Monday, March 2, 2009

Insufficient "you"

Ignorance alert: In what follows I am working off the top of my head - generally a dangerous starting point, and always the wrong stopping point!

Twice in the past week I have handled texts for congregational singing, and grappled with anachronisitc language in these English-language hymns. In general, I am far more comfortable excising old English usage from foreign language hymns that were translated in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, when our own sense of "sacred" vocabulary required Thee, thou, canst, camest, etc. Two ways to deal with that - the first (and easiest) is simply to change up the old translations and keep them as close to our received versions, while offering apologies to Catherine Winkworth et al. They did English churches a great service in their day. The second way to deal with these other-language hymns is to have 21st century translations made, honoring both the original poet and poetry (German, Latin, or whatever) within accepted common practice for English usage in our day. That is much more difficult, requiring theological acuity, poetic instincts, and a keen ear for what sings well.

And, the latter option also still has to deal with some elements of language that I bump up against when I struggle with archaic language, specifically with the use of personal pronouns.

It seems to me that modern English is entirely too flexible. Or to put it another way, we have achieved a flexibility in English at the expense of both accuracy and nuance. Examples:
  • "you" - singular or plural? And why do we not have a way to tell at a glance? I'm all for context, but sometimes, you know, you just want to know.
  • "you" - familiar or formal? Have we lost something by not making this distinction in speech and writing? I understand (see "ignorance alert" above) that in modern languages where this distinction still exists, actual usage tends toward the familiar anyway. That's apparently the way of the world, whether in the U.S. or Italy or Germany. My nascent monarchist (or is it just elitism?) mourns that in common usage. But especially in hymn singing and prayers.

This is why I still stumble over changing all the "Thee" and "Thou" language in older hymns. (I won't even address here how our democratic orthography has lowered the case on these words when used for the Divine.) "Thee" is changed to "you" and "Thou" is changed to "you." So we miss several aspects of language -- grammar: object or subject? number: are we addressing the One or the many? address: formal or familiar? And we can end up with a hymn full of the word "you" with many applications ... and that may sound goofy to sing over and over again.

I am 90% convinced this is why "As the deer" turned out so poorly as a sung text:

As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after thee;

You alone are my heart's desire and I long to worship thee.

You alone are my strength, my shield, to you alone shall my spirit yield;

You alone are my heart's desire and I long to worship thee.

Martin Nystrom, 1984

With all due respect to Mr. Nystrom, and acknowledging that I couldn't write a song to save my job, much less a song that people would want to sing for over 25 years. But you can't fix this lyric. If you replace "thee" with "you" ... well, just try it. It turns out like Zulu ululation. And certainly you would not old-up the text by changing "you" to "thou" because of course you'd have to change the verb forms as well. No, you're pretty stuck either way.

Well, bottom line: it seems to me to be the lesser of poor judgment to retain the old forms - when the original poetry is English - and to acknowledge the nuance and strength our language used to have in this arena. And to let a hip young generation absorb this, even by osmosis if you can't or won't teach about it, than to lose it altogether.

I certainly wouldn't argue that a 21st century hymn writer should revert to the old forms. Clearly the best authors communicate clearly, deeply, and reverently, without reverting to the past. I don't want to hear my pastor praying in King James English. There is still a richness, a depth, and a glory in our language that we must explore and use in our new songs and hymns. Even if "you" proves to be somehow insufficient.


David said...

I have done shameful things in trying to make these pronouns work. I appreciate the thought you put into it here, even "off the top of your head."

One added difficulty I've run into in considering such modernizations is that "your" can be an incredibly ugly word in certain phrases, while Thee/Thou/Thy can sometimes clash terribly with an otherwise modern-feeling text.

I'm guilty, sometimes, of having mixed usage. I fear this may be the worst of sins. Maybe I get away with it since my generation, by and large, will through the rules of convention to the side for the sake of having the most powerful turn of phrase from line to line.

Still, I can't look a proper church musician in the eyes and say I think what I have done is appropriate. Oh, the shame.

Chuck King said...

My biggest blunders have turned out to be with "fixes" I thought were so clever ... until people sang them and noted the problems. Oh well. You can't fault us for trying, anyway. I hope.

Mark Gresham said...

Thou hast so writ, And shall that worke decay?
Repaire it now, for now its end doth haste.
But our old subtle words so tempteth me...
Fo shizz, tell all da peeps, yo! Word.

Chuck King said...