Vocabulary and Liturgy

(This is Neil) With regard to Todd’s post, Trautman’s Vocab, below, I thought that some of our readers would be interested in this excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ posthumously published Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (1964). Lewis is discussing the process in the Church of England that ultimately led to the publication of the  Alternative Service Book (ASB) in 1980 (a Liturgical Commission had been appointed in 1955):

For whom are we to cater in revising the language? A country parson I know asked his sexton what he understood by indifferently in the phrase “truly and indifferently administer justice.” The man replied, “It means making no difference between one chap and another.” “And what would it mean if it said impartially?” asked the parson. “Don’t know. Never heard of it,” said the sexton. Here, you see, we have a change intended to make things easier. But it does so neither for the educated, who understand indifferently already, nor for the wholly uneducated, who don’t understand impartially. It helps only some middle area of the congregation which may not even be a majority. Let us hope the revisers will prepare for their work by a prolonged empirical study of popular speech as it actually is, not as we (a priori) assume it to be. How many scholars know (what I discovered by accident) that when uneducated people say impersonal they sometimes mean incorporeal?

What of expressions which are archaic but not unintelligible? (“Be ye lift up.”) I find that people re-act to archaism most diversely. It antagonizes some; makes what is said unreal. To others, not necessarily more learned, it is highly numinous and a real aid to devotion. We can’t please both.

I know there must be change. But is this the right moment? Two signs of the right moment occur to me. One would be a unity among us which enabled the Church – not some momentarily triumphant party – to speak through the new work with a united voice. The other would be the manifest presence, somewhere in the Church, of the specifically literary talent needed for composing a good prayer. Prose needs to be not only very good but very good in a very special way, if it is to stand up to reiterated reading aloud. [Thomas] Cranmer may have his defects as a theologian; as a stylist, he can play all the moderns, and many of his predecessors, off the field. I don’t see either sign at the moment.

Based on this excerpt, we can, I think, ask four questions:

1. Regarding the vocabulary in new liturgical translations, has anyone actually conducted relevant empirical studies of popular speech? (Or are we just speculating?)

2. Can we say anything more than Lewis about “archaic” expressions? Is there an argument for “liturgical English – a “sacral” and “strongly stylized, more or less artificial language” (see here) – beyond the claim that some people (but inevitably some) will find it numinous and an aid to devotion?

3. Can the church presently speak with a “united voice” regarding liturgical translation?

4. Have we made use of any “literary talent” in translation?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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8 Responses to Vocabulary and Liturgy

  1. Randolph Nichols says:

    Thanks for the C.S. Lewis reference.

    I think the answer is “no” to your questions 1, 3 & 4. Regarding question 1 a country as large as the United States will inevitably have such regional and class differences that attempts to ascertain a one-size-fits-all form of speech is impractical and therefore futile. This acknowledgement, of course, gives fuel to those who champion Latin. (I would be satisfied if Boston area priests could just be trained to forego words and expressions like “anyways” or “in a very real sense.”)

    The unity envisioned in question 3 is probably beyond reach because debates on language get too easily entangled with other emotionally charged issues. You see this quite explicitly on websites devoted to music and liturgy. To some, conceding problems with the new English translation is somehow seen as endangering renewal of chant or traditional architecture. Those should be separate topics, but they become interwoven.

    As one who grew up appreciating the advantages of Cranmer’s prose, I wonder how visitors to this site would remedy the problem implicit in question 4. Was it dumb luck for the newly formed Church of England to have a literary talent in the position of authority? Or is the absence of lyric prose just a problem of our contemporary “like, you know what I mean” culture? Should gifted writers also be members of liturgical translation commissions as well as scholars of Latin, Greek and Hebrew? If so, how would you go about doing selecting them? I don’t think there’s an easy answer.

    I need to ponder a bit more question 2. A personal bias formed from childhood pulls me toward a separate or non-domestic form of liturgical language. Though as a child I didn’t understand the Coverdale “Like as the hart” translation of Psalm 42, certainly not the hart/heart wordplay, it enchanted me nonetheless. I’m certainly not the only person to have such an experience, but are we really just a tiny portion of the population at a particular moment of time as Lewis seems to suggest?

  2. Liam says:

    Aside from Neil’s good questions, I think the real issue is that both post-conciliar standards for translations (Comme le prévoit (CLP) in 1969, and Liturgicam Authenticam (LA) in 2001) missed the mark, though each has certain merits.

    Neither CLP nor LA made a rich, evocative and musical text a major goal of the translation process, and the translations that followed each reveal this failure. The emphasis in LA on reproducing/corresponding Latin syntax is LA’s greatest technical weakness. CLP, by contrast, allowed resonant or richer theological and pastoral meaning to be drained from texts. Cranmer showed that accurate translation from Latin into a rich and evocative vernacular was not a futile exercise, and Cranmer was not unique in this regard.

  3. Neil says:


    Thanks for responding. My views are:

    1) While Randolph is correct to suggest that the United States contains many differences, it would be good to have some sort of empirical research. Is it likely that relatively uneducated people either know or will learn words like “ineffable” and “oblation”? This is, to an extent, an empirical question.

