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Talking in tongues | The Economist

September 27, 2016

A RECENT Johnson column looked at the English past subjunctive. The present subjunctive gets much less attention. This appears after verbs like “insist” and “request”, and can be spotted when a first- or third-person singular verb, which normally has an “s” on the end (he brings), loses that “s”: for example, “We ask that each student bring a lunch.”

This subjunctive is becoming rarer. The above would be more idiomatic as “We ask each student to bring a lunch.” Most of the subjunctives that people actually know and use, in fact, are frozen phrases—many of them religious. “Peace be with you.” “The Lord be with you.” “God save the Queen.” “God bless America.” “God shed His grace on thee.” “Until death do us part.” (In the plain indicative, these would be “Peace is with you,” “God saves the Queen” and so on.) These forms cannot be repurposed in modern English: you can’t say to your neighbour “a good barbecue be with you,” or “your daughter win the race tomorrow.”

Christianity has also had its own policies. Early Christians accepted a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible as the first part of God’s word, and a collection of Greek writings as the New Testament. But the Greek accounts of Jesus were already translations: he and his followers spoke Aramaic. After Christianity won official status in the Roman empire in the fourth century, it jumped languages again: St Jerome’s Latin Bible was official for Western Christianity. In 1546 the Council of Trent said of this translation of a translation that “no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.”

All this has theological consequences, as Nicholas Ostler explains in a masterly recent book, “Passwords to Paradise”. St Jerome made basic errors, some due to the fact that most vowels are omitted in Hebrew texts: Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522), the first Christian Hebraist in northern Europe, found around 200 errors in St Jerome’s translation.

Even defensible translation choices are meaningful. Mr Ostler skips over some well-known examples to tell the story of the fourth-century Goths, for example. Their leader, Wulfila, chose a translation for “Lord”, frauja, that meant something like the head of a household. Other tribes chose a word more suitable for a military chieftain—as would the Goths, one might think, but it seems Wulfila wanted to wean his people off marauding.

Should churches regularly update their translations, keeping the religion fresh and relevant, or preserve tradition and authenticity? The debate is as old as the faiths themselves. A fourth-century commentator, arguing for translating Greek into Latin for Western Christians, said that “our heart is ignorant, if it speaks in a language it doesn’t know.” But Reuchlin, who corrected St Jerome, naturally thought he had got nearer to the spirit of the scriptures, and so to their author himself: “God wished his secrets to be known to mortal man through Hebrew.”

The practical answer is that young people and new converts should study in their own vernaculars. As they progress in the faith they can get closer to the original through study. But the underlying theological question is hard to dodge. Would a loving supreme being want the truth of religion to be plain even to unlettered people, in the simplest possible vernacular? Or should original language (like Quranic Arabic) and archaic language (thouand all those subjunctives in English) remind worshippers that religion is not just any old set of beliefs and practices, just as there are special rules for the Sabbath or a house of worship?

The question divided believers during the Reformation. Today, as science challenges many religious beliefs, some defenders of religion seek refuge in the argument that faith has a special status where the arguments of science do not apply. A language of sacred mystery could be seen as a sign of that special status—or as an admission that letting the faithful interrogate the doctrine in plain language can be a dangerous thing.

Source: Talking in tongues | The Economist

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