Words and language is a fascinating subject. According to author Bill Bryson, the most complicated languages, using far more words and made up of many more characters than western language, are Chinese and Japanese. Due to the way that our languages evolved, differently, Chinese script possesses 50,000 characters making Chinese typewriters enormous and they can only manage a fraction of the characters available. ‘If a standard Western typewriter keyboard were expanded to take in every Chinese ideograph it would be about fifteen feet long and five feet wide – about the size of two ping-pong tables pushed together’. So, much reason to be thankful for plain English!
But despite the fact that we humans have this God given gift of communication, through words and language, we don’t always use it to full potential. How often do we hear words used to divide, to incite violence, to do harm and so on, rather than to build up, encourage and unite.
In the Epistle of James we read how the tongue can be so dangerous. How it can use a few little words, like a spark, to fan a great forest fire. And James also says, ‘Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.’ And yet, it happens. The old adage says ‘sticks and stones can break your bones but names will never harm you’. Our parents taught us this to encourage us to toughen up and not overly react to name calling. Indeed it is more dangerous if someone physically assaults us but it usually starts with words. So, it is important that we heed James’s warnings and be careful in our choice of words, particularly when we are angry.
During the time that I have been a minister I have resided over a number of funerals. It is always a privilege to do this as people are in a place where they need someone to help them through the funeral service and in the days after. To stand with them. To choose soothing and comforting words is an important element of any funeral service, as it is to find words which best express, in thankfulness, the life of the person who is being mourned.
Yet, sometimes this is made difficult by the fact that families can be divided. Uncle Jimmy never spoke to so and so. I cannot sit on the same row as my sister, brother, parent etc. because of something which happened in life. Of course there are always two sides to a story. Or, as someone once said, there can be two sides to a story and then there is the truth. Well, the truth is that; once a person has died opportunities for reconciliation, showing forgiveness, apology etc. has died with them. And that is sad.
Perhaps then the words that are most dangerous, in this respect, are the words that are never spoken. Such as, I am sorry, please forgive me, let’s forget it or I love you etc. They don’t have to be these exact words and we may not have as many words as the Chinese at our disposal. However, in a world in much need of comfort and encouragement at this time; there are plenty to choose from. So let’s choose them wisely!
Song of Solomon 2:8-12
The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
Leaping upon the mountains,
Bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
Behind our wall, gazing in at our windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
Arise, my love, my fair one,
And come away;
for now the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of singing has come,
And the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
A Reflection (From Celtic Daily Prayer)
A certain brother went to Abbot Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him:
Go, and sit in your cell
and your cell will teach you everything.
 Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue: The English Language (London: Penguin Books, 1990) , 108-110
 Celtic Daily Prayers: Inspirational Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community (London: Harper Collins, 2005)