Num-nums and a hey nonne-nonne!

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Latin interrogative particles num and nonne.  Sounds like I’m ready for the rubber room, doesn’ t it? (example of nonne equivalent in English)  Surely you don’t think I’m crazy, do you?  (example of num equivalent in English)

The word num in Latin has no lexical meaning.  It is used as the first word in a yes-no question, where the questioner expects (or is calling for) a negative answer.  Usually this gets represented in English as “Surely you don’t …., do you?” or “You don’t …, do you?”  Nonne which consists of non (“not”) and the -ne suffix, which in Latin is used to signal a “yes-no question.”  Affixed to non, the question now is worded where the questioner asks a yes-no question, but expects (or is calling for) an affirmative reply.  We do something similar in English when we say “Isn’t this better?”  It is a yes-no question, but we expect a “yes.”  Often we see this in English when, instead of making a command, or a polite request, we rephrase it as a question.  When I taught Latin, at first I would ask students, “would  you turn to p. 45?”  Some smart alecks would then respond, “No.” and I’d then add — “Oh, I apparently didn’t make myself clear — TURN to p. 45!”

Now why would these interrogative particles come to mind?  Well, I’m never sure why anything comes to my mind — I think most of my thoughts must be lost and just stumble, unceremoniously, into my conscious mind.  It’s why I often look puzzled or bemused.  Inside my mind the Tim Allen, “Huh?” from Home Improvement goes off.  Eratosthenes had “Eureka!”  and I have Tim Allen’s “Huh?”

 But these particles did pop up as I was saying the All Souls (KC) covenant.  I never say it as it’s printed in the order of service.  I know several variations, and patch together those versions when others (most, maybe all) are saying the covenant as printed.  I always say “gift” instead of “law,” though I like Shawnee Mission’s “service is its sacrament” — as I’m trying not to miss the beat of the All Souls version when I’m there, I’ll stick with the monosyllabic “gift” instead of going with the word “sacrament,” which strikes a resonant chord in this Irish Catholic (ret.) boy’s heart.  Later in that covenant are the words “to seek the truth in love…”  Here, as someone raised Catholic, I hit a wall, and find these words tough to say, as I grew up in a religion that claimed to be “the true faith.”  As I rejected that idea as rather limited (and presumptuous) I find that the presumption in “seek the truth” is too much for me.  As an ideal, I’m not too bothered by it, but I wonder if there is a “the truth,” or simply “truths.”  Mostly I think the latter, which probably makes me a relativist, but there you have it.  At any rate, I usually replace that phrase with “speak our truths in love.”  I’ve heard that in some other UU churches, and find it closer to the way I see things.  There are truths that are mine, some part of which may be shared by others.  By saying “our truths” or even “my truths” I’m allowing for POV other than mine to be valid (even if not for me at this time), and am suggesting a need to publish “my (or “our”) truths.”  This is not to put out that “my truths” are “the truth.”  I’m not sure that I would know what “the truth” is.  But being willing to share my truths means that someone else’s truth does not hog the stage.  I think that when we don’t share our truths, especially in an environment that may not be receptive, we run the risk of giving the nod to the “nums” among us — “surely you don’t believe X…”  If we do believe X and don’t speak up, we are not being true to ourselves, and we are robbing our interlocutors of something to think on.  And, perhaps, we are giving a false impression of who we are. 

On the other hand, I sometimes find myself assuming agreement (unconsciously or not, using the ‘”nonne”) with people with whom I’m talking.  This happens, for me, primarily in matters of political discourse.  I do see it in churches as well.  Most credal churches do start with an assumption of “yes” to their basic creed, and one feels reluctant to speak out against any part of that creed — it’ll hurt people’s feelings, or I’ll lose friends, or people will think less of me, and so on.  But I think it happens in Unitarian churches as well.  I wish it didn’t.  For me, the great potential for the Unitarian-Universalist movement is the hope for openness.  But shared beliefs on many things may lead to assumptions that others think like us.  There is some comfort when others agree with us — we’re not alone;  there’s someone else who thinks as we do;  and so on.  But I wonder if that comfort may be leading us astray — for we go along to get along, and so a “yes” may not be a “yes” or a “no” may not  be the “no” we thought it was.  Or we may find ourselves surrounded only by those who think like we do, which means we miss a chance to get a fresh point of view.  In a way, “num” thinking or “nonne” thinking prompts others, and many will respond as prompted.  In its worst form, it’s a way of bullying someone into accepting our view as his/her view.  Even at its best, though, it probably muddies the water a bit. 

If I had a wish for this coming year it would be that I would free myself, to the extent possible, from “num” and “nonne” questions and the thought behind them.  Rather I would listen to another and try to understand the other’s POV, without feeling the need to cut off discussion by a well-placed “num” or “nonne.”  And I would wish it for the Unitarian-Universalist churches as well.  Surely that’s not too much to ask for, is it?  Can’t we expect that much at least?

1 Response to “Num-nums and a hey nonne-nonne!”

  1. 1 Sharon Blevins
    August 29, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Well said, Bernie!

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