Sunday, July 17, 2005

Language and "Translation"

Someone recently was telling me about the difference between "high-ramified language" and "low-ramified language" in talking about religion. When you talk about religion with "high-ramified language," you use terms and expressions that are clearly religious. But the problem with speaking in this way is that those terms and expressions might be obscure to those outside of the speaker's particular faith tradition, or might have ambiguous meanings. Communication can be hindered. Those outside of the speaker's faith tradition may feel excluded. Miscommunication may happen.

Low-ramified language is a translation of those concepts into simpler, clearer language that connects with belief-systems beyond the speaker's own faith tradition.

The point of our discussing this was not to argue that one kind of language is better that another. It simply depends on context. Within your faith tradition, speaking in high-ramified language is appropriate. When speaking to broader audiences, it is often better to use low-ramified language.

As we discussed this distinction, I came to realize that I very often try to speak in low-ramified language, because that is the way I can speak about what is meaningful to me in ways that are most likely to connect with what others find meaningful, regardless of their different faith traditions (or lack thereof, if anyone can be said to lack a faith tradition altogether -- but "faith" is a high-ramified term, so it depends on how you define it!) These just are the settings I most often find myself in. During other parts of my life, I was heavily immersed in Quaker subculture, living in Quaker communities and such. Now, when I attend Quaker gatherings, I do feel a strong sense of "coming home" and being able to "speak my native language," a highly-ramified Quaker language. It is a relief!

But I have had so much to speak the low-ramified language that this has now become my default way of speaking about ideas and experiences that I myself regard as religious.

In fact, I may sometimes be too successful in this -- so successful that people can miss completely how deeply religious I actually am. Once I was criticized because my drafting of our Meeting's State of the Society Report made no explicit mention of God. I felt that the presence of God pervaded the document, and so I was a bit taken aback. But I dimly realized then (and much more clearly realize now) that such a document really can and should use what I now realize is called high-ramified language, and so I changed it accordingly. More recently, I have found a site where my blog is listed not among Quaker blogs but in a kind of extra listing that the lister described as not being religious or political! I do regard my blog as intending to speak to those who are not Quaker and who may not regard themselves as religious, and so maybe I should take this as an indication that my use of low-ramified language is highly successful!

But it points out a problem of low-ramified language. While low-ramified language is good in its capacity to forge connections across different belief-systems, some might mistake such language as language that is not religious at all. If the person you are communicating with is "allergic" to religious language (a concept I heard Johan Maurer use when he came to speak at a Yearly Meeting I was attending a few years ago), then that person's not interpreting your language as religious can be good: it can facilitate communication, where highly-ramified religious language may have blocked communication. Rhetorically sensitive religious people can "hear" the religious connotations in low-ramified language. But there remains the possibility that religious people who are less rhetorically sensitive might so miss the religious connotations of your language that they regard you as non-religious or even anti-religious -- and the problems of high-ramified language (the possibility of miscommunication) reappear in inverse form.

My advice then: rhetorical sensitivity is a virtue among both speakers/writers and listeners/readers. To speak/write with rhetorical sensitivity is to be aware of your audience and adjust your own terminology in ways that are most likely to facilitate effective communication. To listen/read with rhetorical sensitivity is to (a) be aware that the speaker/writer might be doing this, and adjust your own interpretation of their language accordingly, or (b) be aware that the speaker/writer might not yet be skilled in rhetorical sensitivity, or just might not be fully aware of all the variations of belief among the audience, and so it can be helpful to try to be open-minded in your interpretation of that person's use of language.


  1. Hi EC,
    That's a funny story about having written an entire Meeting report without having mentioned God in there at all. A lot of Quakers are too talented in a kind of modern Quaker-speak that sounds religious but really just dances around any talk of faith. While I'd like to think this is the result of a sensitivity to using religiously-exclusive language, I think it's often a fear of being religious. It's easy to speak Quakerism very fluently without really appreciating the source of the words.

    >Rhetorically sensitive religious people can "hear"
    >the religious connotations in low-ramified language.

