Tag Archives: language

Verbal Pause

There’s an interesting article on CNN about how “the f-word is everywhere” — interesting to me, at least, but I am a linguist. That’s my job. How we use language is naturally high on the list of things I love to think about.

Writers naturally agree words have power. Nothing is so moving as the perfect word or phrase to communicate a message. Whether it’s the description of a scene or action, or the authentic response of a non-fictional or even fictional character, finding the just-right word is a heady moment.

Consider Mark Twain’s comment: The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

I discussed this with my teenage children (oh yes, this week we now have TWO teenage children in our house, Heaven help us). I naturally fear what they say around me and what they say around friends are different. One of my daughter’s friends accidentally “dropped the f-bomb” at the restaurant table after church (and suffered her mom’s threats of certain doom to follow). My kids often warn me which neighborhood friends are known for profanity.

My wife has drawn the line at “screwed” and “crap” and such. My teenage son gets away with “flippin'” and “dang it” slips past mom’s radar. If we waived the rules and let them say whatever they want, my kids would probably not even use the f-word or other strong profanity.

I chalk that up in the win column.

But I also work in the military, where the word is “everywhere” like the article suggests. Some younger personnel can’t seem to get a sentence out without a form of f— sprinkled in. It is indeed a versatile word, as the author suggests.

And I can’t be sanctimonious here. It has escaped my mouth too.

Traveling with small children through O’Hare airport, moving to a new duty station, I pushed a cart laden down with car seats, booster seats, luggage, carry-on bags and diaper bags. At the end of a moving walkway, everything collapsed. A wall of luggage blocked the exit. People tried to get by. I flew into a rage, flinging luggage off to the side, trying to clear the path, angered that we had so much, frustrated because I knew we needed all of it since we had nothing else to our names until our household shipments arrived (scheduled for a month or more later).

Not my finest moment.

And there have been times on the military aircraft where I do my job, when systems are failing or worse yet when our command and control structures are providing ridiculous input or confusing and arguably stupid direction. Few things get under my skin like technology that fails to deliver what is promised, but nonsense during operational missions can do it.

I’m not excusing the language; I’m admitting failure in an area where I want to do better.

What bothers me most about the f-word being everywhere is that in some circles and especially among the young adults I encounter, f— is the new verbal pause, a new “um” or “uh” included thoughtlessly in sentences, serving no purpose.

“Uh, do you know if – um – Tom is done with the – uhh – review of that – um – training folder? Uhh, Tom is always uhh late getting those – um – things completed.”

That’s as painful to read as it was to type out. But that’s essentially the way many people speak, substituting arguably the strongest profanity for each verbal pause.

Maybe it’s quaint and petty of me, too Ned Flanders “hi-delly-ho, neighbor” to feel this way. But yes… if that’s how someone speaks, I judge their ability to communicate. I note this symptom of either lack of vocabulary or effort to choose better words.

I’m a linguist. Words matter. How we use them says more about us than we might like to admit.

Here’s that CNN article – “The f-word is everywhere.”

What do you think? Do you agree with what the author suggests? How about my assessment? What does the prevalence of that word indicate? Let me know in a comment, please. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Use Your Words!

Just do it carefully, it’ll be fine!

Sometimes you know exactly what you want to say, but you can’t quite find the words.

(Usually they come to you ten minutes after the conversation in which you wanted to use them.)

Add in a language barrier, and you’re in trouble!

In 14 years living in Japan, I utterly failed at learning to speak Japanese. I say this to my shame. It would have made for so many better interactions with the Okinawan and Japanese people I and my family encountered during our time there.

The one thing I learned to do was to sing songs in church in Japanese. We had a number of songs that had been translated, and we were given the “rumaji” — Japanese words in romanized alphabet, like this:

Shuyo ten wo hiraki ima chiwo yusabiri

I studied Vietnamese (and later Chinese), so I understood the importance of getting the pronunciation right. I learned to hold the ‘n’ the length of an additional syllable, like “te-n” in the example above. I tried really hard to imitate the “r” that sounds more like a soft “d” or “l” (hence the racial stereotypes about eating flied lice and such).

At first, I was nervous. How am I going to sing and not understand what I’m saying? Won’t everyone tell immediately what a pretender I am?

But the chance for our Okinawan and Japanese members to sing in their own language brought them so much joy that I quickly overcame my fears. Maybe I sounded like “Engrish” to them, but they welcomed my attempts and we worshiped together.

My wife and I played a special set of songs for a Women’s Conference, and the first two songs were strictly English. The Okinawans seemed to enjoy it; they clapped, they smiled, they lifted hands, and so on. But when we started singing Matt Redman’s Blessed Be Your Name, I had a Japanese copy prepared. We got to the pre-chorus, and I sang out, “…When the darkness closes in, Lord, still I will say…”

Shu no mina o homeyo…

There was a visible and near tangible wave of emotional reaction. The ladies’ faces lit up with joy and gratitude at the chance to sing their words, and not the words of another.

