Meaning, Marriage, and Allah
For centuries, Arabic speakers, both Christians and Jews, have used the word “Allah” to refer to God. As I understand it, that is the apparent etymological meaning of the word’s morphemes: the god.
Recently in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, a court order declared that a Catholic newspaper may not use the word Allah to refer to God. This decision claimed the word “Allah” as distinctly and exclusively referring to
the God worshipped by Muslims God as God is understood by Islam.
For centuries, English speakers in the West have used the word “marriage” to refer to a legally recognized relationship between a man and a woman, establishing a household.
The etymological meaning of this word’s morphemes is more obscure, and its semantic field is broader. But the relationship is presumptively and normatively sexual, monogamous, lifelong, and includes the birthing and raising of children.
In reality, none of these things have been universally true; there have always been marriages that did not include sex, that did not last lifelong, that were not monogamous, and that did not include children. Indeed, it is presumed that most marriage will include at least one substantial period without children, and will eventually enter a period during which sex is rare or entirely absent. (The reality may be otherwise, but the popular imagination is typically either amused or disturbed by the idea that elderly people are sexually active.) Over the last 50-100 years, with the destigmatization of divorce and the availability of effective birth control, “lifelong” and “intending children” can no longer be taken for granted, even though the norms persist. Increasingly, in this country, the meaning of marriage has come to indicate a legally recognized, presumptively sexual and emotional relationship between two adults that establishes a household. Increasingly, both the majority usage and the law are broadening to embrace such a relationship between either two men or two women.
Recently, a religious minority in this country has vocally claimed the word “marriage” as distinctly and exclusively referring to
the traditional meaning of marriage
relationships that conform to the church(es)’s definition of marriage
relationships between a man and a woman that can have children
relationships between a man and a woman.
Logically, there’s no reason to draw the line there, instead of somewhere else; doctrinally, this is actually a really poor place to draw the line, at least for Catholics. I’ve argued before that the Catholic church should willingly yield all claim to the word “marriage”, withdraw from civil discourse on the matter, and concentrate instead on teaching its flock the distinctly Catholic understanding of sacramental marriage, for which it might use the term “matrimony.”
The majority claim about “Allah” in Malaysia, and the minority claim about “marriage” in this country, both attempt to plant a flag on a particular hill in a word’s semantic field and claim that this hill is the one and only authentic, legitimate meaning of the word. But that’s just not how language works.