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DOI 10.

1515/ijsl-2013-0010

IJSL 2013; 220: 16

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Sipra Mukherjee

Reading language and religion together


Sipra Mukherjee: West Bengal State University, India. E-mail: mukherjeesipra@gmail.com

Silence me now, your loquacious poet1 wrote the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore after spending years of his life trying to grasp the immeasurability of the divine in his songs. We find in his writings repeated references to the inextricable link between language and spirituality. Laments on the inability of words to articulate the divine, and celebrations of humanitys endeavor to capture the essence of the indefinable, crowd his lyrics. Though Tagore rues the intractability of language to express the infinite and eternal with lines like heaps of words, the distant music that we try to catch with our harps tuned to a nearer music, the inescapable dependence on words returns as a refrain. Whether religion is the form given to mans yearning for the spiritual or whether religion is really an embodiment of mans more material desires may be a matter for debate. But when the yearning for the divine is embodied in words, and when those words are accepted by a community of people, the basis of a religion has been laid. This issue of the IJSL seeks to better understand the dynamics between religion and language. In doing so, it hopes to add to recent scholarship which explores the interaction between these two social constructs. Two fundamental realities make the study of language and religion inseparable, the first being the importance of language for religion. Most of us, in fact, encounter religion through some form of narrative: stories, hymns, chants, myths, parables. With its powerful status as the major and most flexible instrument of communication, language is indispensable to the expression of religion or religious ideas. It dominates mans learning, imbibing, othering, adopting and adapting of religions. It is through the various forms of language that the living vitality of a communitys religious beliefs is passed down from generation to generation. Religion, in fact, can be said to exist largely in language, and hence the overwhelming significance of sacred languages and holy books. While this first reality may be said to be a characteristic of religion, the second reality that binds the study of language and religion is a characteristic shared. Both religion and language are markers of identity that evolve and change according to the needs of society. They are expressive of the philosophies, the beliefs and the experiences

40 1Ebar nirab kore dao he tomar mukhar kabire ... (Gitabitan, http://gitabitan.com/).

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Sipra Mukherjee
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of the community, and have as a consequence earned themselves adjectives like lived or living. Both these social constructs have been found to create, transform or discard their material aspects such as the spoken word, texts, institutions, sacred rituals, and other tangible moorings over time. In keeping with these similarities, they have been assessed by scholars in very similar terms: social constructs conceived as ideologically saturated ... as a world view, even as concrete opinion, insuring a minimum of mutual understanding in all spheres of ideological life2 (Bakhtin 1981: 271). Possibly as a consequence of the shared characteristics, religion and language have repeatedly been found to be imbricated in processes and events of history. They have also often inhabited the same discourse. In South Asia for example, the identity-constructions in the diverse and plural South Asian society reveal how the discourses of language and religion have both strengthened and countered each other. The partition of the Indian sub-continent was, in fact, revealing of how the two discourses, after working in tandem for nationalism, needed to be separated to address later issues (Murshid 1995; Ahmed 1996; Chatterji 2002). The partition of the sub-continent consequently happened twice. The first was in 1947, when India freed herself from colonial domination of the British and the sub-continent was divided into India and Pakistan. The second was in 1971 when the earlier partition on religious lines was found insufficient, and Pakistan was divided again, this time on linguistic lines, into Pakistan and Bangladesh. Elsewhere, weaknesses of language have been held responsible for failures in the religious sphere. As David Crystal writes, One of the main causes of Catholic apathy, and the major barrier to the ecumenical movement ... is entirely linguistic in character (Crystal 1966: 11). To attempt a study of how, at various times of history, these two forces have acted with or upon each other would help in an analysis of the dynamics between religion and language. Though the domains of language and religion have always overlapped, and research into areas like theo-linguistics or the spread of religion have of necessity looked into both, studying the two together is a recent phenomenon. Sawyer and Simpsons Concise encyclopedia of language and religion (2001) addressed this area with about 200 essays divided into seven sections. Bernard Spolsky predicts that recent political and social events, coupled with the growing recognition of the academic legitimacy of the field of language and religion would result in
2The full quotation reads: ... languages symbolize mentalities and world-views where a language is not a system of abstract grammatical categories. It is rather conceived as ideologically saturated, a world-view, and even as a concrete opinion insuring a maximum of natural understanding in all spheres of social life. A definition of language, the words may easily be applied to religion.

