Sunday Talk: Linguistics and Covenants

Another month, another sermon. This time I ended up wanting to just talk religion, but linguistics kept butting in, so I eventually just ran with it. Interestingly, several people came up to me afterward to talk about how much they loved linguistics and how happy they were that I spoke so much on the topic. In any case, here’s my talk this month:


Often when we get a speaking assignment, it comes in the form of an entire talk. Speaking from experience, it’s usually quite easy to find twenty minutes of speaking material lying around in another person’s twenty minute talk. It’s kind of like walking down the beach looking for seashells. They’re all there, and all you need to do is pick the ones you like the most.

I’ve been given other speaking topics before, of course. The hardest one I can remember being given was a fragment of a single verse from scripture: D&C 64:23. “He that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.” If you know me, you know I’m not heavily invested into fire and brimstone motivation, so coming up with fifteen or twenty minutes around that concept took a few bobs and weaves.

For this month, the stake presidency gave us a single sentence from President Nelson. At first, I thought that wasn’t going to be too big of a problem. A sentence is more than a fragment, after all. Then I read the sentence. “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”

Now, I read that sentence on paper, where it’s usually easier to understand something. Even then, I had to read it a few times to try and figure out exactly what was being said. I got the general gist of it, but once I tried to restate it into my own words, I discovered it wasn’t as easy to do as it would at first seem.

Somehow, in my search to make sense of this sentence, I ended up tying it to two overarching themes. In college, I double majored in Linguistics and English. Both majors ended up informing my remarks today.

First, allow me to wave my language nerd flag for a moment. President Nelson’s sentence is a little complex, and I think some interesting things rise to the surface when we parse it apart. “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”

What, exactly, is the subject of that sentence? As a quick refresher, for any of you who might have blocked all memory of diagramming sentences from your mind, subjects are the active things in a sentence. They’re the things that get things done. In the sentence “I ate all the brownies,” I’m the subject. I’m the guy eating all the brownies.

In President Nelson’s sentence, what is it? Is it covenants? Keeping the covenants? I’ll read it one more time. “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”

The subject is “your commitment.” And what’s the verb? The thing that gets done? In my first example, the verb is “ate.” I was the one doing all the eating, and eating was what was getting done. In President Nelson’s sentence, the verb is “will open.” Our commitment will open–will open what? What’s the object? In my example, the object was the brownies. Brownies were getting eaten. In President Nelson’s sentence, it’s “the door.” “The door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available.”

So to restate that sentence simply, “Your commitment will open the door to blessings.”

When I first read the sentence, I thought it was simply saying that the covenants we make are the things that bring us blessings. But in this case, it’s the commitment we show to the Savior that bring us those blessings. We just happen to show that commitment by making and keeping covenants. Is there a difference?

As long as I’ve already outed myself as a card-carying word nerd, I might as well stick with it for a while longer. I’m going to turn to a couple of definitions to bring clarity to that. First of all, let’s look at the word “covenant.” It comes to us from Latin’s convenire, which means “to convene,” through Old French’s covenire, which means “to agree.” In Latin, it’s a mashup of “con” (together) and “venire” (come). Ultimately, it traces its roots back to the proto Indo European root *gwa-, which meant “to go” or “come.” Words that share this root include (believe it or not) acrobat, adventure, convent, coven, event, intervene, invent, juggernaut, revenue, souvenir, and welcome.

But the word wasn’t used in the scriptural sense until later translations of the Bible. In Hebrew, the word was berith, which is the ordinary term for contract or alliance. In Greek, it was diatheke, which meant “disposition by will,” or “testament.” In Old Latin, it was almost always translated as “testamentum,” where we now have “testament.” It wasn’t until later on that translators began using the word “covenant.”

Why go into all this detail? Because language is flexible. It can mean one thing today and a different thing tomorrow. It’s basically a way to transmit thought, and if we’d like to understand the thoughts someone was having when they wrote something hundreds of years ago, it can be illuminating to see where those thoughts originated, and what those words meant at the time.

