Ecclesiastes 3:11: Can we learn anything about God through our languages?

gemar14

Member
I was recently reminded of Ecclesiastes 3:11, which is often quoted to support the idea that everyone has some fundamental understanding of God and eternity, even the non-believer. Going further, some will say that you can find some Biblical truths in any culture if you look hard enough, because no matter how non-Christian they are, we all have had eternity set in our hearts. Then I got to thinking: there is no more important part of any given culture than the language its people share, so will we be able to see some pearls of Biblical truth when examining the way our languages address God? My assertion is, absolutely. Now, I happen to like linguistics as a hobby so I will be using some things from that field but you shouldn't need any specialized training to understand my point.
I'll start from the modern day and work my way backward. Obviously, we live in a world with thousands of different languages and each has its own way of discussing the idea of God. I won't address all of them, just some groupings. The most well-studied group of languages is the Indo-European family which includes languages like English, Greek, French, German, Russian, Hindi and even Persian. Within that family we have subgroupings: Romance languages like French, Spanish, Italian; Germanic languages like English, Dutch, German; Slavic languages like Russian, Polish and Czech; Hellenic languages like Greek; Indian languages like Hindi, Bengali; and Iranian languages like Persian, Kurdish. There are some other random ones but these are the main groups. Now, how each of these languages refers to God is revealing.
Let's start with the familiar group: Germanic ones. In basically all Germanic languages, the word for "God" is, obviously, "God" or some variant of it. In English and Dutch it's written God, in German it's Gott, in Swedish it's Gud, in Icelandic it's Guð (that last letter is pronounced like the th in the word "there"). But where does this word come from and what does it actually tell us about God? Right off the bat, I'll say the words God and good are not related, so popular derivation of God from good is well-intentioned but incorrect. God is good, but that's not where we get the word for God. Linguistic analysis tells us that a few thousand years back, all Germanic tribes spoke a single language called Proto-Germanic from which all modern Germanic languages stem. In Proto-Germanic, God was "gudą" (pronounced like goo + thou like in thou art). This word literally means "invoked one". This word itself came from the ancestor of Proto-Germanic, Proto-Indo-European (PIE) from which all Indo-European languages stem. In PIE, it was something like ǵʰutós (pronounced like gootoes but exhaling while you do the "g" sound). In PIE, it meant both to invoke and to libate (pour liquid as an offering). So, what can we conclude from this? The early Germanics thought God was an invoked being, someone who could hear and respond (otherwise why invoke Him) and who did it as a response to some sort of offering. So, this clearly rules out a deistic being who just set the universe in motion and sat back and hints at a more personal being. From a Christian perspective, this is not that far off: we invoke God, even though we do it through offerings of prayer and not drinks. This personal nature of the supernatural must have really resonated with the early Germanics for them to take a word that just meant to invoke or pour drinks and eventually turn it into "God". Were they pagans? Of course, but there is this pearl of truth to be found that confirms Ecclesiastes 3:11.
Now for the group of languages we all probably encountered in school: the Romance ones. Probably someone among you took Spanish, French or Italian and inevitably learned that God in Spanish is Dios, in French it's Dieu, and in Italian it's Dio. Ultimately, they all come from the Latin, Deus. But, again, where does this come from and what does it mean? Linguistic analysis tells us that Latin ultimately got it from Proto-Indo-European, where it was something like deyw. This root also gave, besides Deus, things like Jupiter (where the deyw has morphed into a ju), the Greek Ζεύς (Zeus) and the Greek δῖος (dios) which just meant a deity. What happened to this root in English? It became the Tue in Tuesday, a reference to a pagan god of war of the Anglo-Saxons, Tiw. But what did it mean? Deyw in PIE just meant sky or heaven. So, the Latins, Greeks and Germans must have all realized on some level that God isn't strictly like humans and lives in an entirely different plane of existence (for them, the sky was very different and remote from the earth). From a Christian perspective, this too isn't far off. God resides in heaven and isn't like us. Granted, they didn't catch the fact that He is omnipresent and is among us at all times and in all places, but their search for a God in a place that is beyond just the physical wasn't wrong. Once again, we see the search for eternity and the supernatural even among early pagans here.

