How the internet is weakening our language

Recovering a rich vocabulary for a deeper knowledge of God

October 16, 2019

The statistics are truly astounding. American adults are now spending more than 11 hours a day consuming media. This includes reading, watching, listening to, and interacting with media. Four of the 11 hours are spent with their digital best friend, a smart phone or a tablet. And 21% of adults say they are constantly on the “digital leash.” Forty-five percent of teens say their eyes are always glued to their phones. On average, young people spend nearly nine hours online per day.   

The internet and our language  

What impact is this exposure having on our language, specifically language that can comprehensively communicate who God is and who we are? We know it is affecting our minds negatively. But what about our linguistic toolkit?  

The internet perpetuates three language cripplers: slang, distraction, and simplicity.   

Slang. It has been a part of people’s speech habits for centuries. It is quite appropriate in the right setting—usually an informal one. When to use slang, however, is becoming less obvious. Early research and anecdotal evidence reveals this. Tech slang, such as tonite, summin’, BTW, and ur, are found regularly in students’ written assignments. As well, slang has seeped into the Christian culture: in sermons, worship songs, on t-shirts, and the like. When speaking about the things of God, slang cannot haul the theological payload of the Bible with its trailer’s limited capacity.  

Distraction. Online data analytics show people spend very little time on a webpage, and those who begin reading an article are few with an even fewer number who finish reading it. This is not surprising because the majority of web pages are visual beehives. Websites are populated with click-bait, sidebar video, and pop-ups that zap any inclination to concentrate on one item. Naturally, rich, substantive language is not the choice du jour since the main goal is drive up website traffic. Furthermore, distraction acclimates the mind to be in need of constant change and enticement—a detriment to meditation, scripture memory, and study.   

Simplicity. Online strategists need to wrangle a viewer’s attention quickly, and to do that big vocabulary words are not conducive. A simple vocabulary often “rules the day.” As well, simple language characterizes many emails. The tool has made communication easier, but it frequently requires less mental effort and less time in crafting this digital postcard. The two can tend to cannibalize each other and shrink our linguistic framework—what we don’t use, we lose. The atrophy is evidenced, in one way, by the lack of rich language and imagery in many worship songs produced and desired by churches.   Why should we care about how robust or not-so-robust our language is? Because our souls benefit from it. A rich vocabulary is the vehicle by which the “meat” of the Word is delivered (Heb. 5:13-14, KJV).    

Biblical vocabulary  

The Bible contains rich vocabulary that greatly assists in knowing the Lord deeper.  Terms such as propitiation and transgression are prime examples. These words take the believer deep into the knowledge of God. For instance, sin is the common term used to describe disobedience to God. One may be tempted to think transgression is a synonym for sin. On the contrary, the two terms communicate two different sides of disobedience. In Hebrew, sin communicates the nature of disobedience. It means missing a goal or an intention—not glorifying God with one’s body or mind, which is the goal for which we were created.   

On the other hand, transgression literally means rebel or revolt. It provides more insight about one’s disobedience. It communicates the war-like motivation for disobedience. We do not disobey God because we lack the skills to glorify him; we disobey because we desire to revolt against his authority. The word sin does not convey this dimension.   

How is this linguistic knowledge helpful? One is able to see the severity of every act of disobedience from murder to grumbling to gossiping. They are all indicators of an active rebellion against the Almighty revealed in the purposeful negligence of reaching the goals of holiness set forth by God.  

Depth of vocabulary   

In addition to knowing the vocabulary of the Bible, it is also most helpful to have a depth of vocabulary knowledge. Depth of vocabulary is knowing a word’s different relations to other words in the text’s lexicon, which includes a word’s synonym, antonym, and its hyponymous status.   

Having this knowledge enables a Christian to understand in a more complete manner a term such as propitiation. Propitiation means a wrath-bearing substitute. Penal substitution is often a synonym for propitiation. Christ is a believer’s wrath-bearing substitute. He endured on the cross for the Church all of her collective eternal condemnation, and condemnation is one of propitiation’s antonyms. So, if one knows the meaning and weight of God’s condemnation, propitiation’s glory is seen more in its fullness than it was before.   

In regards to a word’s hyponymous status, this aspect assists the reader in understanding the context being used. The root word, hyponym, means “a term that denotes a subcategory of a more general class.” Propitiation is a hyponym of the judicial system. All are familiar with a country’s judicial system. Felons receive serious to severe sentences for their crimes and are never provided a propitiation by the presiding judge. God does, however. Hopefully, you can see how possessing this type of knowledge is not only for the good of vocational Bible teachers, but also for the good of the rest of us. A Christian’s personal Bible study becomes more fruitful, more transformative.    

Literary devices 

Another rich aspect of language is literary devices, and the Bible is brimming with them: metaphors, similes, paradoxes, personifications, synecdoches, metonymies, and more. Consider paradox, for example. It is a presumed contradiction that is actually valid. A familiar paradox is “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you” (Phil. 2:12-13). In other words, do the work even though, technically, you are not doing the work. God is, through you. In a mysterious manner, our thinking is greatly aided by the Spirit’s power.   

The point may be lost, however, on one who does not understand the nature of paradoxes. For the one who recognizes the device being used, he will strive to discern the text’s meaning because he recognizes Paul is communicating a truth in a unique way. Literary devices stop a reader in one’s tracks and push one to think deliberately about what has just been read.  

In light of living in the land of ones and zeroes, the Christian Church must remind herself of language’s scope in order to speak and write of God in “penetrating, imaginative, and awakening ways.” The Church must also guard against her linguistic framework being down-sized by technology. She must spearhead a linguistic renaissance, where needed, if her souls are to be enlarged with the knowledge of God. For a small language cannot handle a massive God.   

*This article was adapted from a larger piece, “The Current American-English Vernacular: Lightweight Language for a Heavyweight God.”

Tim Scheiderer

Tim Scheiderer (M.Div, Southern Seminary) is a freelance writer living in metro Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter. His other writings can be found at TPScheiderer.com. He is also a founding board member of The Augustine Center, a Christian Study Center at Georgetown University. Read More