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Reading language and religion together

1 greater research in this area (Spolsky 2003: 81). The two theoretical traditions of 2 the sociology of language and that of religion were brought together for the first 4 guage and religion (2006) in an attempt to establish a critical paradigm of analysis 5 which could integrate the two disciplines. That all these works have used models 3 time by Joshua Fishman and Tope Omoniyi in Explorations in the sociology of lan-

6 of research or approaches from linguistics or sociolinguistics is not solely because 8 religion needs to be epistemological, and the concrete manifestations of religious 9 beliefs or philosophies are the only sources that the researcher can access.

7 the authors or editors hail from these disciplines. It is also because the study of

10 Though religion is defined by William James to be the feelings, acts, and experi11 ences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to 12 stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine (James 2002: 38), an 14 that religious practice derives from prior experiences or beliefs is, as Keane

13 approach that begins with subjective experience faces difficulties. To presume 15 writes, to play with theologically loaded dice (Keane 1997: 47). Moreover, as 17 experience will involve premises and presuppositions that are not shared by all

16 Talal Asad demonstrates in his Genealogies of religions, emphasizing subjective 18 religious traditions (Asad 1993). Approaching the study of religion from the more

19 tangible areas of articulation and practice, the scholarly endeavors have been 20 more linguistically-inclined. That is an inclination that marks the articles gath21 ered in this issue as well. 22

23 in Explorations (Fishman and Omoniyi 2006: 5): effects of language on religion, 24 effects of religion on language, and the mutuality of language and religion. The 25 first three articles make up the first group, where the first article is by Charlotte

I have grouped the articles according to the categories suggested by Spolsky

26 Eubanks on the pictorial Heart Sutras (Jp: esetsu Shinky) of early modern Japan. 27 Combining work in social bibliography, translation theory and Buddhist studies, 28 she explores the act of reading the sutras to ask if there is a precise relation be30 that a visual vernacular is created based on the belief in the apotropaic value of

29 tween material sign and acoustic sound in Buddhist recitation. The article argues 31 reading the Sutras. Eubankss article reveals patterns of textual engagement, 32 practices of translation and particular techniques for associating the quotidian 34 trine. The second article is by Eve Gregory and a team of researchers working on 33 world of rice paddies and rounded bellies with the abiding realm of religious doc35 the BeLifs project (Becoming literate in faith settings) in the multi-cultural Lon36 don society. This is part of an ongoing three-year long project on four faith groups: 37 the Pentecostalist community from Ghana, the Catholic community from Poland, 38 the Muslim community from Bangladesh and the Tamil Hindu community from 40 cred text in childrens learning in each of these four faith communities. They

39 South India / Sri Lanka. In this article they look at the role played by one key sa-

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show how collaborative ethnography offers insights into how children begin to make collective memories their own in a new country. Focusing particularly on practice and performance, the article is revealing of how living in a new country results in a syncretism of language, literacy and learning practices. The third article in this group is by Reem Bassiouney, who tackles the social motivation of code-switching in mosque sermons in Egypt. She shows how Muslim religious figures, in their sermons, often use the diglossic situation in Egypt to convey social messages more effectively to their target audience. She follows the patterns of language-use within the Muslim religious community by examining cases of code-switching between Standard Arabic and Egyptian Colloquial Arabic in mosque sermons. The next three articles make up the second group which deals with the effects of religion on language. The first article here is by Ghada Osman who discusses how the rapid expansion of Islam in the seventh century was accompanied by the spread of the Arabic language. But as Arabic spread to the convert population, scholars began educational efforts to stem what they viewed as a horrifying corruption of the language. The article examines how these efforts led to the introduction of formal schooling efforts at mosques and schools, which in turn strengthened the connections between piety and Arabic mastery. The second article by Benjamin Hary and Martin Wein is on religiolinguistics and examines how religions shape the use of languages. Based on the premise that every linguistic variety may be analyzed for its religious characteristics and described as a religiolect, the article takes examples from Jewish-defined linguistic varieties. It also shows how there are several instances where Christians and Muslims have adopted Jewish linguistic usages. The final article in this group by Katherina Vajta looks at Alsace where linguistic and religious identities have proved to be more enduring markers of identity than nationality. A region with a Catholic majority and large Protestant minority, the article investigates salient linguistic, religious and national features in this French border region, with evidence garnered from interviews in the Lutheran Alsatian community. The article looks into the ongoing shift from the Germanic languages to French as a possible consequence of religious identities influencing language choice. The last group includes two articles which reveal the mutuality of religion and language. The first article is by Andreas Koechert and Barbara Pfeiler on the Kaqchikel ritual speech in the confraternities of the San Juan Sacatepquez area of Guatemala. The article seeks to show how the indigenous oral traditional genre has not been eclipsed by the Catholic doctrine and Spanish borrowings brought in by the Spanish colonization in the sixteenth century. They analyze the prayers used in worship, focusing on literary figures typical of Mesoamerican ritual speech, and argue that the spiritual concepts of Kaqchikel traditionalist believers