Does it change your understanding of the Old and New Testament to know that they could have been translated the Old and New Covenant, instead? Does it change how you approach making and keeping covenants to think of them as living testaments to your devotion to God? It does for me.

Translating words from one language into another allows error to creep into a message, like a long game of telephone, centuries in the making. When I was on my mission in Germany, I saw this firsthand. One day I was trying to help a fifth grader with her math homework. She had a series of word problems that were proving tricky for her, but when I said I could help with those word problems, she got very offended. It turns out that the phrase “word problem” in German means something fairly different. I hadn’t said I’d help her with her math problems. I’d told her I’d help fix her speech impediment.

Another example. A few months earlier, I’d just finished a delicious homemade dinner a member family had prepared for us. Rouladen, kloesse, rotkohl–the works. And the mother of the family had generously asked if I wanted some more. I said no thank you, and she looked at me like I’d just spit in her face. My companion whispered to me, “You said Nein bitte. Say Nein danke. To my untrained ear, bitte and danke were two ways of being polite. Niceties that didn’t have much to differentiate the two words. But saying Nein danke in German means, “No thank you, that was delicious.” Saying Nein bitte essentially means “That was terrible, please don’t give me anymore.” At least, that’s what I walked away understanding.

Words have meaning. They have power.

I’m not done with the linguistics lesson, however. Language is a pretty remarkable thing. It can convey an almost limitless array of thoughts, but it’s not just limited to that use. It can also accomplish things in and of itself. If a priest says to two people standing in front of him in a church, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” those words have done something. Before he spoke them, the two people were single. Afterward, they’re married. Speaking caused something to happen. Words like that are referred to by linguists as speech acts.

When we make covenants, we essentially are completing a speech act. We are baptized. Receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost. Married. The words make it happen, which makes me think of John 1:1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

But of course, from my earlier discussion, we can now recognize that concept being conveyed there wasn’t our modern definition of “word,” but rather the Greek definition of logos, which doesn’t just mean word, but can also refer to discourse or reason. It was used in Psalms 33:6–“By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.”

There’s an entire talk to be written about that topic, but I’ll limit myself today to simply observe that words are important to God. They are binding and powerful in a way we only partly understand, it seems. Speech acts change our lives, but they are ultimately only as powerful as our commitment to them. One of the first commandments was to not take the name of God in vain. Why is that?

In 1929, Edward Sapir, a linguist at the University of Chicago, posited that a language can alter the way its speakers perceive reality. This concept was further refined by Benjamin Lee Whorf at Yale, and today the concept is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Hypothesis, because it hasn’t been definitively proven, but it’s still something which has affected modern society to a great extent, and judging by the commandments God has given us, it’s something He also believes we should consider.

Let me give an example to make this clearer. In English, it has long been accepted that if a speaker wants to refer to someone generically, the proper way to do this is to use the masculine pronoun. The scriptures use the gender-neutral “he” often. When Christ says He will make His apostles fishers of men, we are to understand He’s not just referring to men, but to all people. But several decades ago, the concept of a gender neutral “he” was challenged, with some arguing that by always using “he” or “him,” women are subtly repressed, with their opinions and needs taking a back seat to the masculine. Thus, you’ll often hear people use “he or she” or “him or her” these days instead of the gender neutral masculine.

There is a fair bit of debate in some circles about this concept, with some decrying it as overblown political correctness. Having looked at the studies and thought it through on my own, I believe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has merit. If we continually talk about something in a certain way, our views on that thing can and will change. If society does it as a whole, that can’t help but affect society as well.

Another example. I imagine many of you were required to read Homer in school at some point. The Odyssey, or the Illiad. Homer’s always talking about the ocean in his epic poems, and a phrase he will usually use is “the wine-dark sea.” Did you know one word he never uses to describe the ocean? Blue doesn’t appear in Ancient Greek at all. In fact, it’s not present in a number of ancient languages, from Icelandic to ancient Chinese. It doesn’t appear as a color until Egyptian.

Colors seem to be differentiated over time in a culture. White and black are the two basic colors, and they’re recognized first. Then comes red, followed by yellow and green. But in a fascinating experiment, it appears that not having a word for a color affects a person’s ability to see that color in the first place.

