Philology by James Turner

Language and its products enthrall human beings. Our enduring love affair with words should not surprise. After all, the expanding capacity of Homo sapiens to use language in ever more intricate ways partly powered our evolution, gave us an edge over other animals, deepened the interdependence basic to humanity. The earliest schools, in Mesopotamia, taught not augury, astrology, or the art of war but how to handle written language.

~James Turner, from Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities


The term philology is derived from the Greek terms “philos”, meaning“brotherly love” and “logos”meaning “word” and describes a love of learning, of literature as well as of argument and reasoning. By the time it morphed through Latin and Old English, it came to mean generally the“love of literature”. That’s a disservice because it is much more. It is the study and love of words and most specifically, how they came to meaning.

Words are tricky, as everyone knows.

Misunderstandings happen when the intent doesn’t align with the interpretation, but worse, words must carefully be chosen if one is to impart the fullness of one’s heart to someone else. They are by nature social. If one wishes to keep one’s thoughts within, silence is the only requirement. If one however truly wants to express themselves it requires an intimate understanding of the perception and capacity of the hearer.

Owen Barfield (an intimate of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) understood this dynamic with brilliance. Barfield said that words unfold in a hearer’s consciousness and are different for each person. He said “the final objective record for each person of the whole series of thoughts or sense-impressions received by him every time he has spoken or heard that word.” Addressing poetry he said a poem does not mean only how it says; it means what each reader reads in it when he brings his full experience to bear upon it.

Words transmit more than sound, even more than lexical meaning. As Carol and Philip Zaleski wrote in their fine book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, “words are catch-basins of experience, fingerprints and footprints of the past that the literary detective may scrutinize in order to sleuth out the history of human consciousness.”

For me, this led to a better understanding of Christ as the Logos of John’s Gospel. Jesus is The Word, which is to say he is the full expression of God in a form most meaningful to His intended recipients – mankind. In Jesus we see God, yes, but more so, we see God expressed for us.