April 15, 2006

God the multilinguist

Posted in Language, Malaysia, Religion at 7:10 pm by egalitaria

Let's have a Little Language Lesson, shall we?

The monotheistic religions refer to their higher being as "God". Let's see what the word is translated into, in the different colourful languages of the world:

  • Arabic: Allah
  • Chinese: Shang Ti
  • German: Gott
  • Greek: Theos
  • Hebrew: Eloah
  • Latin: Deus
  • Malay: Tuhan
  • Spanish: Dios

These generally refer to the same entity. However, due to cultural differences, inevitable when one studies Language, the way each society refers to that same entity is not the same. Therefore, one faces a difficulty where the Latin Deus is really the same as that of the Spanish Dios, and so on. Taking into consideration the context of time, society and culture, one then understands each's reference point.

Nevertheless, if there is no better way of explaining a certain point one attempts to make, than to refer to the word itself, one does it.

If I am speaking Spanish to a Barcelonian, will I temporarily pretend I am unable to speak Spanish and say "God" instead of "Dios"? I will not.

I'm not making any criticisms here at all, but just wondering aloud as to the reasons for this. (Page 3) Does banning certain words really do anything?

A rose by any other name should smell as sweet.

A God by any other name should mean the same.



  1. freewheel said,

    Hmm… i can actually sympathise with the Muslims on this one. The theological differences between the Muslim God and the Christian God are so vast (despite coming from so similar a history – or perhaps this aggravates the problem) that I see why they tread so carefully. It is to those who already understand and are assured of their own faith and the character of their God that this need not apply. But the unsuspecting reader may truly pick up a completely different idea of God from what their religion or religious leaders believe to be true. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who is simple enough, or young enough in your faith not to be able to differentiate between truth and heresy.

    I certainly won’t make a fuss between Spanish and Latin, because their concept of God is pretty much the same, but the basis of the argument of the Muslims here is the difference in the image of God.

    Banning certain words may not make any sense or difference to someone with trained eptitude in the language or in the faith, but truthfully, even in Singapore, if you go around using the directly translated words for God amongst the Chinese-educated dialect speaking heartlanders, you would probably end up with plenty of misconceptions of Who you are explaining. To borrow your metaphor, we are actually giving the description of a lily under the guise of a rose.

    So I understand their reasons, though banning the words isn’t, to my mind, the best way of getting things done.

  2. freewheel said,

    P.S. even in the translation of ordinary words we often lose nuances, shades of meaning not fully captured. (an argument which appeals even more to Muslims, who hold that the original Arabic is their only authoritative Scripture precisely for the reason: ‘lost in translation’). What more when applied to the word God, with all its context. Even so, when the NT was translated from Latin to Spanish (I think the first ones didn’t use the Gk original) many years ago, I doubt all the translated words had exactly the same connotations.

  3. egalitaria said,

    True that we should be considerate to the present day sentiments, how the word in itself has altered such that the connotation is completely the opposite. However, looking at tradition, did the word Allah not exist in pre-Islamic Arabic books/Bibles?

    See this http://www.answering-christianity.com/allah.htm

    Or more specifically, this: http://www.answering-christianity.com/allah6.htm
    where apparently, the word “Allah” did indeed exist in the Arabic Talmud and the other Jewish Holy Scriptures. I’m just doing my research here – wonder whether there’s anyone who’s an expert on this?

  4. freewheel said,

    I think the various sources are in agreement enough on that issue. So it’s not a linguistics problem but one on ownership – does any God own the name Allah, so to speak.

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