but the words were not in English – not as I understood it. He used no notes or text, for he was declaiming by heart, just as the bards who had been the keepers of these words a thousand years ago had performed them.

Gradually, as I listened, words I knew emerged, little hooks that led me to the gist of the ancient Norse saga. He was a wonderful performer, and the dark story of lust, murder and betrayal unfolded. His voice broke – tears rolled down his withered cheeks, as he continued to the heartbreaking conclusion, and came at last to the final words. Silence fell again, and then was broken by applause.

Norse is one of the great underground rivers which shape the beautiful, flexible and ever-evolving language of English. We owe ‘anger’, ‘call’ and ‘mistake’ to a substantial collection of everyday Old Norse words still in use.

But such is the nature of English that many Old Norse words are now archaic, or their meaning has shifted in use. ‘Hap’, for example, meant lucky – we mean something different today when we describe someone as ‘happy’.

English continues to evolve. In particular, the words we use to name our identity and status have acquired altered significance. We have ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘boy’, and ‘girl’. But we no longer refer to a male and female group by the single word, ‘men’, nor do we name humanity as ‘mankind’ – rather, ‘humankind’. We have other more useful and inclusive terms for collectives of people – ‘persons’, ‘all of us’, ‘everyone’, ‘them’, ‘men and women’ are some examples. This reflects the shift in the status of women over the last century.

We could, if we chose, give God a unique personal pronoun – ‘Godself’ – thus humbly acknowledging that God is neither male nor female, but God.

My splendid teachers gave me the love of my language – its precision, its beauty, and its clarity. It was in studying literature that I came to understand why God is the Word, and the power and creative majesty of words and language.

The word of God is living and active,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
piercing until it divides soul from spirit,
joints from marrow;
it is able to judge the thoughts
and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

What we name exists: if there were no words to name ‘dignity’, for example, could we talk about it? And if we say that when we use the words ‘brothers and sons’, we mean ‘sisters and daughters’ too, and decline to name them as separate, what are we actually implying? Does that work in reverse? Can we say ‘sisters’ and imply ‘brothers’? God’s Word is blurred if listening women must ask, ‘Does this mean me too?’ The use of language to disempower is trivial only to those who are not its target.

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, if I could grant a special mercy to the women of Australia, it would be this: to amend the English text of Scripture used in our Bibles and liturgy to be inclusive.

For Jesus, himself the Word of God, was never exclusive; indeed he shocked people by his inclusiveness, especially of women. And women loved him for it as we love him now, for his merciful gaze that never questions nor demeans our equal value in our Father’s eyes.

Margaret-Mary Flynn

Margaret-Mary Flynn is a writer and editor with a background in education, teaching English, literature, history and religious education. She has recently graduated with a Master of Arts (Spirituality) from the University of Divinity, specialising in spiritual direction, and early Christian and monastic spirituality. She lives in Bendigo with her husband, has three adult children and three grandchildren, and enjoys reading and writing, the domestic arts, yoga and gardening.

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