Everyone would agree that the languages people speak are good fit for the structure of the human mind. After all, they were invented by people, they are developed and maintained by people, they are used every day for hours on end by every single person on the planet, and their essentials can be mastered by children who don’t know how to tie their shoes. (Conversely, their essentials have not yet been mastered by any computer program, despite decades of earnest attempts, and the vast fortune that would belong to the creator of such a program.) They’re easy to use and in many ways reflect the way we think. Languages are the product of the human mind, and you can learn a lot about how the mind works by studying them.
It stands to reason, then, that if a system of belief can be shown to be similar to lingiustic structure, that that system of belief is a good fit for the human mind.
In this post I’ll look at the two fundamental architectural underpinnings of language — what I’ll call the Dictionary and the Rules — and show how Paganism has essentially the same underpinnings, while monotheism does not. In the sections below, I’ll present the linguistics first, and then the comparative religion.
The Dictionary of a Language.
The Dictionary of a language is its set of words, their meanings, and the relationships between them.
Languages have thousands and thousands of words, obviously. There are nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, adpositions (which include prepositions and postpositions), determiners, arguments, adjuncts, open- and closed-class words, conjunctions, disjunctions, complementizers, particles, clitics — they come in all kinds. Each word is separate; each has its own meaning and its own characteristic way of interacting with other words. They may be grouped, as in the grammatical categories I listed, and they may even be hierarchically organized (you can imagine a great Tree of Nouns, for example, with “thing” at the top, and “animal, vegetable, mineral, idea” at the next level, and on down, all the way to things like “Siamese cat” and “Fred”). And words can have complicated relationships with one another — intricate interactions of co-occurrence and meaning. Two quick examples:
- “The” and “a” are members of the class of “determiners”, a small set of words that also includes “some”, “many”, “most”, and the like. They serve to sort of introduce nouns and place them in context. Generally, “the” indicates a noun that’s already been mentioned somewhere (“the man I was telling you about yesterday”), or is so well-known that it doesn’t need introduction (“the sun”), while “a” serves to pick a new noun out of a set (“a yellow cat”). But this isn’t the whole story: “the” can appear with just about any kind of noun at all (even names: “You’ve changed, Bob! What happened to the Bob Smith I used to know?”), but “a” can only appear with individual things, countable things: compare “This is a dog” vs. “This is an oxygen”. Oxygen is not a countable thing, it’s a substance; so “a” can’t appear with it.
- The verb “budge” basically means “move”, but it really, really likes to appear in sentences with “not” or “won’t”. You have to say “this couch won’t budge”; you almost never hear someone say “gosh, this couch sure budges easily!”. Or “could you please budge the garbage out?”
The Dictionary of a Religion.
The Dictionary of a religion is the set of spiritual entities it defines, and the relationships between them.
In strict monotheism, there is one spiritual entity: the God. Everything else that might seem to be a spiritual entity — angels, devils, human souls, etc. — are reflections or expressions of this ultimate unity. In more relaxed forms of monotheism — usually older farms, that it had a chance to spread out and get comfortable — the big God creates hosts of angels, demons, souls and whatnot that are independent entities; but ultimately they serve his will, either directly or indirectly. Slightly less pure forms of monotheism have the main Godhead broken up into multiple parts — such as the father / son / Holy Ghost version of Christianity — in which God is a single entity, yet a multiple entity at the same time, whatever that means.
In Paganism, you have a lot of gods, spirits, guides, Earth guardians, sprites and fairies, kitchen gods, you name it — anywhere from a dozen to thousands of spiritual entities, each of them separate, each of them with their own sphere of influence, with their own character and powers. They may be grouped in in a hierarchy, and there may be internal power struggles. The relationship between them is often complex but always meaningful.
