Saturday, August 17, 2013

A few clear thoughts about the second person pronoun: part II

My much overdue post rebutting the compendium of errors. EDIT: I should perhaps note the context of a certain "joke" argument. At that time, there was a lot of silly rumbling about the "lavender mafia" in the OCA being behind everything anybody didn't like, especially liturgically, and such and it seemed like an appropriate way to mock such concerns.

There is a new error to add to the list:

5. The second person singular pronoun is used as an informal pronoun, and therefore implies a more intimate relationship with God and the saints when we use it for them. This argument has some pedigree in that it may serve as justification for an RSV-styled usage.
I will rebut the arguments in order.
  1. Thee/Thou is traditional liturgical English and therefore most appropriate for translating liturgical texts.

    It is true that, historically, liturgical texts in English were produced using Thee/Thou because that was the language used in the predominant biblical translations. However, the majority of American Orthodox are not from English-language liturgical traditions. They are cradle Orthodox. Of the converts, a large chunk are from the Low Church and therefore are not necessarily in a liturgical tradition and certainly not necessarily Thee/Thou tradition. Of the ones that are from an English-language liturgical tradition, I presume a majority are former Catholics, which by no means implies that they are used to "traditional liturgical English" as such.

    Further, a large proportion of the "traditional" liturgical English dates back to the 17th century. While it was archaic even then, it was still in living memory. Efforts at translating into an archaic style always fall short. If you are going to translate into an old style, go for the whole kit and kaboodle, using -eth and everything. However, cf my post yesterday on why this is a terrible idea, not just because the attempt at doing so will fail terribly, but because the text will be unreadable.

  2. The language of the liturgy should not be dumbed down.

    Writing in a formal register can be accomplished without resorting to using Thee/Thou. The complex sentence structure of the Greek/Slavonic and the use of theological vocabulary usually prevents the translator from making things too simple, anyway.

  3. Thou/Thee has the potential to be more theologically accurate.

    Indeed, this was Tyndale's motivation for using it. By his time, usage of it as a strict singular/plural distinction was dying out and a more French system was predominant - and "thou" itself was on the decline in general. He used it strictly as a singular/plural marker in his translation following the Greek and Hebrew and, later, the Authorized Version followed suit.

    However, modern translators of liturgical texts introduce their own inaccuracies when they use Thee/Thou. Consider two different texts:

    You descended...
    You did descend...
    These imply different underlying texts and a translator will rarely choose the latter without some indication in the original text that this is a better translation. However, translators use Thou will always and only say, "Thou didst descend...". This is bad English and unidiomatic in the 16th century.

    The mild confusion that may appear when using only one second person pronoun (You) rarely has semantic meaning. There are a handful, less than a dozen, places in the Bible where it makes a difference. Introducing an awkward new pronoun with its ugly verb conjugations hardly worth the hassle: a footnote in the Bible will do. If it's a text being read in church, I would be very concerned if the people have not already figured out that we believe in one God in three persons and are thus confused by one of the dozen ambiguous uses of "you" in the Bible where it really matters.

  4. Complete sets of liturgical texts exist in Thou/Thee.

    This is the only one with the potential for relevance. However, a significant portion of the texts do exist in real English, and some of the texts in Thou/Thee are so horribly stilted as to be practically useless without correction.

  5. Thou is informal and personal.

    Perhaps in the 16th century. In most dialects of English, it was dead by the beginning of the 17th century except in church, and then only because the books wanted to preserve singular/plural distinctions - not distinctions of familiarity. They also wanted an archaic feel, which sometimes led to erroneous usages in other areas - cf Tyndale botching the yes/yea no/nay distinction and Sir Thomas More botching his correction (this is another reason why I strongly recommend against intentionally archaic styles - you will get them wrong and the people correcting you will get them wrong). From that point on, the second person singular was not an informal, personal pronoun, but a special religious pronoun marked and set apart for sacred use. That is fine if that is what is wanted, but that is now what is argued for here.

