I’m thinking a lot about distance these days.
As someone who preaches and teaches, I think about distance in language, about how the ways we speak affect whether we identify with one another or distance ourselves. You know: the difference between saying this person and that person, us and them. It makes a difference to our sense of being in something together, being part of a community, if we say, “Some of us . . . ” or “We . . .” instead of any sentence that starts with “Those people . . . ”
You can hear the difference: this guy, that guy, that guy.
Turns out, people have been making these distinctions in language for a really, really long time. Not just between us and them, but between what’s close by and what’s far away, who’s near and who’s far. Who is close enough to see clearly, who isn’t, and who we want to distance ourselves from.
One of the gifts that has come from this time of isolation is an online course in Ge’ez, taught by Dr Logan Williams, Guest Lecturer, Seminar Tutor and Research Assistant in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. I am so grateful to Dr Williams for offering this course. Stick with me, but first take a look at a page of my homework:
Ge’ez (classical Ethiopic) is still used as a liturgical language by Christians in Ethiopia and Eritrea, although it’s no longer used for everyday conversation or writing. The earliest known inscriptions in Ge’ez come from the 5th century BCE. It’s related to Amharic, which is one of the languages used today in Ethiopia. I’m interested in learning Ge’ez because most complete oldest texts of 1 Enoch were written in Ge’ez.
Because Dr. Williams is offering this class online and making this lesser known language accessible now, about 80 people from all over the globe go online on Fridays (maybe it’s already Saturday where some people are) and join in learning Ge’ez together. For me, the class takes place at a very civilized 9 AM, east coast in the USA time, while others join in from Europe and the UK in the afternoon, early in the morning from the west coast of the USA, as well as India and Australia. I love it–people all over the globe studying an ancient language via Zoom because of a scholar’s vision and generosity. We’re in this together.
Now here’s the fascinating thing I learned this morning. Back to those pronouns: this, that, these those. I know this is grammar, but stick with me.
There are what are called Near Demonstrative Pronouns: this, these. We recognize these. We have these in English too.
There are Far Demonstrative Pronouns: that, those. We recognize those. We have those in English too.
The designation “near” and “far” makes sense to us: this guy, here; that guy, there.
But Ge’ez also has Remote Demonstratives. Remote Demonstratives indicate more distance between the speaker and the object. They indicate things and people that are farther away, entities that are less known, and–here’s the fascinating, and all too real payoff–can be used with a pejorative edge.
So: that, those, that jerk.
We do this in English, too, but we do it with a tone of voice, that guy; by inserting a word, that idiot, or maybe with air quotes, that “president.” With any of these options, we’re indicating remoteness: not me, not us, I’m not with that guy. He’s not one of us. In Ge’ez, they could be specific about the distance (or desire for distance) between the speaker and the object without having to use tone of voice, a dismissive glance, or hand gestures. Those people had a pronoun for that.
Turns out, people have been using language to indicate remoteness, distance, or the attempt to distance ourselves from what we can’t see clearly, or don’t want to, or don’t like, for a very, very long time.
This might be just depressing, but consider this: as I mentioned above, Dr. Williams explained that the way to think about Remote Demonstratives is to think of them in terms of distance between the speaker and the object.
Things that are physically distant are harder to see. They’re hazy. They’re unknown. It’s harder to see something clearly that is far away. It makes sense that we might even want a way to describe this phenomenon accurately: that thing in the distance that I may not see clearly; those people I don’t know or fully understand. That situation I am removed from and shouldn’t jump to conclusions about. That person I’ve never met and shouldn’t make assumptions about.
On the negative side, distance can be an excuse for speaking pejoratively about something or someone. On the positive side, if we acknowledge our distance, our inability to see clearly from here, our inexperience with something, that something is unknown to us, we might actually become more humble, or speak more humbly. That guy? Honestly, I’m too far away to know much about him. That situation? Maybe I should move closer and learn more before I make a statement. Those people? I need to find out more, have a conversation, get closer.
Maybe by acknowledging distance, real, perceived, or desired, we can discover we’re all in this together.