Holy Linguists! Part I: Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome and Augustine

Reading time: 10 – 15 minutes

Surprising as it may be, I do actually have other interests besides linguistics. Perhaps the intellectual pursuit that holds second place in my affection (and obsession) is the study of religion and everything that that word encompasses – all the faith, the emotion, the theology and philosophy, the art, and all the history, both good and bad. Any subject that combines both a religious and a linguistic angle is a double win for me, and I couldn’t resist pursuing such a subject for a blog post when it occurred to me this week.

Here’s the idea, simply put: to share some Christian saints, who have, intentionally or accidentally, done some linguistics.

Saints are people who are generally in Christians’ good books, and so any writings that they produce in their lifetime will be revered and preserved, and may therefore have survived until the present day. St Augustine of Hippo’s popularity and prestige, for example, have continued long after his death, and we still have a considerable amount of his written output. Among the works of such long-dead saints, I’ve come across numerous examples of what looks like linguistic thinking. This in itself is not surprising; linguistics is an accessible science, and we all can and do think linguistically every day – whenever we stop to wonder about some feature of language, such as the processes of word formation, the systems of spelling and punctuation, the origin of a particular word, or connections across different languages. It’s pretty neat though to find these thoughts written down in ancient texts and therefore preserved for us today.

Additionally, I’ve also found examples of sainted scholars who have accidentally included some really interesting linguistic evidence in their writing. I say “accidentally” not because we can read their minds, but because these titbits are clearly not the point of a particular piece. Again, this per se is really not an unusual phenomenon. The things that you might casually say about your language, or the references to or opinions about other languages could be of great interest to the nosey linguist. Add in the expanse of centuries and the increased scarcity of witnesses to history, and those throw-away remarks become gold dust.

For Part I of this niche idea, I’ve chosen three saints from a particular favourite period of mine: Late Antiquity, the transformative era for the peoples around the Mediterranean that connects the classical and the medieval, cautiously bracketed as from c. 300 AD to c. 800 AD. Very much depending on whether you all like Part I, any Part II will take saints from another, as-yet-to-be-decided time period.

Holy Linguist #1: Saint Gregory of Nyssa

Icon of St Gregory of Nyssa. 14th century.

St Gregory of Nyssa is my first saintly Sprachwissenschaftler. He was a theologian and bishop of Nyssa in central Anatolia (in today’s Turkey), and died around 394 AD. He’s grouped together with two others as the Cappadocian Fathers, revered for their collective contributions to Christian thought. We still have a lot of Greg’s writings today, and they reveal a keen interest in how human language, God and the Biblical narrative interact.

For example, in the many books of Gregory’s intellectual attack against the heterodox thinker Eunomius, he discusses the questions that arise from the events of the baptism of Jesus and of Pentecost, in which language is a key element. Which language did God speak in when “a voice from heaven said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”“? What did accounts of God ‘speaking’ to people actually involve? Does God even speak in human language? Was it one language or several that the disciples spoke that allowed them to be understood by “every nation under heaven“? Granted, these are really theological questions, but recognisably linguistic reasoning is in there too.

Gregory has a remarkably down-to-earth view of language development; although God had a hand in confusing human language through the events of the Tower of Babel, the multitude of languages that exist are nonetheless “the invention of the human mind or understanding” and are not, as some thought, divinely created.

“… but when by the Divine will it was decreed that all the earth should be replenished by mankind, then, their community of tongue being broken up, men were dispersed in various directions and adopted this and that form of speech and language … not indeed disagreeing from others in their knowledge of things, but differing in the character of their names.”

From Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book. Translated by M. Day.

Rather than determining language himself, God has instead given us humans “full liberty to formulate arbitrary sounds“, and no one word or language has a better grasp of reality than any other.

“For by how many appellations, say, is the created firmament called according to the varieties of language? For we call it heaven, the Hebrew calls it samaim, the Roman cœlum, other names are given to it by the Syrian, the Mede, the Cappadocian, the African, the Scythian, the Thracian, the Egyptian … Which of these, then, tell me, is the appropriate word wherein the great wisdom of God is manifested? If you prefer the Greek to the rest, the Egyptian haply will confront you with his own. And if you give the first place to the Hebrew, there is the Syrian to claim precedence for his own word, nor will the Roman yield the supremacy, nor the Mede allow himself to be outdone; while of the other nations each will claim the prize.”

From Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book. Translated by M. Day.

This sense of arbitrariness and relativity being fundamental to language can be found throughout Gregory’s writing, and it goes beyond the sounds and forms of words. He has a sense that the meaning of words too is relative and defined by context, not by any single linguistic essence set down by God. He notes in his piece Ad Eusthatium that the word God (or rather, Theós) itself is relative, since even in the Bible it is applied meaningfully both to God and to things that are definitely not God, namely idols and devils. Wittgenstein would like all of this.

