How Language Encourages Belief in an Afterlife

People believe in life after death for many reasons. A contributing factor, one that goes unnoticed, are certain characteristics of nouns and verbs in English and other languages. Essentially, the way nouns and verbs work help make it easy for us to imagine and talk about the dead as if they still lived.

One characteristic is that nouns don’t indicate whether the thing they name exists physically or not. Nouns do show other differences quite clearly, such as a difference in number: in English, for example, many nouns are plural if they end with an s sound and are singular if they are without it. But nouns don’t change in any way to show the difference between items that exist and those that don’t. Nouns and names (which are a type of noun) can, with no change at all, refer to objects and people right in front of us (Please meet my sister) or out of sight (my sister in Chicago) or existing only in our imagination (I wish I had a sister) or no longer alive (My great grandmother’s sister).

As a result, a sentence such as “Aunt Mary went to college when she was 16” sounds normal and clear even though the statement leaves out an important piece of information: we can’t tell from it whether Aunt Mary is living at this moment or not. In general, in fact, when we remember the lives of those who have died, we can—rather weirdly—think and speak about them with the same words we might have used when they were alive. In our imagination and conversation, thanks to the way nouns work, such people easily remain alive-in-the-past-tense.

A second bizarre characteristic is that even explicit assertions that a person has died have their own peculiarities. “Aunt Mary is dead” seems to leave no uncertainty about her current state. But not only is the noun phrase Aunt Mary by itself neutral about whether she exists now or not; the verb in the sentence, is, is in the present tense, not the past. The result, as I hear the sentence, is a subtext that allows us to imagine Aunt Mary retaining some of her reality in the here and now although she is deceased. After all, except for the last word, the statement is no different from countless statements that began with “Aunt Mary is…” when she was alive, such as “Aunt Mary is upstairs.” So, for speakers and listeners who were fond of Aunt Mary, the statement that she is dead can subtly suggest or leave open the possibility of  her other-worldly continuity as the same time that it delivers the hard message.

Finally, consider the other form of the same message: “Aunt Mary died.” No present tense verb here; “died” means died-in-the-past. But here the contradictory hint of her continuing animation is that she is the actor of the verb. Normally, the dead don’t do  things. Aunt Mary did something, so how dead can she really be? This is all very strange, but I think that such sentences tell us one thing and hint at something else. Despite the literal meaning of “Aunt Mary died,” the sentence, one might say, is whispering that she is still active. As a result, especially if we ourselves hope to live in some form after we die, we might feel quite comfortable with such statements as “Aunt Mary died. She has gone to heaven and continues to watch over us.”

Language is our human tool. It has no more or less accuracy and flexibility than we give it. We can talk about what is real and what is not real and we may not always need to be precise about the difference. One consequence is the ease with which we can “speak” the dead to life.

4 thoughts on “How Language Encourages Belief in an Afterlife

  1. I think you would find echoes of your thoughts in the Wikipedia article ‘E-Prime’ where the various confusing uses and abuses of the verb ‘to be’ are illustrated. Not everyone agrees that usage of the verb ‘to be’ should be completely avoided, but I suspect a great deal of debate about religious or spiritual views rests on the confusion between ‘feelings’ and ‘existence’ enabled by the verb ‘to be’. And sometimes the confusion is deliberate.

    On the other hand you could argue that the flexible meanings of the verb ‘to be’ make English an excellent trading language since you can strike successful bargains and communicate easily with people of different world views. Or pilot a plane through international air space.

    • Thanks, Ed. Good article. I’m putting this together with the Wikipedia entry on E-Prime suggested by Discovered Joys, above your comment. Between the two, there’s lots to consider about nouniness and the verb to be and their possible roles in religious beliefs across cultures.

      Brock

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