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1 have been preserved and transmitted despite the dominance of the Catholic 2 Church. The final article by Sara Barker deals with faith and nationalism in six3 teenth century French poetry. Using an exchange of polemical poems between 4 Pierre de Ronsard and his Protestant critics, Barker shows how the earlier na5 tional identity hitherto built around national Catholicism and monarchical legit6 imacy needed to be reworked with the arrival of Protestantism. The article argues 8 most Christian nation to achieve the vilification of their religious opponents. 9 7 that Catholic and Protestant poets subverted the medieval image of France as the

10 that are notoriously inaccessible. While these articles explicitly reveal the influ11 ence which religion and language have had on each other at various times and

Both religion and language are bridges constructed by man to reach objects

12 spaces of history, they also speak of the potential of politics that exists between 13 the two. Such politics, the shifting relations involving authority and power, is 14 made possible in the ideological world each inhabits, through words and rituals

15 that seldom have unambiguous meanings; where the connotations and interpre16 tations are slippery and shifting; where their very ambiguity and imprecision 17 lend power to the words and rituals of language and religion. 18

19 they willingly complied with. I thank the many peer-reviewers without whose 21 Ashoke Ranjan Thakur for his inspiration and encouragement in tackling almost 23 promptness with which she unfailingly responded to all my questions and prob24 lems. And I will always remain grateful to Joshua Fishman for the honor he did 25 me by inviting me to edit this volume. His enthusiasm and passion marked every 27 ing, inspiring and fun. 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40

I am grateful to the contributors for their articles and for all the revisions that

20 help and cooperation this volume would not have seen the light of day. I thank 22 anything under the sun. I thank Ofelia Garcia for the support, patience and

26 mail that he wrote, traversing the thousands of miles to make this journey enrich-

References
Ahmed, Rafiuddin. 1996. The Bengali Muslims, 18711906: a quest for identity. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Asad Talal. 1993. Genealogies of religion: discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich & Michael Holquist (eds.). 1981. The dialogic imagination: four essays. Austin: University of Texas Press. Chatterji, Joya. 2002. Bengal divided: Hindu communalism and partition: 19321947. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Crystal, David. 1966. Language and religion. In L. Sheppard (ed.),Twentieth century Catholicism, 1128. New York: Hawthorn Books.

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Fishman, Joshua & Tope Omoniyi. 2006. Explorations in the sociology of language and religion. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins. James, William. 2002. The varieties of religious experience: a study in human nature. Pennsylvania State University. http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/wjames/ Varieties-Rel-Exp.pdf (accessed 26 July 2011). Keane, Webb. 1997. Religious language. Annual Review of Anthropology 26. 4771. Murshid, Tazeen. 1995. The sacred and the secular: Bengali Muslim discourses, 18711977. Calcutta: Oxford University Press. Sawyer, John F. A. & J. M. Y. Simpson (eds.). 2001. Concise encyclopedia of language and religion. Amsterdam, New York, Oxford, Shannon, Singapore &Tokyo: Elsevier. Spolsky, Bernard. 2003. Religion as a site of language contact. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 23. 8194.

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