Gregory of Nyssa was also unconvinced by the claim that Hebrew is the original language, not only of humans but also of God too; this prime status of Hebrew had its supporters both during and long after Gregory’s lifetime. His methods for reaching his conclusion are unorthodox (haha) by modern linguists’ standards, but this is an interesting challenge to consensus and contribution to the theory of an ur-language from which all others can trace descent.

Holy Linguist #2: Saint Jerome

Saint Jerome Writing. Caravaggio. 1605-6.

My second saint is Jerome, who is best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin, producing the mighty Vulgate. Jerome was born in Stridon (in what is now Slovenia) in c. 347 AD, and had quite a career between his birth and his death in Bethlehem in c. 420 AD. He was a monastic founder and leader; he travelled far and wide, from Trier to Alexandria; he learned and could translate several languages; he was a sometime hermit, priest and secretary to the pope.

As mentioned, translation is what Jerome is especially renowned for. Jerome’s magnum opus surpassed other Latin versions already existing, one reason being that Jerome was determined to translate the books of the Old Testament from their original Hebrew (and Aramaic), and not from a Greek intermediary. Not only do we have his finished product, but also a number of personal notes and commentaries on specific books, which give us insights into Jerome’s interpretations as an exegete and his method as a translator, as well as biographical details about how he went about learning Hebrew and presumably also Syriac, languages very different from Latin.

There’s one bit of linguistic evidence from Jerome that scholars of the Semitic languages find especially interesting; in his Book on The Interpretation of Hebrew Names, Jerome clarifies the ‘S’ letters that were part of Hebrew at that time.

“Since in fact among the Hebrews there are three S letters: one, which is called samech, is simply read as that which our own letter S represents; another is sin, in which a certain hissing sound not in our language is made; the third is sade, which our ears deeply dread.”

From Jerome’s Book on The Interpretation of Hebrew Names. Translation by yours truly.

Here Jerome has given us information about the pronunciation in 5th-century Hebrew of three sibilant letters, recognisable to modern Hebrew-knowers as samekh (ס), shin (ש) and tsadi (צ). In the absence of time machines, testimony like this is as good as we linguists are going to get! Personal and idiosyncratic they may be (‘ear-dread’ is not a currently accepted phonetic feature), but these descriptions are still of great value. Ola Wikander (2015: 14) has for example used Jerome’s accounts to propose a precise phonetic value for Late Antique tsadi, identifying the combined features of pharyngealization and glottalization as the phonetic cocktail that could make saintly ears shudder.

Similar delicious titbits exist elsewhere in Jerome’s oeuvre. In his commentary on the Book of Isaiah, he gives us the word for beer in Illyrian, a poorly attested and pretty mysterious ancient language that may have been Jerome’s mother tongue.

“… a kind of drink made from grains and water, and by people in the provinces of Dalmatia and Pannonia is in their common and barbarous language called sabaium …”

From Commentaries on Isaiah. Translation by me again.

Jerome also provides some much-appreciated additional evidence for the link between Galatian (spoken in today’s Turkey) and Gaulish (spoken in today’s France and beyond) as two related Celtic languages, when he writes that:

“Leaving aside Greek, which all the east speaks, the Galatians have their own language, which is almost the same as that which the Treveri speak”

From Jerome’s Commentary on St Paul’s Letters to the Galatians. Translation by J. Clackson (2015: 68).

The “Treveri” refer to the people of Trier, today in western Germany, a place that Jerome knew well. What Jerome seems to be saying here is that the languages of these two peoples, despite their geographical distance, are very similar, and this supports the idea that Galatian was a Celtic language brought to Anatolia through migration.

Holy Linguist #3: Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine in His Study. Botticelli. 1480.

St Augustine is another big name in Christian history and theology. We know his life story and his journey to faith very well, because he did us the favour of writing it all down in his Confessions. Born in 354 AD in Tagaste, now in Algeria, his life was split between Africa and Italy, where he worked as a teacher of rhetoric before his conversion to Christianity and rise to become bishop of Hippo. He died in 430 AD, having lived through some seriously turbulent times for the Roman world.

Augustine, as someone paid for his thoughts and later expected to teach and preach, clearly thought a lot about language. We have for example his work On the Teacher, a whole text dedicated to grammar and how meaning works, written in the form of a dialogue between Augustine and his son Adeodatus. Augustine is particularly interested in the idea of signs, and the process of how we use words (and other physical things like gesture) to make thoughts happen in the mind of another. Like Gregory of Nyssa, he acknowledges that the medium through which a sign exists, such as speech, is really arbitrary and doesn’t tell us much; what is worth more is the idea that the sign triggers in our mind. This idea is knowledge that we have gained by other means.

“… we don’t learn anything by these signs called words. As I have stated, we learn the meaning of a word – that is, the signification hidden in the sound – once the thing signified is itself known, rather than perceiving it by means of such signification.”

