This is part SIX, and we are tracing a trajectory of linguistic development throughout the twentieth-century, exploring how we got to “contemporary language.”
Part ONE of the series, which will served as an overview and introduction to the ideological issues at hand, can be found HERE.
Part TWO, where we talk about the concept of liturgy itself, can be found HERE.
Part THREE of our series, which will trace the development of our Prayer Book, can be found HERE.
We also have a part 3.5, found HERE, which summarizes the third part and talks a bit about the ethos of Prayer Book revision in The Episcopal Church.
Part FOUR, where we look at the notion of “inclusive and expansive language” as it pertains to the doctrine of the Trinity, can be found HERE.
Part FIVE, where look, at brief, at a few Biblical terms for God, is found HERE.
I say that this is a strange thing because, prior to the 1950s at least, no one seemed all that concerned that the Bible spoke of “thee” and “thou” and tended to add “-th” to past-tense words (like “believeth”). So, what changed? What inspired people to push for “contemporary language” in our scriptures and in our liturgies? When did we decide that we no longer needed “formal” English and could do with only “conversational” or “colloquial” English?
These are the kinds of questions that plague my mind at times.
Language is shaped by its literature. English scholars note that (Early) Modern English is largely indebted to The King James Bible, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the works of William Shakespeare. This makes sense because the Prayer Book liturgy and the public reading of the Bible were so common to people that it had to shape people’s words and thoughts. And Shakespeare was so wildly popular that his plays added phrases and grammar to popular English.
But languages are not frozen in time and as a body of literature grows, the language changes. And so, for our discussion, we owe a great debt to Mark Twain.
Twain was hardly the first person to do this. In fact, such a convention was fairly common going back to the 1700s, but was often reserved for black and first-people’s dialogue, likely as a way to demonstrate their lack of intelligence or “savagery.” Twain, instead, allowed white people and black people to have the same kind of voice, which was characteristically that of rural Missouri.
That Twain’s book was so popular helped pave the way for a general acceptance of colloquial English in literature, especially in America.
At the beginning of the twentieth century there also arose an important artistic movement known as “the Harlem Renaissance.” Key figures of this movement include the poet Langston Hughes and the Florida novelist Zora Neale Hurston, among others. This has been described as a “blossoming of Black culture.” In terms of literature, this work not only helped introduce white America to the thoughts and emotions of black America, but it also introduced white America to the cadences and phrases of black America.
Zora Neale Hurston was an important figure in this regard, though she was often dismissed by her Harlem Renaissance peers for her use of black colloquial English in her work. It wasn’t until the 1980s that her work began to receive more widespread attention.
Alongside the literary advancements of the Harlem Renaissance was the advent of a centrally important American musical tradition: jazz.
Jazz is a musical tradition born out of traditional West African music, the spirituals, and the blues. Jazz is a black American musical form that, in my opinion, captures the essence of American culture. It is the product of black people—stolen from their homelands in West Africa—using European musical instruments, but reinterpreting them along ancestral conventions. The result is a form of music that is largely interpretive and improvisational. Jazz takes the rigid formality of classical European music and gives it a flow and feeling that is as much about the heart as it is the mind.
By the time of the 1940s and 1950s, jazz had had a significant impact on American youths and began to spawn a white counter-culture from within the universities. Figures like William S. Burroughs and Gary Snyder, along with individuals like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, form the core of what became known as “the Beat Generation.” Kerouac, with books like On The Road and The Dharma Bums, helped popularize the narrative of this group of writers and poets. Influenced by jazz, the Beats concocted a style of poetry heavily reliant on rhythm and improvisation, rather than strict meter and rhyme.
As part of their overall iconoclastic package, the Beats challenged much of the (white) status-quo and helped give rise to the American counter-culture that blossomed throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s.
The 50s and 60s also saw the rise of youth culture, giving birth to the modern concept of the “teenager.”
All of this had an impact on language in America. And as with other aspects of the status quo, formality in language was dismissed as lacking reality.
In the midst of these cultural changes, in the 1950s, a man was quietly working for the American Bible Society and he came up with a fairly radical new linguistic theory. Eugene Nida was a linguist who gave us the concept of “Functional (or, Dynamic) Equivalence.”