    Sometimes this low-ramified language (great term!) can be even more insider and elitist, since outsiders won't even know what they don't know. I have a Friend who claims that everytime he uses the word "community" (which he uses a lot) he's really talking about "the body of Christ." That's all very good for the ten of us who know him well, but newcomers to Quakerism hear that and think that their pre-Quaker ideas about "community" are what he's talking about. I understand that it's sometimes necessary to use different language in different contexts but I struggle with the feeling that this isn't really in line with the Quaker testimony of plain speaking. What about the old commandment to let our yeas be yeas and our nays nays? Our peculiar words and language pack in layers of meaning and refer to a worldview shaped by generations of Friends. Part of my growth as a Friend has been the hard exercise of struggling through the words to understand where they come from (work that continues and probably always will continue).

    I wonder if this complexity of language and our outward presentation to the world is one of the reasons we are to speak only from the direct promptings of the Spirit. The right words in the wrong context will fall on stony ground. It is perhaps not for us to determine just what the right words might be, only to deliver what we've been given.

    Good stuff in all these questions--it's all way too distracting and interesting!
    Your Friend,
    Martin Kelley

  2. Thank you, Martin, for your comments on this! Much to think about...

    Part of the reason I've become more used to speaking in low-ramified language is because colleges and universities often can be a bit hostile towards religious belief, especially my field (philosophy). So your comment about people being afraid to be religious is related.

    For myself, I'm not afraid, but I've seen others afraid. My own concern is communication -- not wanting people to tune me (or religion) out or write me (or religion) off too quickly.

    In my teaching I often approach certain religious topics indirectly at first, and then surprise my students by noting that "what we are talking about is often described by Christians as ____" and then I introduce the appropriate high-ramified word. The students are usually stunned. Then, when they recover, they often start arguing against me ("that's not what that means!") and then we go on to have quite a wonderful discussion, because some other student who "got it" helps argue on my behalf, and so I turn it all over to them, and everyone learns a lot in the process.

    I love teaching!

  3. In a Quakerism 101 class last winter, a Friend said that, when giving vocal ministry, the minister should use the speaker's own authentic language, and to not take great efforts at finding what you call low-ramified language in the hope of not turning off listeners. She said the burden is on the hearer to listen with an open heart and translate as necessary.

    Most heads nodded in agreement. But one Friend responded heatedly that such an approach was making an excuse for cultural insensitivity. As usually happens after an accusation like that, the conversation stopped and the class went on in uneasy disagreement.

    I side with the first Friend. In my experience, what you call high-ramified -- traditional and explicit spiritual language, or "God Talk" -- often is the only language with the power to convey spiritual or religious reality. Sometimes -- such as a vocal prayer -- words themselves are the message, they're not "about" something that can be translated but are what a lawyer would call a verbal act.

    Other times, the rich religious language, with its deep echoes & implied references, is the only vehicle that can carry the message. "Am I my brother's keeper?" says a lot more than "Am I responsible for others?" (at least for those familiar with the underlying story . . . and perhaps that's your point.)

    This is especially true when "normal" language has become so banal and bloodless. For a satirical example of what low-ramified language can do to a high-ram thought, see this infamous parody of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

    I was about to say something about the importance of speaking to that of God in the listener, but when I found the actual quote for a link I realized George Fox said it a little differently, in what I think is very effective high-ram language:

    "Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you go, so that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one. Thereby you can be a blessing in them and make the witness of God in them bless you. Then you will be a sweet savor and a blessing to the Lord God."

    So we are to answer that of God in the listener, not necessarily speak to it. If the focus is on the listener's longing for an answer, then the challenge is to meet the listener where he or she is, but not deprive them of the whole power of the Truth by diluting the message with low voltage language that can't carry the full power.

    Perhaps a key is Paul's observation that "Though I speak with the low-ramified tongues of men and of high-ramified angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinking cymbal."

    So perhaps it isn't the language at all, but the power that is being channeled by the speaker?

  4. Thank you, Paul, for your comments! I agree with you that vocal ministry in Meeting for Worship should generally be in high-ramified language. (If not there, where then?!)

    But "generally" -- not "always." While I would wish that Meeting for Worship is a setting in which others know how to listen senstively and openly, sometimes there are issues in particular Meetings.

    For example, as an interesting contrast to the State of Society report story I previously mentioned -- in another Meeting to which I belonged for a time, we met in a side room of a church, and one of the members of that meeting wanted all crosses removed before Meeting for Worship! Needless to say, we found that we did have to be careful about language around this person, who had had traumatic experiences with the church she had belonged to before coming to the Friends.

    No matter how careful we are, we cannot be all things to all people -- and so in the end I agree with both you and Martin that what really matters more than the words themselves is "where the words come from" -- the spirit from which we speak.