I want to create moments like that as often as possible.

At one point, I wrote a song that was popular in our church, but we wanted to make it available to others on the mainland. I was able to find a translator–oddly enough a tall Scandanavian girl named Naomi who spoke fluent Japanese–and we worked together to find the right phrases.

That word… I don’t think it means
What you think it means.

A lot of songs get translated, but the words don’t always match up to the original, or in the effort to make a perfect translation, too much gets shoved into the timing of the music.

Naomi talked about how a lot of translated songs bothered her, because the two sets of lyrics really didn’t communicate the same message.

Ours did.

It wasn’t possible to get a word-for-word translation, but I had Okinawans tell me, “I was really happy to hear that the English and Japanese matched up so well.”

When I studied Chinese Mandarin, I had an idea for a song, and again I aimed to get it right. I love singing in another language, providing people the opportunity to worship in the familiar, in what they understand.

This is our Savior and King, the righteous Lamb of God slain for us.

This is our God, who calls us to Himself and makes our relationship possible.

This is a message I want to get right in any language.

我的神 / Wo de Shen (Link to SoundCloud where you can listen to the song)


耶稣 哦 耶稣
耶稣 我的救主

Lord, You are my God
Here before Your face
I can only kneel
Because You are so great

Not only are You God,
You also are my King
It’s You that I revere,
for You’ve called me to draw near

Jesus, oh Jesus
Righteous Lamb of God
Jesus, my Savior
You are the King I love

Blindsided by Reality

So the church has a new target in its ongoing war against the “corruption of our youth” and the dangers of our culture. 

The movie “The Blind Side.”

Yes, the one with Sandra Bullock that came out a few years ago. The one about the family that takes in a troubled kid and gets him playing football, where he thrives and rises to fame in the NFL. The one based (perhaps loosely) on a true story.

It was a nice feel-good movie for most audiences. For Christians, it was a rare chance to see Hollywood show us a Christian character instead of a caricature.

It’s for your own good.
Because we said so.

But apparently there were some potty mouths in the movie at some point. So it needs to be taken off the shelves at the local Christian bookstore, because… I don’t know, THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

Here’s CNN’s Belief Blog with the article.

I understand why some Christians might object to profanity and taking God’s name in vain being in a movie. I know some religious people have a strict code about what is permissible and what is forbidden.

For example, bacon.

A good chunk of the world’s population can’t eat it without violating their faith. I applaud their resolve (and take their share).

Part of entertainment–not popcorn-chewing, mindless action fare, but the thought-provoking, sticks with you when you leave the theater or turn off the DVD kind–is portraying reality.

In life, people sometimes say bad words.

They sometimes do bad things.

They sometimes think bad thoughts.

It’s ok to admit that. It’s ok to see that on a silver screen. It might trigger a discussion with my kids or my friends (or with my own thoughts on the matter). It might force me to evaluate “Why do I believe what I believe about this? What are the consequences of this behavior? Does any good come out of this? Does anything harmful result?”

Imagine the thought of discussing with our kids the power of our words and the importance of how we communicate.

Or you can cover their ears so that they never hear someone drop an F-bomb. (Shock! They probably already have, when you weren’t around.)

Imagine the thought of explaining sexual purity to our kids and discussing the importance and value of healthy relationships.

Or you can cover their eyes lest they see cleavage on TV. (Newsflash, they’re probably already seeing the overly-sexualized images all around them at the grocery store checkout lane.)

Imagine the thought of talking with your kids about the value of life, the dangerous corruption that comes with power, and the many ways violence as a solution is no solution at all.

Or you can stop them from playing Halo or Call of Duty on the XBox. (Spoilers: they’re probably playing it at a friend’s house.)

We can’t live in a protected bubble where no mention or thought of sin ever sneaks past our careful defenses. Doing that separates us from the world around us. Christ didn’t tell us to form little safe communes in the middle of nowhere. He told us to go out into the world and make disciples.

We see Paul do that in the New Testament, and he encounters a lot of objectionable content as he travels. He advises the churches under his care about holiness and getting rid of sin that corrupts. At the same time, he uses the sin and the misguided beliefs of the people around him not as a wedge to create a separation but as a hook to lead them to the Gospel.

Paul doesn’t run from reality to hide in safety. He embraces reality to further the message.

If we look at the Bible, it has a lot of pretty objectionable content too. The movie, The Passion of the Christ is a popular Christian film, but it’s brutal and vicious in its depiction of blood and gore. And we celebrate that, because, hey, it’s Jesus.

“Violence is ok, but don’t say any bad words, don’t show any skin, and heaven help you if homosexuality is involved somehow!”

If all we do is find reasons why things are bad, we’ll end up living in our sheltered communities, avoiding any interaction with the people around us (the ones we say we love, right?). We’ll surround ourselves with all the “pure” things – until someone else figures out what’s wrong with them. We’ll be safe.

And we’ll be completely ineffective at accomplishing the purpose for which the church exists.