Some of you may recall that, back in 2010, I wrote a satirical linguistics piece for The Speculative Grammarian. The article—entitled “The Linguistic Big Crunch”—was a discussion of language as if it operated in cosmological terms (with big bangs, big crunches, and the like). Shortly thereafter, I heard that a spin-off article or two based on mine were on the way. I jokingly noted that, “when someone writes the book on satirical linguists, I better be remembered as the father of Cosmological Linguistics.”

Fast forward two years. There were in fact a few spin-offs. In fact, I count at least six articles (and one editorial) that emerged as a result of my original article. What’s more, they’ve all recently been recorded in their own podcast versions. And my article is read by none other than David J. Peterson.

Just who is David J. Peterson, you ask? Well, he’s a well-known conlanger (ie, a language-creator) who just happens to have developed the Dothraki language for the HBO series Game of Thrones, the incredibly popular television series based on George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. (He’s also, so it is said, working on languages for the upcoming SyFy Network show Defiance).

Needless to say, I’m tickled pink.

What follows are the links to my original article, the spin-off articles, and the podcast versions of those articles. (You’ll note that at least a few of the “authors” are joke names).

The Linguistic Big Crunch – M. Adam Block (June 2010)
Podcast read by David J. Peterson (December 11, 2011)

The Linguistic Big Rip – Charlie Saygone (July 2010)
Podcast read by David J. Peterson (December 11, 2011)

The Linguistic Big Freeze – John Tipler and Frank J. Barrow (September 2010)
Podcast “read” by Serena Nuance (December 11, 2011)

The Linguistic Big Bounce – Dyman Freeson (November 2010)
Podcast read by Keith Slater (December 11, 2011)

The Linguistic Singularity and the Linguistic Multiverse – Mikio Chachu (December 2010)
Podcast read by Joey Whitford (January 11, 2012)

The Linguistic Doomsday – Dr. X. Nibiru (January 2011)
Podcast “read” by Karen Nuance (January 11, 2012)

The Linguistic Rapture – LaTim ElHaye and Leeeerooooy Jiŋkins (February 2011)
Podcast read by Trey Jones (January 11, 2012)

An editorial comment on ElHaye and Jiŋkins (February 2011)
Podcast “read” by Daniel Nuance (January 11, 2012)

Eugene NidaThis past Friday Eugene Nida passed away. He was a major figure in linguistics in general and biblical translation in specific – his thoughts on translation theory having influenced most biblical translations over the last fifty years, particularly those falling into the category of “dynamic equivalence,” a term he coined. “Formal equivalence” translations (a term he also coined) have also had to grapple seriously with his ideas, so no matter what translation you prefer (assuming it’s a contemporary translation), Nida’s thoughts have had a hand in shaping it.

Once the summer is over and I’m back to posting more frequently on this blog, I’ll make a point of discussing Nida’s contributions to linguistics and translation theory at greater length. Until then, be sure to check out the following three stories on his death:

1. United Bible Societies: “Eugene Nida dies.”

2. Christianity Today: “Eugene Nida, who revolutionized Bible translations, dead at 96.”

3. The Washington Post: “Eugene Nida,who traveled the world to translate the Bible, dies at 96.” 

Last weekend, I ended up spending Holy Saturday evening at the Orthodox cathedral in town. My own church doesn’t hold services that day, so I took a friend’s advice to sit in on the Orthodox service. I wanted to reflect upon Christ in the tomb and celebrate his resurrection, and I wanted to do both in the company of other Christians. And while the service allowed opportunity for these things, it also served as a reminder of something else: namely, how traditional liturgy can act as a type of universal language for Christians, offering a glimpse of worship as we will one day experience it in heaven.

I’m sure some of you reading this will be surprised at that assertion, particularly if you come from a more contemporary-driven worship background. For many people, liturgical worship has become synonymous with dead worship. Repeating the same prayers, chanting the same chants week in and week out? Surely it just becomes mere words, said without meaning – a matter of habit as opposed to spontaneous faith.

That may be the case for some (regrettably, no doubt, for too many Christians attending liturgical services). But that a thing can be used inappropriately doesn’t mean that the thing itself is bad. Approached rightly, liturgy offers exactly what I said before: a glimpse of heavenly worship. When we pray the “tired old prayers” so often disparaged by today’s Christians, we in effect proclaim our unity with the Church through the ages. We pray the same prayers Christians a thousand years ago prayed. In fact, we pray the prayer Christ himself prayed. And we confess the same creedal faith the Church has confessed for nearly two millenia. Likewise, we reflect each week that the worship we render here on earth is joined with that offered in heaven. “With angels, archangels and all the company of heaven,” the preface to the Sanctus begins, “we laud and magnify your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!'”