    So that makes a new argument:

  6. Thou is a special pronoun that marks the text as a special religious text for sacred usage.

    It is certainly a cheap way to let people know that you're in church: they're singing, "Thou didst descend..." instead of, "You descended...". Therefore, you must be in church. Another cheap way to do this is to sing it in Slavonic. I submit that the fact that we are cantillating everything, are singing at all, and using words such as "ineffable" and "consubstantial" are pretty good markers of something that is set apart for God. It would be one thing if the use of the pronoun were colloquial, beautiful, and did not ever present any barrier to reading and comprehending the text, but it is not.

    Still, if going this route, I would perhaps recommend using the RSV usage and what was once a standard OCA usage: using Thou/Thee for God, you for everybody else. This cuts down on the amount of Thou/Thee used, which is a benefit, while retaining it somewhere in a reasonable consistent fashion for those who feel they need it.

In short, I do not believe there is any good reason for using Thou/Thee in liturgy apart from only having a text that uses Thou/Thee. Preferentially seeking a text that uses Thou/Thee is a bad idea, then, because it involves intentionally seeking a poorer text when there is no good reason to use such a text.

Anyway, the positive case for using You/Your is as follows:

  1. It is the English that everybody speaks and is therefore capable of being read and comprehended.

    This makes it easier for everybody to read and comprehend, especially non-native speakers. Even for native speakers, reading aloud is a hard thing, singing from marked text is also very hard, adding another layer of complexity is enough to make either act "snag". How much more for your non-native population? Better to use contemporary English than the English of 500 years ago.

  2. Translations will be better.

    The problem with writing in an English that you do not speak and that nobody has spoken for 500 years is that the translation will be unidiomatic. The Jordanville translations rely heavily on awkward constructions like "Do Thou Thyself". Every modern translation of liturgical texts I have seen overuses the "Thou didst descend..." construction. It occurs probably 100 times as often as it does in the Authorized Version with "thou" and in idiomatic contemporary English with "you".

  3. It sounds terrible read or sung.

    Especially with all the "didst" constructions. But, generally, "-est" and "-dst" aren't particularly nice to have in read or sung texts. Fluent, intelligent native speakers of English stumble over these constructions much more than natural, idiomatic English.

  4. Using "Thou" creates distance, not informality.

    "Thou" has not been used as a pronoun in standard dialects of English for 500 years. Rather than being an informal mode of address in English, it is the realm of the sacred. It is "set apart". Whatever meaning you get from that is your own, not an intrinsic part of using the pronoun. For most, it creates distance.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Another post against using faux-archaic language

Before I get into this discussion, I want to clarify that I am not advocating for using a less formal register of English. While archaism has been popular for at least the last 500 years as a method of lending a faux formality to texts in the English language, it is by no means necessary when putting a text into a formal register. cf Sir Thomas More ripping on Tyndale for trying to use the archaic distinction between yes/yea and no/nay and getting it wrong - and Sir Thomas More himself got it wrong! The NRSV is a fully modern biblical translation and I do not think anybody would accuse it of being too informal for any setting (criticism of it is based on certain decisions in the translation, not the register). The Message, however, is a fully modern translation that is far too colloquial for liturgical use. The degree of formality of a text is not related to its level of archaism. Using "you" instead of "thou" does not make a text informal.

Main point: reading aloud in an intelligible manner, even for very intelligent and very literate native speakers of English, can be a challenge. Hearing and processing a read text is also tricky, but nowhere near as hard. However, an archaic translation does not make this any easier. An archaic, and especially a faux-archaic text, is going to be harder for even a literate native speaker to read. Here is a selection from the Coverdale Psalter:

The trees of the LORD also are full of sap; * even the cedars of Lebanon which he hath planted;
Wherein the birds make their nests; * and the firtrees are a dwelling for the stork.
The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; * and so are the stony rocks for the conies.
He appointed the moon for certain seasons, * and the sun knoweth his going down.
Thou makest darkness that it may be night; * wherein all the beasts of the forest do move.
The lions, roaring after their prey, * do seek their meat from God.
Conies are rabbits, by the way (cf Samwise wanting to cook a "brace of coneys"). This is a truly archaic translation from the 16th century. There are a couple things that may cause a reader to stumble here: odd verb endings, a few uncommon words, some odd syntax. Here is a selection from a faux-archaic translation, I believe it is the Jordanville translation:
The trees of the plain shall be satisfied, the cedars of Lebanon, which Thou hast planted. There will the sparrows make their nests; the house of the heron is chief among them. The high mountains are a refuge for the harts, and so is the rock for the hares. He hath made the moon for seasons; the sun knoweth his going down. Thou appointedst the darkness, and there was the night, wherein all the beasts of the forest will go abroad. Young lions roaring after their prey, and seeking their food from God. The sun ariseth, and they are gathered together, and they lay them down in their dens.
Paying no attention to differences in the text, there are many more things to "snag" on: more unfamiliar verb endings, a few positively clunky words ("appointedst"), and awkward syntax. If this text is placed in front of a reader, I would give good odds that the reader will stumble. Here is a thoroughly modern Orthodox translation from Archimandrite Ephrem:
The trees of the plain will be satisfied, the cedars of Lebanon that you planted. There the sparrows will build their nests; the heron’s dwelling is at their head. The high mountains are for the deer; rocks a refuge for hares. He made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knew the hour of its setting. You appointed darkness, and it was night, in which all the beasts of the forest will prowl; young lions roaring to plunder and to seek their food from God. The sun rose and they were gathered together and they will lie down in their dens.
I would not rate this as completely free of any awkwardness, but I do not see anything a reader would trip on in the first pass. A+. His translations are very good, generally.

Certainly, I have by no means proven that a reader would stumble on these things, but I have observed time and time again literate and intelligent native speakers stumbling when reading aloud faux archaic texts just like this. They even stumble a little on "normal" texts, but nowhere near as much. If native speakers are stumbling, the people hearing are probably having comprehension difficulties, too.

Here is the real problem: every parish I have been in has had a substantial population of non-native speakers. Reading aloud is a difficult task, but it is perhaps manageable with a reasonable text. Using a faux archaic text makes it that much more difficult. Choosing a faux archaic text means that, when given a choice to use a wholly adequate text that more of the congregation could read aloud and which more of the congregation will understand more of when read aloud, you instead chose an obscure text. This is bad.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Joke: but what would Kierkegaard say in response?

With his legions of sock-puppet accounts?

I think we can take this as suggesting that perhaps Kierkegaard is a libertarian.

Come, ye assembly of those who love the feasts of the Church!

Come, let us form a choir!

Noticed this line in today's hymnography (from the Litya stichera). cf Podoben, pg 20, but the translation is slightly different. It seems to me to be a good sort of motto for a church choir.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Stupid opinion about tattoos.

Elsewhere on the internet, somebody asked for opinions about getting a tattoo of an icon (as a non-Orthodox). One person people piped up with an argument that was completely stupid: "If you get a tattoo of an icon, the only thing that can happen to it is desecrating it through sin." Right, because that is the only thing that happens to our bodies, one long slow decline from baptism (where we are perfect) to death. It's best to die right after baptism, as your journey to theosis is most complete there. Our bodies can be transfigured through grace, not just defiled by sin. I would agree that sin would desecrate the icon, but this is not the only thing that happens.

Anyway, so I just wrote a short post about what icons are and what they're for and a couple sentences about the human body as icon of Christ to give the guy some context for evaluating whether it sounds like a good idea.

My own personal opinion about tattoos, in general, is that Orthodox should not get them because there's some canon against it, but it's such a weak and silly opinion that I really don't care and would only air it if directly asked. I have a strong opinion that Orthodox should not get tattoos of icons, but that is because they are not "religious art" or "decoration", but tools for use in worship. Icons should not be used in book covers, disposable paper church bulletins, displays of artistic pieces, etc. As for what non-Orthodox do, the Gentiles are a law unto themselves, but, given their meaning and use, if directly asked for my personal advice, I would recommend against getting a tattoo of an icon.