Of Name and Essence

By Sabrina Molinero

“You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are `trees', and growing is `to grow').”
Mythopoeia, J.R.R Tolkien.

Since its very beginning, language -and its diversity- has been subject to multiple legends, myths, and theories regarding how it was created (or originated). Darwinists will say it is a product of the evolved brain in different cultures; Judaeo-Christians that there was only one language connatural to men, until the Babelian punishment; sociologists could argue that it was the way people adapted to the communal lifestyle. Be that as it may, it is not our aim here to resolve this great dilemma, but to elucidate the importance and transcendence words have; today’s lack of reflection on this topic has led to unconceivable tragedies.

Jorge Luis Borges, quoting Plato, said “the name is the archetype of the thing, in the letters of «rose» is the rose and all the Nile in the word «Nile».[1] We intuit, here, that the word perfectly defines the thing, polishing its essence. A thing does not perpetuate its being until it is given a name because, in the term[2], we intellectually apprehend its concept. There is no need to draw, below these paragraphs, an animal with wings and a beak for understanding the essence of a bird; just by saying the word, a bird comes to our minds. The images in our intellect may not be equal, but the essential aspects are held there.

Nonetheless, some terms are uniquely comprehended in various cultures. This is most prevalent in languages that have a distinguishing grammatical and semantical construction, e.g. German or Greek. Goethe develops this idea in his Faust: the protagonist is trying to translate into German the verse of the New Testament Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν Ὁ Λόγος (John 1:1), but does not seem to find an appropriate word.

 It’s written here: ‘In the Beginning was the Word!’
Here I stick already! Who can help me? It’s absurd,
impossible, for me to rate the word so highly
I must try to say it differently
if I’m truly inspired by the Spirit. I find
I’ve written here: ‘In the Beginning was the Mind’.
Let me consider that first sentence,
so my pen won’t run on in advance!
Is it Mind that works and creates what’s ours?
It should say: ‘In the beginning was the Power!’
Yet even while I write the words down,
I’m warned: I’m no closer with these I’ve found.
The Spirit helps me! I have it now, intact.
and firmly write: ‘In the Beginning was the Act!’[3]

Faust interprets the word Λόγος according to what he understands from it; and we should say that his -and everyone’s- mindset is shaped by language. Why is this? Words can be thought like bridges that connect one point to its destiny: point A would be our intellect, and the destiny to be reached is the concept we are trying to attain. Words are how we get there; if many terms exist to get to the same place, many roads will have been travelled. How we experience this journey allows us to decode one idea in contrasting ways.

Consequently, translating is betraying (and this is etymologically correct[4]) the meaning of a word. Thus, it becomes fundamental to be precise and cautious in interpreting and translating a foreign text, otherwise we could be thinking that the author stated something he or she did not. Not only is this significant in translation, but also in considering the constant fluctuations languages have depending on social trends. Vocabulary is created to designate new inventions: smartphone, for instance. Let’s look closer into this not-so-cool word.

Smart is a synonym of intelligent; the latter derivate from the Latin intus legere, reading into something, meaning that he, who is intelligent, can grasp the essence of things; and, logically, can understand what is true, good and beautiful. This operation exclusively belongs to human beings. Still, this adjective does not apply to the idea of a device that forces multitasking. Is the seriousness of the issue clear enough? Are we really defining a piece of silicon as a human being? Of course not, but still, we are becoming more and more dependent without realizing how the word erodes the way we think and act.

If words are bridges, then we ought to take care of them and, when necessary, repair them. Living in a society where language can change depending on each person’s caprice does nothing but cause confusion; we cannot either understand reality nor ourselves: communication turns unbearable and individualism grows dramatically. Who could have thought that words have such an impact?

[1] Borges, Jorge Luis. The Golem (1958). “Si (como afirma el griego en el Cratilo) / el nombre es arquetipo de la cosa / en las letras de ‘rosa’ está la rosa / y todo el Nilo en la palabra ‘Nilo’.”

[2] In formal logic, term refers to the word or expression denoting the subject or predicate of a categorical proposition.

[3] Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust (Part I, Scene III: The Study).

[4] Traditor, related to traducere, means betrayer.