The liturgy fosters a sense of timelessness, of worship as something not bound to any particular century or culture. It reaches back to antiquity; it points us forward to the unending depths of eternity. We recognize ourselves as part of that unbroken chain, recognize the unity of the Church past, present, and future.

The Orthodox Holy Saturday service reminded me of that truth in a new way. It reached back as we listened to numerous readings from the Old and New Testaments. We declared the Christian faith according to the Nicene Creed, as it was prepared in the 4th century A.D. Likewise, the sermon was a reading from John Chrysostom’s writings, also from the 4th century. We used liturgical structures developed by the ancient church and used by many Christians over the following centuries. We sang, as so many before us have sung, the Paschal Troparion, “Christ is risen from the dead / Trampling death by death! / And upon those in the tombs / Bestowing life.”

Likewise we proclaimed to one another the glorious message of Easter: “Christ is risen!” / “Truly he is risen!” In fact, it was that Paschal greeting which made me reflect anew upon the universality of liturgy. And the reason for that was because we didn’t just say “Christ is risen!” in English. We said it in numerous languages. Saturday’s service was the most culturally diverse I’ve ever attended. The priest had a crisp, east-European accent, and he greeted the various people groups in the church in their heart languages. “Christ is risen!” he cried to the English, and we shouted back “Truly he is risen!” He proclaimed the same thing in Greek, and the Greeks responded in joy. He shouted it in Amharic, and the Ethiopians echoed in praise. He called the same in Russian, in Ukrainian, in German, and in a number of other Eastern European languages (and perhaps one Asian) that I could not identify, and every time the people declared the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Though from very different cultural backgrounds, we were all united in that moment. Though speaking different languages, we all prayed and praised God with one voice. And the words of Revelation played through my mind: “I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (7:9-10).

Every nation. Every language. One voice. “He is risen! Truly He is risen! Kristos tenestwal! Wahrlich ist er erstanden! Christos anesti!”

“Χριστός ανέστη!”

Much of my previous literary theory discussion has operated in the realm of the ideal. For example, my discussions of the Experience (judging the “message(s)” or Logos of a literary work) have assumed two things: first, that authors are capable of encoding the (unconscious or intended) message; and second, that readers are capable of decoding it. Likewise, my post on Beauty implies that authors are able, in essence, to first, encapsulate in text the (unconscious or intended) encounter of the mysterious; and second, that the reader is equally capable of entering into that same encounter, feeling the same awe, or pleasure, or disgust that went into its construction. Both of these assertions have one fundamental underlying assumption: namely, that language is capable of accurately transmitting information between speaker and hearer without any loss of that information.

Having taken degrees in both English and Linguistics, I have been exposed to rather contrary views of the nature of language. As a linguist, I want to say that language functions as a science: it follows very specific (if unconscious) rules. From the most basic levels (eg, phonetics and phonemics) to the more complex (eg, morphology and syntax) to the most complex (eg, semantics, pragmatics and speech acts), language can be broken down into its constituent parts; it can be analysed, and the laws governing its construction can be identified. And these laws help us to explain how utterances carry meaning.

But on the other hand, I also hold a degree in English. In that capacity, I saw (and, indeed, contributed to ) the broader activity of interpretation – of drawing meaning from a text, often arguing that the meaning you are identifying has gone unobserved by prior readers. And as any student of literature (or Scripture for that matter) knows, different people often come to different interpretations of the same text. The question one must ask is obvious: if language operates on a system of basic laws (as linguists assert), why do such differences in interpretation occur?

Much of late twentieth century critical theory capitalized on this seeming inability to arrive at definitive interpretations. Indeed, Derrida argued that language is always self-deconstructing; one cannot say anything without using words which simultaneously say the opposite of what one means. In purely biblical terms, one might summarize Derrida by quoting Ecclesiastes 6:11: “The more words, the less the meaning.” For Derrida, the issue of language is a simple dichotomy: either language can convey meaning or it cannot. And if it can be shown to fail in one instance, despite the intention of the author, than the entire structure collapses; we can never again trust with any certainty that our language will accurately convey the meaning we intend. It’s Babel all over again.

David Lyle Jeffrey does a good job of breaking down this dichotomy in his 1996 work People of the Book: Christian Identify and Literary Culture.1 Jeffrey asserts that Christians need not make a choice between the two poles; sometimes language carries meaning effectively and sometimes it does not. “Christian literary theories are generally affirmative of an ultimate Truth or Logos,” he writes, “but also firm in their insistence on the limitations of human language more than dimly to refract that Logos.” In other words, language is related to meaning but it seldom has a one-to-one correlation. Because language is imperfect, it often fails to convey intended meaning in its totality. As such, Jeffrey says, it leads sometimes to “endless frustration” and sometimes to “momentary joy.”