Given the above, it should be pretty clear that the “dictionary” of Pagan religions is much more like the dictionary of a language. Languages obviously don’t have one single word which “underlies” all the others — all the different verbs are not “aspects” of some Great Verb out there. Nor is there a Great Noun that is both a single unity AND broken up into a trinity of Animal / Vegetable / Mineral. The body of conceptual entities in language is a pantheon of thousands of individual words, each with its own domain, habits, and relations.
The Rules in Language.
Every language has rules about how words, and parts of words, combine to produce meaning. Sometimes these rules are completely invariant (e.g. add -ing to an English verb to create the progressive form), but more often there are classes of exceptions (e.g. add -ed to an English verb to create the past tense form, unless the verb is irregular, in which case there is a memorized vowel change, e.g. drink-drank, sing-sang).
There are two aspects to every language rule:
- Where does the rule apply? (i.e. which words / constructions / sounds does the rule apply to?)
- How does the rule apply? (i.e. what actually changes when you apply the rule?)
In both of these aspects, similarity plays a central role.
Let’s stick to the English past tense for an example. As noted above, the English past tense has two forms: a suffix “-ed”, found in walked, talked, communicated, studied, etc.; and an irregular memorized word-specific vowel change, found in drink/drank, sing/sang, run/ran, buy/bought, wear/wore, etc. We can ask two questions:
1. What determines which verb takes which form? That is, how do you know which verbs are regular, and which are irregular?
In the old days — in Proto-Indo-European times, and perhaps early Germanic as well — all the verbs were “irregular”; so they weren’t irregular at all. All verbs had multiple forms, and these different forms were marked with different vowels. Over time, as vowels changed and merged and split, the system became more complex and difficult, until at last it sort of fell apart; and now, in English, there is no a priori way to know which verbs take which vowel changes. (You can read all about it here.). Nowadays, the irregular verbs are slowly changing into regular “-ed” forms — take for example “shined” (2,040,000 ghits), which is even now taking over from “shone” (6,030,000 ghits). (Note: ghit is a technical term in linguistics, a measure of internet frequency. It means “Google hits”.)
But the human mind doesn’t really like irregularity; it tries to find systems in everything. Many speakers of English are subconsciously trying to reformulate the irregular verbs into a system again. You can see it in examples like this:
bring/brang/brung (from sing/sang/sung and ring/rang/rung)
think/thank/thunk (from drink/drank/drunk)
bite/bote, wipe/wope (from write/wrote)
What’s happening is that verbs are dragged over into the irregular pattern because of their similarity in sound. Speakers are creating a new pattern based on sound similarity.
2. How does the rule apply?
For this example, we’re going to look at the regular past-tense suffix, “-ed”. Notice that it’s not always actually “-ed”; pay attention to how it’s pronounced.
- In “adjusted” and “wetted” and “wedded”, it’s pronounced “-ed”.
- In “flipped” and “slept” and “kicked” and “riffed” and “pronounced” and “wished” and “kissed” and “birthed” and “witched”, it’s pronounced “-t”.
- In “gabbed” and “gagged” and “bored” and “boweled” and “loved” and “loaned” and “lathed” and “singed”, it’s pronounced “-d”.
- In “split” and “quit” and “bet”, it isn’t pronounced at all.
Is this another irregular pattern, hidden in the “regular” past tense suffix? No, actually; there is a pattern (a very simple one, once you know the trick), and it also plays off of similarities.
First you have to know about voicing. Voicing refers to vibration in the human larynx. Hold your hand to your throat and hum; you can feel the vibration. When you whisper, you can’t feel the vibration. Whispering is just talking without voicing.
In human languages, some sounds are voiced (e.g., almost all vowels, plus consonants like r, l, m, n, b, d, g, v) and some are not (s, sh, ch, p, t, k).
Now, notice in the examples above that the “-d” variant of the past tense always appears after a voiced sound, while the “-t” always appears after a voiceless sound. Notice further that “-d” is voiced, and “-t” does not. Now the pattern is clear: verbs with voiceless endings take the voiceless “-t” suffix, and verbs with voiced endings take the voiced “-d” suffix.