The Himba tribe in Namibia still has no word for blue, and they could not distinguish between shades of blue and shades of green. Speakers were presented with a circle of colored squares. When each square was green except for one blue one, they had difficulty identifying the one different square. When presented with squares that were many different shades of green, however, they had no trouble spotting the differences. Their language has many words for different shades of green.

Language is so often taken for granted, and speaking as a trained linguist, it is very often misunderstood. It’s something we learn without being taught, and often those are the things we question the least. We just assume something is the way it is, because that’s the way it’s always been. The concept of changing something that fundamental can seem foreign or threatening. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be challenged.

Thankfully, when it comes to religion, we do have a way to circumvent language: revelation. When Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, and later on when he worked on his translation of the Bible, he was not relying on linguistic study, language classes, and in-depth analyses of a text. He received inspiration from God. When translation work is done to bring the Book of Mormon to a new language these days, I’ve seen first hand the amount of thought and prayer that goes into it. This is anything but Google Translate.

Likewise, as we hear talks in General Conference, we can be entitled to the same revelation and inspiration. Often in my experience, what is being said ends up taking a back seat to what is being understood. I have had plenty of experience going into a meeting and getting one thing out of it, while the person sitting next to me seems to have heard something entirely different. I don’t believe this is the fault of the speaker. I think it’s a strength of revelation. We can be provided with tailor made help to assist us with our personal struggles.

So sometimes language is transcended by the Spirit. And while I could dwell longer on the specifics of President Nelson’s sentence, there comes a time when I need to move forward and actually discuss how to implement his advice. Some of you probably think that time was about ten minutes ago, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for a good linguistics lecture.

President Nelson advises us to commit to following the Savior by making and keeping covenants. As we do so, we will be blessed. I think we can all get behind the need for blessings, so while I could look at what blessings we might receive, I’d rather focus on how to commit.

First off, how do you know if you’re truly committed? Satan would like us to focus on our shortcomings. He’d like us to point out the hypocrisy in others. And there are times when I get really frustrated with some of the sentiments expressed by fellow adherents of my faith. I hear people say sexist, racist, homophobic, terrible things, and it makes me angry and disappointed. How can these supposed righteous followers of Jesus Christ espouse such hateful ideas? I try to remind myself that my own views in other areas may be similarly infuriating to others. We are all growing and learning at different rates, and if we always choose to focus on others’ shortcomings, we will never be able to make the progress we need to attain salvation.

I’m reminded of two LDS politicians: Mitt Romney and Harry Reid. Mitt Romney, of course, is a prominent Republican who ran for President. Harry Reid was the Democrat Senate Majority Leader for 8 years. I have heard members criticize both politicians for the public stands they have taken over the years on a variety of issues. Yet both can be 100% committed to the covenants they have made while having diametrically opposed viewpoints.

It’s one thing to say “I am committed,” but it’s another to show that commitment by our actions. In the church, we often talk about the way faith and works combine together to help us return to live with God. We believe being saved involves more than simply saying a set of words, though at times I feel we focus too heavily on the works and not enough on the faith, thinking perhaps that if salvation costs $20, it’s up to us to come up with $19.50, and Christ will cover the last two quarters. I tend to think it’s the opposite. One of us might be able to scrape together fifty cents, and another might only manage a nickel or two, but in the grand scheme of things, we all need so much more than that to be saved, and Christ gifts us with that balance.

A few years ago, I was helping my son clean his room. It’s always easier for me to clean someone else’s mess. I’m not emotionally attached to other people’s clutter the same way I am to my own. I opened his lower drawer and began hauling out random pieces of paper that had been jammed in there over the years, tossing them into the recycling bin one by one. He stopped me, frantic. “Don’t throw those away. Those are important to me!”

I paused and looked at the papers. They were creased and tattered. I looked back at my son and arched an eyebrow. “Are they really important? If they are, why have they been crammed in the bottom of your drawer all this time?” They might have been important, but they certainly weren’t important enough. Not important enough to treat with care and respect. Not important enough to make sure they stayed straight and clean.

