Monday, July 27, 2009

Language in church

I've been thinking a lot about language recently. That's mostly because I've been reading a book by one of my favorite linguists John McWhorter, titled Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care. His premise, in a nutshell, is that the cultural change of the 1960s caused us to abandon our love for formal English, both written and spoken. We've replaced it with a constant search for the lowest common denominator (newspapers writing with middle school vocabularies), "authenticity" (a freedom to use casual speech and even expletives liberally in music and speech), and the common notion that great orators and the days of elocution are firmly behind us, no longer necessary. Sunday's prayers and hymns are a perfect illustration of this formal/informal divide between the generations, the difference between loving language and communicating in the vernacular.

Because of the 80th anniversary, we used hymns and prayers that have been around for many years, drawn from older hymnals of the church. This led to quite a sprinkling of "thee" and "though" and "most heartily beseeching." The prayers ended with an address to Christ, "who liveth and reigneth with thee." I'm sure there were people who asked themselves who would ever talk like that.

That opinion is perfectly natural for the zeitgeist of today, but no one would have considered such language inappropriate in 1929. That isn't because people spoke that way at all times. Certainly F. Scott Fitzgerald did not woo Zelda by saying, "I heartily beseech thee to accompany me to the speakeasy." The language was out of fashion even then; just see films of the era for proof. However, when people went to church they dressed in their Sunday best and expected to hear eloquent language and oration. People knew that there was a way of speaking in church (and other formal situations) that differed from casual conversation. One modern holdover is a wedding invitations or announcements, where the formal aspects of language still occur more regularly than in, for example, a birthday e-vite.

As for the hymns, some of the hymnals best and most cherished hymns still use a formal, more eloquent language. For example, who would want to tamper with ELW 685 "Take My Life, That I May Be"?
Take my life that I may be
consecrated Lord to Thee;
take my moments and my days;
let them flow in ceaseless praise.

It's basically a trochaic quatrain: four rhyming lines of lilting syllables. Read it aloud, and it might sound like this:
TAKE my LIFE that I may BE

That's formal poetry. That's a lyricist crafting formal language in a beautiful hymn, language that strives for excellence and yearns for inspiration from heaven. That's language and music worth singing!

PS Thanks to Mary Frances for her beautiful singing on Sunday, and also thank you to everyone for your birthday wishes.

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