February 11, 2011

What Does Language Mean?

I'm having some good conversations on the questions raised by the forthcoming English translation the 3rd edition Roman Missal. This is from an email conversation with an old friend:

There are lots of deep theological questions, but they end up as caricatures on all sides. Latin is a norm for the Latin rite, but in what sense? Is it a norm in the sense of a historical root from which other expressions may derive, or is it a norm in the sense that everything else is an unfortunate, but sometimes necessary departure?

Do other languages, English in our case, have their own genius and value in this regard, or not? One of the most interesting quasi-magisterial things I've read on these kinds of questions was the Holy Father's infamous Regensburg address. It got all of the press because of the Muslim question, but there was another section in which he was talking about the translation of the Old Testament into Greek, and it made the claim that this translation itself had revelatory value in the procession of Hebraic truth through the categories of Hellenic thought. It's quite something to say that translation can be revelatory. Is it similar with the movement of Christian common prayer from Aramaic to Greek? From Greek to Latin in the western Church? From Latin to modern European languages, e.g. the King James Bible or the American Sacramentary of 1976?

Drilling in we get to some hard questions about the nature of language diversity itself. Is it a curse, as Genesis might seem to say? Or is it an expression of the genius of particular cultures, and therefore a diversity to be celebrated, as we are taught by contemporary 'multiculturalism'? And how does the unification of hearing at Pentecost cash out in our actual practice of trying to pray together in an increasingly language-diverse liturgical environment?

If Vatican II, in its legacy of the liturgy in local languages, was therein just the Catholic Church finally accepting another idea of European modernity, i.e. the nation-state, imagining that Englishmen would pray the liturgy in English, Germans in German, etc., we have to admit that such a world is giving way to a much less language-unified world on the local level.

For a very real example: a bilingual Easter Vigil, fine. Trilingual, o.k. But when do you stop? When do these gymnastics of 'multiculturalism' stop serving, and when does 'inclusivity' become an idol before God himself? Is Latin the answer to such a thing, or just another non-answer, and worse because it's tinged with reaction?

Sorry to be ranting. The questions are big!


Greg said...

Perhaps language only points toward truth, it can never capture Truth.

If so, language must be considered in terms of its effectiveness in drawing our attention to the Truth.

Emphasis on the literal truth living in the words (rather than the Word) may draw our attention away from Truth.

Perhaps the only way to measure the validity of the language used is to measure the attention of those who hear those words... do they look toward Truth or is their attention directed elsewhere?

Francis never made the grade as a scholastic theologian. Didn't use the right words. Yet his words, the vernacular, pointed to the Word more effectively than many a literate scholar.

Most of all, it was his silence, his solitude, his contemplative prayer that led to the Word, which, in turn, was printed upon him in the form of the stigmata. Maybe we should look in that direction.

ben in denver said...


Anonymous said...

Would it be better that the Mass be said in Latin to a congregation that has no understanding of what is said, or is it better to have the Latin translated somewhat and debatably imperfectly, so that the congregation can understand at least partially the meaning of the liturgy? If Latin is translated into English, is it better to have the English in a popular form understood by the majority, or is it better to have an extremely precise, yet awkward vocabulary that might be misinterpreted or misunderstood due to its unique syntax?

Marc said...

I had forgotten about the Holy Father's observation about the conversion of the Hebrew Scripture into the Greek in the Regensburg discourse. My understanding is that there are legitimate theological arguments for the inspiration or quasi-inspiration (whatever that may mean) of the Septuagint (not least that most of the Greek Fathers understood the LXX to be inspired). St John Fisher, e.g., wrote a treatise defending the inspiration of the LXX. I cannot recall the name of a very well-known contemporary French scholar who has written a book on the subject alas.... I imagine that his Holiness was referring to this tradition rather than making some broader statement about the semantics of translation.

Anonymous said...

From Elizabeth,

In response to Anonymous, isn't it the point that the Liturgy is not being addressed to the congregation, but to God - who seems to have been able to understand Latin for a couple of thousand years! And somehow, all those Saints, from all walks of life, managed to understand what was going on at Mass, even though it was in Latin. The Liturgy is not a learning tool, it is not a means to an end (which is why, despite it's having been in the vernacular for 50 odd yrs, it hasn't really been "understood" by the congregation during all that time) it is an act of worship. We need to be re-taught about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and what Liturgy is actually about, and then the language thing might fall into place.
God Bless.

Anonymous said...

Your rant struck a chord with me on another aspect of "multiculturalism" that really annoys me. The same "multiculturalism" that seeks to eliminate religion from the classroom is the same "multiculturalism" that claims to celebrate cultural diversity. So my 6-year old Italian/Cuban daughter will come home from school in December and wish me Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas and yet in February will come home singing Happy New Year in Mandarin Chinese. For all the diversity preached about today, religion remains the one subject that is taboo in public circles. And yet often you will find that religion is at the core of culture.