These are some of my initial thoughts. If this sort of thing interests you guys and you want me to keep going with other language families, I'd be happy to oblige!
 

Kaatje

My soul waits for the Lord, and in His Word I hope
I love etymology. So I like you’re post very well.

I am Dutch, and speak some English, German, French an Hungarian.
(in that order from reasonably good to rudimentary)
And have for my whole life been fascinated about languages.
I have studied the way the languages spread over the globe after Babel.
So yes, please do, love to read more from you!
 

Batman

Well-Known Member
I am unlearned and ashamedly too lazy, busy, and distracted to learn Greek and Hebrew so that I can truly read what the NT and OT says and means. This is something I've always wanted to do but never invested the time. Youtube offers some neat studies that open the scriptures, especially the OT Hebrew for the Genesis creation passages. I also love the Edenics studies (Isaac Mozeson - The Word). I'm convinced that China once knew our Triune God. Learning other languages and learning more about God through our languages is definitely a fascinating area.
 

gemar14

Member
It looks like people are interested so I'll continue! The next group of languages, and ones with which I am most familiar, is the Slavic languages. My first language is Russian, but this is something even I didn't know until I researched it. So, in Russian and in basically every Slavic language, God is "Бог" (Bokh). In Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian it's spelled that way, in Polish it's Bóg, in Czech it's Bůh, in Serbian it's also Бог as in Russian. This ultimately comes from Proto-Slavic, bȍgъ (pronounced something like booguh). Linguists don't agree for sure, but a lot think this was an early borrowing from Persian languages' bʰagás (pronounced bagas, but exhaling the b). This is where you also get the names of cities like Baghdad (God-given, literally). Persian got its bʰagás from PIE, bʰeh₂g (exhale the B, and pronounce that h like a Dutchman pronounces his Gs). In PIE, this word meant "to divide, allot, allocate." Unfortunately, this root didn't make it into Germanic languages, so no English equivalent. Later on, in the Slavic branch, it specialized into dispensing or allocating wealth/fortune/fate. So, literally, the idea of God in Slavic languages is the one who doles out our fate, wealth, fortune. From a Christian perspective this is absolutely correct. God ultimately determines our fate, our our wealth, health, etc. I guess for the early Slavs, the world was a tumultuous place and they recognized that if a God exists, it is ultimately He who controls destiny and not man. It's nice that they were humble enough to recognize that man doesn't control his own fate as much as he thinks and that, ultimately, to have guidance for the future, you need something beyond yourself. This attitude has even carried over into modern-day Russian society: you'll find that even among atheists, there is this latent belief in fate and the supernatural.
The next "group" (really, there's only one language here but we'll call it a group) is the Hellenic languages, featuring Greek. In modern Greek, the word for God is
Θεός (theos), from which we get words like theology, theophany, theodicy. It comes from Proto-Indo-European dʰeh₁ (exhale the d, make a guttural G). This root made it into English and became the word "to do". In PIE as well, dʰeh₁ meant to do, put, place. So, for the ancient Greeks, God was literally a "doer, putter, placer". I think in this case, we can conclude that the ancient Greeks realized a God must have put all the things in the universe in their place, a creator figure. From a Christian perspective this is spot on. God created the universe with His own creative powers and set all things that are in it in their place. The idea of a creator God must have struck a chord with the ancient Greeks for them to take a regular word like "to do, to place" and use it to mean a supernatural being who did and placed everything.
 
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gemar14

Member
Moving forward, the other big language family I'll turn to is the Iranian languages. This includes things like modern Persian/Farsi, Pashto in Afghanistan and Kurdish (the same Kurds that Turkey and Erdogan waged war against). By far, the most common word for God in Persian is خدا‎ (khoda). In Pashto it's خدای‎ (khudai) and in Kurdish it's xweda (the w makes an oo type sound). The etymology of this one is quite interesting. It ultimately comes from PIE swé + tewkh (the first part morphed to khwa then to kho). If you translate this literally, it means self-strong, or self-swelling. English gets a nice collection of native words with various meanings from this ancient root: thousand, thumb and tuft. Besides the literal meaning, the Persian root later came to mean independent, self-ruling. So, for the ancient Persians, an indispensable part of God was His independence and autonomy since God was literally "the self-strong, independent one." From a Biblical perspective this is completely right. God created the universe and does things not because He depends on our prayers or because He's answering to some higher authority who is calling the shots.

