From the Greek compound philo (love) and logos (word), philology means the love of words, or more specifically the study of language. Although the immediate connection between the “love of words” generally and a Christian love of the word of God, the eternal logos (John 1:1), should be readily apparent, further exploration of the lost art of philology discovers even deeper resonances.
Like philosophy (the love of wisdom), philology posits first the ethical distance between the student and the word. The learner of logos must first be a lover of logos, the learner and lover of language. Without love, there is no knowledge. Love opens one up to language, etc. The importance of this becomes immense once one realizes how the foundation of facticity is language itself. As the German Philosopher Martin Heidegger famously said: “Die Sprache ist das Haus des Seins” (language is the house of being). And as Scripture teaches, we are “worded” creatures, created by the speech of God (Gen. 1); the whole universe is upheld by the “word of his power” (Heb. 1:3).
Therefore if ours is a “worded” world then the logic of language is of utmost importance. In fact, nothing is more powerful than speech itself; nothing is more important than words, nor more dynamic than discourse. Our lives and loves are always already condition, contained, and even constituted by the limits of language. And so to learn language is to learn to live; to learn to love. And to love words is an entrance into the whole world. Hence, the mystic romance of the philologist.
J.R.R. Tolkien understood this perhaps better than most during the 20th century. In fact he did not see himself to primarily be a story teller, or a fiction writer. Rather, he understood himself primarily to be a philologist. And it was philology itself that provided the performative context for his mythology. He loved stories, but he realized that even they were constituted by something more primary, namely language. Therefore, it was nouns and names that Tolkien loved most passionately; the love of words and their elusive histories, meanings, and powers. “The invention of languages is the foundation,” wrote Tolkien of his myths. “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse” (Letters, p. 219). This comes through in a letter to his son Christopher regarding the later’s poem on Attila the Hun:
I suddenly realized that I am a pure philologist. I like history, and am moved by it, but its finest moments for me are those in which it throws light on words and names! Several people (and I agree) spoke to me of the art with which you made the beady-eyed Attila on his couch almost vividly present. Yet oddly, I find the thing that thrills my nerves is the one you mentioned casually: atta, attila. Without those syllables the whole great drama both of history and legent loses savour for me (Letters, p. 264).
What is Tolkien talking about? Why are the syllables of atta, attila, so much more important than anything else about the story? Could so much possibly be hidden within a few syllables, cognates, nouns, or names? How much is in a name anyway? How much meaning in a word? The answer: more than most modern people care to realize. In fact, it is the words themselves that give the greatest clues into the stories; it is the names in their specificity that open up the narratives. Tom Shippey, explains:
The point is that Attila, though a Hun, an enemy of the Goths under Theodorid and a byword for bloody ferocity, nevertheless does not appear to bear a barbarian name. ‘Attila’ is the diminutive form of the Gothic word for ‘father’, atta: it means ‘little father’, or even ‘dad’, and it suggests very strongly the presence of many Goths in Attila’s conquering armies who found loot and success much more attractive than any questions of saving the West, Rome or Civilization! ….. Atta, Attila: what’s in a name? One answer is, a total revaluation of history (The Road to Middle Earth, p. 16).
By calling this tyrant and destroyer Attila the Goths gave the most poetic expression to the complete turnover of their culture and civilization. They called their worst enemy affectionately, “daddy.” Any further words would fail to transcend the sublime simplicity of these subtle sounds. The syllables say it all.
As Christians we also can appreciate this love for language and its importance in discovering the depths of significance embedded into the Holy Scriptures. We may even take the significance of names as an example (the sensitivity to which modernity has left us almost entirely bereft).
God has revealed himself throughout Scripture through both his actions and his names. And the names are no less significant than the actions! Rather they are integrally connected and powerfully combined. In fact nothing is more powerful than the word of the LORD, nor anything more glorious than his name. And from the beginning of the entire history of salvation, God’s name was holy and dangerous; unpronounceable, and not to be blasphemed. But in Genesis God acts in providing for his friend Abraham, and Abraham named that spot, “Yahweh will provide” (Gen. 22:8, 14). And later God reveals himself to Moses as “I am who I am” (Ex. 3) and then says: “for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Ex. 9:13). Likewise, the names of the leaders of Israel are significant too, of course. Joshua, for example, means the LORD saves.
All of this comes to a head in the New Testament when we hear that “his name will be Jesus (Joshua) because he will save his people from their sins. Here the names Yahweh, Joshua, and Jesus are identified. And most notably, the title, Christ (Messiah, which means anointed) harkens back to the entire history of the anointed servant of the Lord. In the New Testament world, all a Jew (or Samaritan) had to do is say the title “Messiah” and instantly a whole history of significance was brought to the mind. Thus to say, “Jesus is the Christ” was the most historically freighted of statements. For by nominating Jesus with title “Christ” one was making a revaluation of history itself.
But we need to be lovers of language if we are to learn any of this; lovers of words and lovers of the worlds they create. We need to practice philology, to whatever extent that is still possible anymore. Ultimately, this is how we love the world of our neighbors; the world of our ancestors, and the texts they’ve written down for us; and ultimately this is how we love the eternal logos of God. Indeed, all these things go together.
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:16-17).