On the Teacher. Translation by P. King.

In another work (On the Greatness of the Soul), he compares the duo of sound and meaning to the relationship between the body and the soul according to Christian understanding; like the soul, “meaning is indivisible and, without being extended, animates and integrates all the letters of the word” (Watson 1982: 10).

“To give them as much credit as possible, words have force only to the extent that they remind to look for things; they don’t display them for us to know … From words, then, we only learn words – or rather, the sound and noise of the words.”

On the Teacher. Translation by P. King.

All of this to me reads like sound arguments in the modern fields of semantics or semiotics!

Moreover, Augustine had some thoughts on language acquisition too, specifically the development of our linguistic abilities as infants. Chapter 8 of the first book of Confessions is nothing but a narrative of how we humans first learn to speak.

“… and how I had learned to speak I later considered. It was not my elders giving me words in some set order of teaching that taught me this (as they then did with letters), but rather myself with my mind, which you, my God, gave me … When my elders said some name, and after that name moved their body towards some thing, I would see it, and I would understand that that thing was called by the name they were uttering while showing it to me. And that they meant these things was made clear from the movements of the body – which are really the natural words of all peoples, made with the face, with the slight movement of the eyes, with the action of other body parts, and with the sound of the voice that indicates the mind’s feelings towards those things that are to be desired, possessed, rejected or avoided. Thus through words in various sentences, placed in their right positions, and heard often, I came to understand little by little what things they were signs of, and then, having tamed my mouth to utter these signs, through them I could express my wishes.”

From Augustine’s Confessions. Translation by me.

This is a recognisable account and a convincing explanation of how we get started with language; we learn from our parents and other close people to associate a spoken or signed word with a thing, and repeated success in our interactions with that thing tightens the association to the extent that the word comes to mean that thing. Such a view is still current today, especially in constructivist models of acquisition, which downplay (or outright deny) the role of an innate language faculty that people are born with.

As with Jerome, the quantity of Augustine’s writings means that we also get unintentional glimpses into the linguistic milieu of his time. The titbit that I’d like to end this post with is Augustine’s remark about the Punic language. Letter 17 of Augustine’s collated Epistulae is addressed to Maximus Augustinus, who, like Augustine, came from Africa, but, unlike him, held a dim view of Christianity. Maximus had let Augustine know of his particular contempt for the multitude of Christian saints with Punic names. Augustine, himself Punic and African by his own identification, includes the following sentence in his defence of Punic:

“You must surely be sorry to have been born there, where the cradles of that language are still warm.”

Augustine’s Letter 17 (To Maximus Augustinus). Translation by me.

Punic, a Semitic language, was the principle language of the Carthaginian Empire, which had been destroyed by Rome in the second century BC. Yet Augustine’s comment (notably the present-tense verb recalent) intriguingly suggests that Punic, or at least a language called Punic, was still alive in the region five centuries later. The possibility remains that what Augustine had in mind was in fact unrelated to the Punic of yore, and merely bore the old name, but that seems the more unlikely case to me, considering Augustine’s knowledge of history. It’s a small, tantalising and confusing remark, but I’m grateful to Augustine for it anyway.

So, there you have it: three holy heavyweights in Christian history who were not only on fire with faith, but had a liking for language too. I hope you enjoyed it! As I hope I made clear at the start, you don’t have to be a professor or a scholar, or even a saint, to think as a linguist does; it is available to all. Rather than arguing for divine approval of my field, I’d instead like these three men to serve to surprise you with how tangential language and linguistic thinking are to what they are best known for, and how those thoughts happened anyway.

Regardless, if you don’t agree that that point has been made, I hope you’ll at least admit that this format has been a successful means for me to talk yet again about linguistics.


Sources (in English or Latin)
Bibliography and Further Reading:

Images taken from Wikimedia Commons.

5 thoughts on “Holy Linguists! Part I: Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome and Augustine

  1. Ear Dread should be a standard concept in linguistics, I think. It’s fascinating that Hebrew Saad (“sade”) should provoke the Saint so much. Arabic has its Saad as well, but it is the Daad that many speakers consider the truly distinctive sound, if we are to take seriously the idea of “people of the Daad” as a synonym for native speakers of Arabic. For learners of Arabic with non-Semitic mother tongues, Daad is only one of several letters provoking ear dread, in my experience.


  2. Ear Dread should be a standard concept in linguistics, I think. It’s fascinating that Hebrew Saad (“sade”) should provoke the Saint so much. Arabic has its Saad as well, but it is the Daad that many speakers consider the truly distinctive sound, if we are to take seriously the idea of “people of the Daad” as a synonym for native speakers of Arabic. For learners of Arabic with non-Semitic mother tongues, Daad is only one of several letters provoking ear dread, in my experience.


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