It is this simultaneously-good-and-bad nature of language Christians ought to recall when they approach literature. Like all of creation, human language was “subjected to frustration” in the Fall. But it was originally created good. And just as humanity retains some semblance of “the image of God” after the fall, so too human language retains some of its original goodness. We may find that the meaning in literature is often obscured, but there is still some meaning to be found. It’s beauty may be marred, but there is still fragments of beauty. And this is all, as I reflected in my first post on Christianity and literature, because God is still at work in creation – the hidden God working through the vocations of man for the good of the world. When the meaning of a story is successfully experienced via language, it is because God is good. When beauty is successfully crafted by an author and appreciated by the reader, it is because God is good. In the end, that is the most important argument why Christians ought to read literary works: because God is amazingly and undeservedly good. Despite the brokenness of language and literature, he works though them to reveal beauty and truth and goodness. It’s the promise of Pentecost. In good literature, we are the recipients of God’s grace. And so we read, trusting that the “Giver of all good things” will, indeed, give us something good.

[This is the fifth and final article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the essays in the series here.]


1I will say, however, that his tendency to prolixity in the text manifests, if unintentionally so, an occasional impenetrability which has the effect of obfuscating his general purposes. In other words, he uses too many big words. I’m not against flexing your lexical abilities in general, but his sentences are often far heavier than they need to be – perhaps reflecting, in some small way, the very limitations of language he is discussing.

Image credits: (1) Open book image: vichie81 / (2) Tower of Babel illustration from Gustave Doré.

As a Christian linguist*, one of the things that particularly irks me is the failure of the Church (myself included) to be vigilant in ensuring that our witness to the world is an intelligible one. In our desire to preach the Gospel, we’re not always careful to make sure the language we’re speaking is a language our non-Christian neighbours can understand. In other words, sometimes we need to speak in other words.

That concern lies behind my latest article for The Canadian Lutheran.  In addressing the problem, I explore the story of Pentecost, Luther’s theology of translation, and the historical move from German to English in North American Lutheran churches.  At the same time, I can only hope that my exploration of the subject speaks to readers where they are – that it speaks their language, as it were. (I’m sure someone in my congregation will be sure to let me know if I’ve failed on this point).

To read the article, visit The Canadian Lutheran website and select the article entitled “Can you hear me now?: Evangelism for the 21st century.” While you’re at it, check out the rest of the July-August issue. In addition to my article, there’s some insightful thoughts on engaging youth in the life of the Church now (as opposed to at some ill-defined point in the future), a story on the 2010 LCC National Youth Gathering, a discussion of C.F.W. Walther’s take on the Confessions, and other news and views of interest.


* I use the term somewhat loosely. While I’m not employed as a linguist, I do have a linguistics degree.

I’m off to Chicago today until Saturday for I.D.I.O.M. (In-Depth Investigation of Mission), put on by Lutheran Bible Translators. [I am grateful to LBT-Canada for their support in attending the conference.] This event is for people considering the possiblity of serving in translation ministry (whether as translation advisors, language surveyors, ethnomusicologists, etc). Please pray for me and the other seventeen people at this event as we explore the possiblity of working with LBT.

LBT has published 31 translations of the New Testament since 1980, with many more projects on the go. They and similar groups such as Wycliffe Bible Translators are instrumental in bringing the Gospel of Christ to the nations. Please pray for these ministries, that God would provide workers for the harvest.

A little while ago I mentioned a piece of mine had been published in the June issue of Speculative Grammarian. Well, that linguistics satire piece has prompted a similarly satirical response. In the July issue, “Charlie Saygone” criticizes my theory of the “linguistic big crunch” and argues instead that we are headed for a “linguistic big rip.” In this hilarious article, “Saygone” suggests that I’m off my rocker. Which is probably true.

Block and colleagues at the High-Energy Pronoun Accelerator have, to put it bluntly, gone insane. I would attribute this to living underground in close proximity to attempts at firing fourth person dual reflexive pronouns at dummy pronouns in the illative case.”

In short, this article was terribly amusing. Academic linguistics (and perhaps academics in general) has an unfortunate tendency to engage in theory-wars, where each camp’s primary research consists of attacking the other. The recent satirical skirmish on the fate of the linguistic universe is a nice break from real theory battles.

Check out my article “The Linguistic Big Crunch” here and see “Charlie Saygone’s” response here. [Incidentally, I’ve heard word that a number of other spin-offs from my article are on the way. ] Man, when someone writes the book on satirical linguists I better be remembered as the father of Cosmological Linguistics.

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