Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Word for Word

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian Psychologist who is famous for his work in developmental and educational psychology. He suggested that human thinking is inextricably linked to language. His research suggests that young children internalize the voices and speech of their parents and thus learn how to speak. This emphasizes the role of cultural interaction in everyday thinking.

Evidence for this theory comes from different cultural types of language. It has been said that Native Americans who live in the Arctic have numerous words that infer different types of snow. We only have one word for snow. Another example would be the difference between a layperson and an expert’s language. I might have seven or eight categories for which to describe a building, an architect would probably have hundreds. (For more on Vygotsky and the power of words, listen to this interesting radio show called "Radiolab")

Considering this line of thinking, the next portion of the Shema Yisreal is very interesting. When it was first spoken in Deuteronomy 6, the word used for the concept of love was the Hebrew word “ahab.” It appears that this word was fairly generic, much like our word “love.” It seems to have meant all of the things that the word love means to us. 

However, when Jesus quotes the Shema Yisreal in Mark 12:29, he uses the Greek word “agape.” The Greek language had several words that signified the concept of love. Agape appears to have mostly been used to connote a decision-based love, a commitment.

It makes sense to me that the languages would change over time. As the world gets more complex, so does language. What does not make sense is that in modern-day English we only have the word “Love.” It just seems too simple to describe something that was so complex that the Greeks had several words for it. It seems like it would be the same as calling all plants trees.

Given that language seems to be what shapes our thinking, could it be that having only one word is one of the reasons why we have such a hard time understanding love?

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