The next big family is the Indic languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali (spoken in India and Bangladesh), Nepali, Punjabi and a host of others. From my research, it seems that this family heavily uses either the same "bog" root as the Slavic ones or, what's a little more common, the word ईश्वर (ishvar) or some variant of it. Ultimately this comes from Sanskrit ईश् (ish), from PIE kheyk, which meant to own or possess. This root wandered into English as well and became the words "owe, own, ought". So, for the ancient Indians, God was literally an owner/master. To me, this really reminds of the phrase "slaves to Christ" or "slaves to righteousness" that we see in the New Testament. On some level, the Indians must have realized that if there's a God, then He's an owner/master of all, and not just a local god as was believed by many ancient cultures.
 

Kaatje

My soul waits for the Lord, and in His Word I hope
The early Germanics thought God was an invoked being, someone who could hear and respond (otherwise why invoke Him) and who did it as a response to some sort of offering.
So, the Latins, Greeks and Germans must have all realized on some level that God isn't strictly like humans and lives in an entirely different plane of existence (for them, the sky was very different and remote from the earth).
So, literally, the idea of God in Slavic languages is the one who doles out our fate, wealth, fortune. From a Christian perspective this is absolutely correct. God ultimately determines our fate, our our wealth, health, etc.
So, for the ancient Greeks, God was literally a "doer, putter, placer". I think in this case, we can conclude that the ancient Greeks realized a God must have put all the things in the universe in their place, a creator figure.
So, for the ancient Persians, an indispensable part of God was His independence and autonomy since God was literally "the self-strong, independent one."
So, for the ancient Indians, God was literally an owner/master.
Isn’t this fascinating?
All these languages together, speak of the wonderful works of God.‭
Acts 1:11
 

gemar14

Member
The next "group" of languages I'll cover is actually just one: Armenian (for those following the news, this has become relevant). It stands alone and isn't connected to any other language but is closest to Greek. In Armenian, God is աստված (astvats). This is a really interesting word because, for the first time, we have mention of one of God's qualities besides where He lives and what He does. This likely comes from an early borrowing from Anatolian languages (extinct now, but they include Hittite like in Uriah the Hittite). The Armenian word came from early Anatolian Ashu-Tiwaz. The Tiwaz just means "god" in Anatolian languages and has the same root as the one in Romance languages but the Ashu means "good"! So, we literally have "good God" in Armenian. For the first time, we have mention of a good God as opposed to a strong one, which is something you don't see in the earlier language families. Now, I'm not certain why exactly the ancient Armenians were so fixated on God's goodness so much more than other nations but they hit upon the "why" of worship. You can have a creator God who is independent, who can be invoked, who doles out fate and who lives in heaven but if He is not good, then worship becomes a problem. Fortunately, ours is and the Armenians must have noticed that about their understanding of God as well.

Just a quick note on a language family I won't go over, the Celtic languages like Irish, Scottish and Welsh: their words for God have the same root as the Romance ones.

Now for a completely different language family we all know and love: the Semitic languages. These are not related to any Indo-European language directly (but some professional linguists believe they can be united with a little more work). We have languages like Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Babylonian (now extinct), Phoenician and Akkadian (what they spoke in Assyria, also extinct). Surprisingly, Sumerian (the one written in cuneiform) which preceded Akkadian/Babylonian is not Semitic, it's not even related to any other language which is extremely weird since it was spoken in the Middle-East. I am certain you could guess what the word for God is in these languages: some version of "El". In Hebrew, it's of course אֵל (el), in Arabic it's إِلٰه (ilah, which becomes Allah when you combine it with the definite article "al" which means "the"), in Akkadian it was (ilum, and yes it's literally drawn like an asterisk), in Phoenician it's ('l) and in Aramaic it was ܐܰܠܳܗܳܐ (alaha). All ultimately come from Proto-Semitic "il". What does this mean? This is generally seen as meaning "to be strong, out in front of something". So, literally, God is "the strong one who leads at the front". This fits in perfectly with what we know of God in the Old Testament and with what we know about the culture of the nations around the area: God was considered strong because He was always out in front of the Israelites whether guiding them or fighting for them.
 
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