What about the “-ed” ending, and the one that’s not pronouced at all? Here, similarity also plays a role, but with a different result. The suffixes “-t” and “-d” are actually *identical* to the endings of verbs such as “split”, “bet”, “adjust” and “wed”, and having two identical sounds next to each other can be problematic. English solves it either by placing an “e” between the verb and the suffix (giving “adjusted” and “wedded”), or by merging the suffix into the verb itself (as in “split” and “quit”), or sometimes optionally by doing either (both “quit” and “quitted” are actually acceptable forms).
So the great theme of rules in language is similarity. If you want to get something done, like put something into past tense, look at how similar things do it; and when you apply your rule, make similarity part of the formula.
The Rules in Religion.
The Rules in religion are primarily about ritual — when you do them, how you do them, and what they’re for. For my purposes, “ritual” also means long-term activities like fasting, celibacy, and meditative practice.
Rituals in monotheistic religions can be quite varied. In general, however, they have three main sources:
- Borrowed or slightly modified rituals from older Pagan traditions (e.g. putting up evergreen at Christmas time, eggs at Easter, etc.).
- Celebrations or commemorations of events in the history of the religion (Passover, Hannukah, Lent).
- Celebrations of, and exhortations to, the god (Muslim *salat*; evening prayers).
Rituals in Pagan religions are also varied; in fact, they can have rituals of all three types listed above. Interestingly, however, the most common rituals are all primarily of a different kind: sympathetic magic.
Sympathetic magic is a ritualistic act which is similar in some way to the purpose of the ritual. The idea is that if you want to get something done, like heal a disease, or assist the rebirth of the sun (or your spirit) at the solstice, or grow spiritually, or pass into adulthood, then you look at similar things in nature; and when you apply your ritual, make that similarity part of the formula.
The association of evergreens with the winter solstice is emblematic of the sun’s rebirth, because it recalls the green of summer. The association of eggs and rabbits with the spring equinox are also emblematic of rebirth in an even more obvious way. The tradition of stepping through a woven hoop at Imbolc recalls doorways, as well as the exit from the womb. One makes medicine for, say, the lung, by boiling the leaves of a plant with lung-shaped leaves. One takes the name (or wears a feather, etc.) of a totem animal in order to bring some aspect of the animal’s character onto oneself (speaking simplistically).
The common theme in all this diversity, of course, is similarity. Similarity is the great theme of Pagan ritual, just as it is of the rules of language.
Of course, one could imagine a monotheistic religion where sympathetic magic was the basis for ritual. But in fact this almost never happens (except in cases of rituals borrowed from Pagan religions, as noted above). After all, if you have just one god, and He knows all and sees all, then He knows what you want ahead of time — probably before you even know it yourself. There’s hardly any point in even asking for it through prayer, though people do it anyway. There’s certainly no point in going to the trouble of a full ritualistic magical ceremony.
So! The upshot is:
- Language is made up of thousands of separate parts that are deeply interrelated; it is not a monolithic unity. In this way it is much more like a Pagan belief system than a monotheistic one.
- The rules of language are based on similarity: they respect the principle of sympathetic magic. Rules are applied based on similarities, and the result you expect to get is based on similarities as well. In this way, again, the rules of language are much more like the majority of rituals you find in Pagan religions than the rituals of monotheistic religions.
- As I said in the introduction, human languages are designed by humans for humans, are learned extremely quickly by human children, and are used by humans almost constantly. Over millenia, they’ve been molded to fit the contours of the human mind.
- Thus, Paganism, a system of belief that closely matches the structure of language, is a better fit for our mental architecture than monotheism.
None of this means, necessarily, that Paganism is “true” and monotheism is “false”. But you gotta wonder: if there’s just one god who created everything and is in charge of everything, why did he design us to be Pagans?…
I want to thank Nio of “Solidly Average” for our conversation last Thursday, which planted the seed of this essay, and gave me some hope that people might be interested in hearing about these ideas.
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