    2) This question, I think, really requires more philosophical investigation. Most of the time, it is answered with mere assertion.

    3) Randolph, I think, is correct to suggest that websites and magazines portray the issue as charged. But are they representative?

    4) Given the importance of rhythm, I would think that it is very important that gifted writers be part of liturgical translation teams. I am not sure about Cranmer.


  4. Randolph Nichols says:

    While I know of no empirical studies on popular speech, there certinly is information detailing the general level of reading comprehension. Many public school systems collect such data. In Massachusetts, for example, all public school students must pass minimum standard MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) exams in order to proceed to the next grade level.

    The tests are controversial; there are charges that they don’t take into consideration different learning styles and teachers complain that too much classroom time is expended in test preparation. The tests are, however, mandatory and their results are predictable: students from poorer neighborhoods, as well as those for whom English is a second language, are far more likely to struggle with comprehension.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think such information serves to solve issues regarding translations for liturgical texts. How can you possibly determine the appropriate level of speech that would be inclusive of every English speaking Catholic? Whether to raise people beyond themselves or to affirm them as they are is at the heart of most liturgy related wrangling. It is a debate without resolution.

  5. Liam says:

    I guess I question some unstated premises behind the “common” language issue, as it might be stated (see part 15 of Comme le prévoit). There’s an assumption that vernacular language that is not immediately intelligible to the greater part of the people (CLP went so far as to include “children and persons of small education” as a standard on this point) is a significant barrier.

    Frankly, I think this is a well-intended but ultimately condescending standard (actually, it’s NOT the standard any more, since CLP was replaced, but obviously many commenters here and elsewhere still mentally treat it as a desirable norm). I’ve witnessed too many people, including “children and persons of small education,” deal with what might be considered “uncommon” vernacular and well at that. (At the extreme end of this one might place those Protestant communities, often not well-heeled or exceptionally overeducated – usually with full quivers of children (pun intended) – that are separationist on the issue of the KJV being the only valid English translation of Scripture. And non-native English speakers are not alien to this context, for that matter.)

    I should add I am big on intelligibility. Especially that prayers of the liturgy be spoken aloud and distinctly so they can be hear well. (No silent canon for me, thank you very much; it’s not that I think it’s invalid, it’s just that I think it’s no longer opportune.) But I but I find a pattern of worrying that people will might their faces in a worship aid to be a talisman of a certain fad during one period of the postconciliar reform in the US/Canada; since that time, we’ve come to learn more about learning patters and that many many people (perhaps even a majority) naturally (or by necessity, due to impairments of divers sorts) participate better by reading along, and inventing a ideal that treats this as substandard is, to my sense, a seriously misplaced priority.

  6. Neil says:

    Dear Randolph and Liam,

    Thank you for your comments. Let me clarify my comments in making four statements:

    1. There is a distinction between reading comprehension and oral comprehension; many people treat the written word in utilitarian ways but have rich oral lives. We have to determine whether certain words (e.g., “ineffable”) are intelligible when heard.

    2. Language can be understood, perhaps with the aid of a glossary or dictionary, but still not foster participation. We can understand the definition of a word, but the word might still remain remote or “unreal” (Lewis) to us.

    3. We can understand the definitions of the individual words in a sentence, but, because of issues regarding rhythm and cadence, we might not understand the sentence.

    4. A poor or relatively uneducated congregation might find very complex words or syntax to be intelligible if the church/community fosters a culture that focuses on interiorizing words or assimilating texts (e.g., the fundamentalist communities of which Liam speaks).

    Thus, this is a more complex matter than I might have earlier suggested. But
    I think that the complexity makes the need for empirical studies more urgent. How do different Catholics use language, especially in prayer? Needless to say, we can only expect partial and incomplete studies. But I think that they would still be enlightening.

    What do you think?


  7. Todd says:

    It strikes me that there is very little curiosity from bishops–in Rome or at the USCCB–to delve into these matters.

    For the Vatican, we have a return to a certain element of reconciliar excess: the main concern remains the correct words uttered by the clergy, and less the orthopraxis of the entire worshipping assembly.

    A revised Lectionary (even with flaws) was largely adopted by reformed Christians after it was developed in the 60’s and early 70’s. Rome took the lead and others followed.

    Recent liturgical developments will likely not inspire a similar following. Rome seems disinterested in actual study, an empirical refinement that, it would seem, would be another avenue for leadership. Instead we get a miscalculated reaction to what amounts to a misperception.

  8. Neil says:

    Dear Todd,

    The lack of empirical study of certain topics actually does tend to surprise me.

    To take another example, America recently published an article by Fr Stephen Joseph Fichter, based on his doctoral dissertation, that aimed to answer the question: “How many other Catholic priests have left the church for another denomination in order to marry?” (and why?). His work is, Fr Fichter tells us, the “first-ever analysis of this field.”

    How is this possible? (!)

    I really can’t explain why I’m not aware of any studies, anthropological or sociological, of how different Catholic use language, especially in prayer, most especially in liturgical prayer. Am I just ignorant? Why isn’t anyone looking at this?


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