The work of translation involves finding word equivalents between languages. An example of this would be the translation of the Hebrew word “‘adon” into the English word “lord.” Both are terms used of a male leader figure in a household or tribe. And so, in formal equivalence, “lord” is seen to have an equal meaning as “‘adon.” Another good example might be the Aramaic word “abba,” which we translate as “father.” Both are words used for the male parent of a child and so are seen as (formally) equivalent.
Nida presents us with another way of thinking about this. He essentially invites us to ask the question: ‘did the people in the Bible think the same thing of, say, “‘adon,” that we think of “lord?” And, if not, is there a better word for translation purposes?’
Dynamic equivalence made major shockwaves in the world of literary translation. For churches, dynamic equivalence and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls* inspired a number of new translations of the Bible. As already mentioned, the King James Version had, since the 1600s, served as the standard English Bible. Given that advancements had been made in biblical scholarship and, as seen above, linguistic conventions had begun to shift, there was an increased desire to offer a Bible that was easy to read for the average person.
Various Protestant groups began offering their own translations. Kenneth Taylor paraphrased the KJV into contemporary English for his kids and published it as The Living Bible. The American Bible Society, following Eugene Nida’s work, developed Today’s English Version (popularly known as The Good News Bible) in order to offer a readable Bible that could also be easily translated into different languages for missionary work. And an international and interdenominational group sought to unseat the KJV with a more accurate English Bible, giving us the New International Version (NIV) in 1978.
Concurrent to this, the Roman Catholic Church was involved in their own work of English Bible translation—giving us The Jerusalem Bible. This was published in 1966 and uses Dynamic Equivalence. It is also notable in that JRR Tolkien (yes, the author of The Lord of the Rings) was involved in the translation work, giving the work a degree of rich literary quality.
This is evidence of The Church at large responding to changes in the culture, and beginning to reflect those changes.
Which brings us to today. We sit at the cusp of a new way of thinking about the language we use and how that language shapes the ways in which we think and act. Language, after all, is reflective of what happens in our minds. It is expressive of what we value and what we perceive. And this is something that we will discuss more in our next part.
But in closing this part of our discussion, it is perhaps worthwhile to note something about The Church in regards to its approach to language: Protestants tend to be the drivers behind translation.
Individuals like Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc. all felt that the Bible and the liturgies of The Church need to be rendered into the language of the people. The Catholic Church, of course, resisted this.
To be a Christian is to subscribe to a certain set of doctrines. These give definition to what makes Christianity “Christian” (as opposed to, say, Buddhist or Mormon). This means that a key part of evangelism involves the difficult dance of getting people onboard with these doctrines, even if they are quite foreign to a person’s way of thinking. In some ways, evangelism is bringing people into the culture and customs of a particular society (The Kingdom of God, i.e., The Church). This notion becomes difficult when translation becomes a factor***.
So, the impetus of The Roman Catholic Church has long been more about brining the world into The Church. Whereas the Protestant impulse has been to bring the Church into the world. Of course, this is one of the reasons that I love being Anglican—because we toe the line between both approaches. Which puts us square in the middle of our current discussions.
The tension of liturgical revision is found in trying to be faithful to the revelations and doctrines of The Church while also responding to the (Spirit-filled) challenges and convictions of the world. Yes, we call people into The Church. But how can we do that calling if the signage is unreadable or unrecognizable?
Click HERE for part SEVEN (Man, this series is getting long, huh?)
* The world of biblical scholarship was rocked in 1946 when a shepherd boy, tossing rocks into to amuse himself, accidentally broke a clay jar. The resultant discovery was a collection of scrolls hidden by a sort of doomsday cult from a compound at a desert place known as Qumran. Among those scrolls were extremely old and well-preserved copies of Old Testament books. This gave scholars of the Bible access to resources that allowed for more accurate translations. The King James Bible did not have access to this kind of work, itself being a translation of the Latin Vulgate.
** Growing up, in my Christian school history textbooks, I’d read how wicked the Catholics (and even the Anglicans!) were for keeping the Bible chained up inside the churches, not letting people take it home to read or whatever. This argument completely misses the fact that BOOKS WERE REALLY EXPENSIVE and the process for printing them was tedious and time-consuming.
*** Case in point: the schism between the so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches (Copts, Ethiopians, Armenians, Syrians, etc.) and the Eastern Orthodox Churches (Greeks, Russians, Georgians, etc.). This is the result of the “Miaphysite Heresy.” You can read all about it HERE. The short of it is that two communities of Christians were split due to a mistranslation of a document outlining a controversy involving the Trinity.