I am tired of commenting on the free fall of the Church and the culture in our times, so I am going to write about something I enjoy. You will just have to endure it. So, welcome to a new adventure in the exciting study of religion:
The Rev. Know-it-all’s Wonderful World of Words!
This is dedicated to those of us who can’t tell a Hosanna from an Aspergil. Why, you may ask is this important? If you go to church on a regular basis, you are saying “Hosanna” at least twice a week. For all most of know, when we say “Hosanna,” we may be asking the Almighty to slap us silly. Actually this is a more likely possibility with an aspergil. They sometimes come unscrewed and bonk somebody in the head during a spritzing with holy water. If this happens to you it means that God is really trying hard to get your attention.
Let us begin with a discussion of the English language. Modern linguists now suspect that English is not so much a language as it is a failed attempt to create the world’s largest crossword puzzle. The story of English begins in the mists of prehistory when people who had not yet discovered cable television moved a lot of large stones around to create a henge made of stone. They called it Stonehenge. They then refused to tell subsequent generations why they had built it. My theory is that they had a lot of free time on their hands and they said to one another, “This should keep them guessing in years to come.”
Currently large, pasty-faced, ungainly English people gather there on certain days of the year and pretend they are druids and such. They are practicing a very ancient religion which they just made up a few years ago. The Neolithic pranksters who built Stonehenge must be laughing themselves silly from beyond the grave if that sort of thing is possible. We have no idea what language these ancient people spoke and their only contribution to modern English may, in fact be a few place names, but we can’t even be sure of that. Next came the Celts or Kelts or Gaelts or however scholars are pronouncing it this week. The Celts were an Indo-European people who took over Europe beginning about 4,000 years before Christ. The Indo-European peoples seem to have originated in Central Asia and as they moved with herds and flocks, they brought their language and their chromosomes with them. They don’t seem to have been very aggressive about the conquest, taking 4,000 years to accomplish it, but eventually descendants of the Indo-Europeans were to be found everywhere from India to Iceland. I suspect that it wasn’t really an invasion so much a slow migration with frequent conversations such as, “Hello, sir. I’m your new neighbor. May I date your daughter?”
The Indo-European language family eventually came to dominate much of the world and most of Europe. Celtic was one branch of that language, as well as being a basketball team. Celtic was spoken by leprechauns, banshees and the snakes that St. Patrick drove out of Ireland. It is still spoken in Wales, Cornwall, Breton and far western Ireland. It, too, left very little imprint on the English language except some more place names and such words as smithereens, whiskey and flannel. (Hence the connection between whiskey and the condition known as flannel mouth). Then came the Romans right around the time of Christ. They invaded first in 55 BC and then tried again with more success in 43 AD. They managed to remain in Britain until around 410 AD and their legacy left little more than, you guessed it, place names. Then things really started to cook.
The Germans invaded, and we Germans are too stubborn to adopt other people’s languages if we can possibly avoid doing so, at least that was my grandmother’s attitude. The particular tribes that invaded England were the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. Perhaps you heard of the Anglo-Saxons, but the Jutes? That is probably because they are essentially Danish and very polite and do not want to draw attention to themselves. With them came an ancient form of German that is still spoken in East and West Frisia, which province is the butt of many modern German jokes. (“How many Frisians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Don’t be ridiculous. They don’t have electricity in Frisia yet.” And they say the Germans are humorless!)
With the Frisian dialect spoken by the invaders, English was born. The Christian faith of Romano-Celtic Britons pretty much died out with the advent of the German invaders and their musical language and charming religion that involved burying people alive or burning them to death. The Kingdom of Kent in southern England was ruled by the pagan Aethelbert, whose queen was a French Christian princess named Bertha. Queen Bertha was a foot in the door for the faith and in 595, Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine of Canterbury, not to be confused with the Tunisian pear thief of the same name, with a bunch of Roman monks to reintroduce Christianity to Britain, the land of the Angles or, as you and I call it, England. Latin returned to England with the monks. Over the course of the next 200 years, the pagan Germans of England accepted Christianity and started to keep things like legal documents and perhaps strudel recipes stored in monasteries and written in the Latin language.
Then came the Vikings around 800. They started out with just a little murder, rape and pillage, but then decided to move in. Large parts of England, Scotland and Ireland were now inhabited by the Scandinavians, who despite their many denials are fairly close relatives genetically and linguistically to the Germans. The Vikings brought more vocabulary and a different sentence structure with them and added these to the stew that is English. Then came the French in 1066, actually French-ified Vikings from Normandy. They were not going to speak the rough German/Viking language that the Saxons spoke. At the time English sounded like a case of terminal hairball. They kept speaking Norman French. They brought more Latin words to the language so that eventually about half of the English dictionary is Latin in origin. The grammar is German, but the vocabulary is half Latin.
This invasion precipitated the greatest changes in the language. If English is your second language, you must have wondered about the “k” in knight and that extra “a” in aardvark, not to mention the “g” in daughter. We have not put those into the language just to make your life difficult. The truth is WE ACTUALLY USED TO PRONOUNCE THOSE LETTERS, JUST AS THEY STILL DO IN GERMAN!!! Daughter for example was once pronounced “dawkhter” with an emphasis on the “Khhhh…” which sounds like a person being choked to death. The French would have none of it. They just started leaving out the offending letters. The enlightenment added more Latin and a bunch of Greek technical words because the doctors and professors wanted to let everyone know how much smarter they were than everyone else, for instance, by calling a bruise by its Greek name (hematoma). They do this just to be irritating, and to keep you in your place, peasant. So after a thousand or so years of war, pillage and invasion, we have English.
Most languages develop from simplification of earlier languages at a fairly steady rate. English is a linguistic train wreck. England was repeatedly invaded because of its balmy climate and famous cuisine, I’m sure. They actually eat something called “spotted something-or–other” that sounds like a serious medical condition.
What if anything does this have to do with religion? I’m getting there. All those Benedictine monks brought their cherished Latin manuscripts with their Greek and Hebrew religious terms to England. The Germanic peasants were suitably mystified by this and weren’t really interested enough in Christianity to even worry about what the crazy monks called their weird ceremonies. So it is that we have words like “Mass.” Do you know what “Mass” really means? In English it means, “A property of matter equal to the measure of the amount of matter contained in or constituting a physical body that partly determines the body's resistance to changes in the speed or direction of its motion.” In Latin it means. “Go away. We’re done.” which was the part of the ceremony most interesting to the barely Christianized Anglo-Saxons and Normans forced to attend. This is why for those who do their religion in English. It is very important to know this stuff. The great bulk of us have no idea what the terms of our religion actually mean, even when we are hit on the head by a flying aspergil.
Next week: Do you have any idea what “Hosanna” actually means?