Gregory Of Nazianzus On The Nature Of Human Language -- By: Jonathan M. Watt

Journal: Reformed Presbyterian Theological Journal
Volume: RPTJ 05:2 (Spring 2019)
Article: Gregory Of Nazianzus On The Nature Of Human Language
Author: Jonathan M. Watt

Gregory Of Nazianzus On The Nature Of Human Language

Jonathan M. Watt

Adjunct Professor of New Testament
Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary


The subject of universals with reference to natural human language involves a bundle of three interwoven strands running through the tapestry of linguistics. One of these strands, and certainly the oldest as a developed academic discipline, pertains to elements of language at the phonetic/phonemic and morpho-syntactic levels that are present in all, or common to and colocational in many, of the world’s languages. The next and most recent, relatively speaking, strand relates to semantics and perception, inferring the operations and structures of human cognition particularly from the lexical aspect of language. The third and least-frequently discussed strand, often assumed as a foundation for cross-linguistic or diachronic studies, is variously labeled the “universality” or “uniformitarian” principle, and has as its foundational position the assumption that certain dynamics of language remain diachronically and cross-linguistically similar, if not constant.1 Together, these strands run through an impressive body of literature pertaining to “universals” that has vastly expanded the frontiers of language philosophy and methodology in recent years, and yet they include some frontiers which, interestingly enough, were explored in the past by classical Christian writers, often with delicate nuance.

This paper explores select conceptions of language articulated by certain patristic Christian writers, particularly those of the Cappadocian father Gregory of Nazianzus (329–390), with a view to an implicit assumption of universalism. As a linguist with sociological and educational interests, I enjoy seeing “modern” concepts of the field adumbrated in ancient writings. It is certainly intriguing, for example, that the second century Letter to Diognetus is quoted in one modern theology on work with the note that “Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they

do not use a peculiar form of speech …”2 Language is eminently human, and human societies, unlike much that inhabits the field of linguistics today, are unflinchingly religious.

Consequently, this paper first reviews some ground-level issues involved in the language-universal strands of the past half century, and then acknowledges some Eastern patristic theologians, particularly Gregory of Nazianzus,

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