We all do this with important things in our lives. What is the condition of various important things to us? Our relationships. Our faith. Our word? The best way I know of to tell what’s important to a person is to watch how they spend their time.

Time is finite. We all have the same amount each day. A rich person has the same 24 hours as a poor person, though perhaps he or she might be forced to spend more of that time to make ends meet. But almost everyone in America has a fair bit of free time. Time they spend watching football or playing video games or going to church or reading books or playing games with their family.

Think about your time. How is it spent? In writing, we talk about the “show don’t tell” principle. Recently, I was helping some friends with their college application essays. Writing about yourself is always a tricky situation, especially when you’re trying to impress someone. There’s something about saying “I’m an awesome person, and you really ought to accept me into your university” that just doesn’t come across too well.

There’s a reason for that, however. It’s because you’re just telling someone that you’re awesome. If you can somehow show them that instead, they will reach the conclusion on their own, which is always much stronger.

If I say “I love my children,” you have to take my word for it. If I describe the things I do with and for my children–the hours spent helping them with their homework or reading to them each evening, the trips we go on together, and the activities we do every day–then an outsider might observe that I love my children. I don’t just say I do, I do. If, on the other hand, I were to say I love them, but spend no time with them, constantly ignore them or berate them, and complain any time one of them needed help, then it wouldn’t really matter what I said. My actions would show the reality.

Sometimes, we may honestly believe we think something, but if we take a close look at our actions, and how we spend our time, I’ve found the reality always comes to the surface.

Another way to look at your commitment to covenants is to ask yourself how different your life is because of the covenants you have made. If they aren’t making a significant impact, perhaps you aren’t as committed to them as you think you are. In my experience, commitment to the Gospel chafes now and then. It makes me do something I’d rather not do, or be someone I’d prefer not to be. This isn’t because it’s restricting and oppressive. It’s because the natural man is an enemy to God, and our covenants are there to help us overcome the natural man.

In my natural state, I would prefer to be on a sofa, eating brownie sundaes by the bucketful while I binge watch Netflix. That’s the baseline I’m starting from. So since I’m here in Rockland this morning, awake before 10am, I can at least say that for today, my covenants are making a significant impact on my life. We’ll see how I do this afternoon.

One of the reasons keeping covenants can be so difficult is that there is often a significant delay between our actions and our rewards. I don’t mean eternal rewards. I mean direct benefits we receive here and now in the real world. I don’t believe God’s plan of happiness means that we’ll be miserable in this life so we can finally be happy once we die. I believe it’s here to make us happy now. Today. Tomorrow. But sometimes the route to lasting happiness can be a thorny one.

We live in a society that has come to expect immediate answers. If you have a headache, you take a pill and it goes away. Having difficulty losing some weight? There are countless programs out there that promise quick, easy results. This even extends to our gaming habits. Having difficulty with a level on Candy Crush? Nothing a few dollars won’t fix for you.

But quick answers are seldom lasting solutions. They’re bandaids that get us through the here and now without doing anything to address the problems at the root of each difficulty. They’re payday loans to get out of debt today, which only make our debts worse tomorrow.

God doesn’t work that way. He has no interest in solving an issue for a minute or a day or even a year. His perspective is eternal. CS Lewis described this in his book Mere Christianity: “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

It’s been a long talk, brothers and sisters. Ranging from the nooks and crannies of linguistic theory to discussions on time management. I couldn’t blame you if things have gotten a little muddied in the last nineteen minutes. Allow me to sum up.

President Nelson said a quote you might have memorized by now: “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”

It’s our commitment to follow the Savior that opens the door to spiritual blessings for us. We show that commitment not just by making covenants, but by keeping them. Keeping them may be uncomfortable. In fact, it probably should be uncomfortable, because by keeping them, we are becoming better people. Bringing order to disorder is something that requires work. Planting a garden today seems like back breaking labor for no reward, especially when you could just run to the store and pick up a few tomatoes whenever you want. But over time, the benefits become clear.

I’ve seen this principle at work in my life. The Gospel is not always easy. It’s usually not. But I can directly trace each and every blessing I have received back to the covenants I have made and kept. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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