Museum musing

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John McIntyre at You Don't Say considers a hypothetical Museé des Peevologies. The curator's job is apparently open, or will be once a founding donor is located.


  1. Faldone said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

    I copy and pasted Swift's Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue and, giving it a quick once over, discovered many instances of which being used in restrictive clauses. When I have more time I'll see if I can do a comparison of which to that in such constructions.

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

    Accusing the 1970's revisers of the Book of Common Prayer of "carelessness" is letting them off far too easy. And surely the notion that texts in a pre-20th-century style/dialect/register of English ought to be rewritten into a contemporary style for the sake of contemporariness per se is as destructive a form of peevishness as anything Fowler or Strunk & White might have loosed upon the world.

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    Oh, and the fact that McIntyre thinks himself able to determine from their rather anodyne language use that people who disagree with him on health care policy are racist sexist homophobes suggests that he has some pretty large peevological beams in his own eye (or ear) that he perhaps ought to have extracted before condemning the peevologies of others.

  4. Stephen Jones said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

    And surely the notion that texts in a pre-20th-century style/dialect/register of English ought to be rewritten into a contemporary style for the sake of contemporariness per se is as destructive a form of peevishness as anything Fowler or Strunk & White might have loosed upon the world.

    It's a question of intelligibility. People in the 20th century have limited understanding of 16th century English.

  5. John McIntyre said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

    Mr. Jones is correct. I own the Folger reprint of the Prayer Book of 1559, which is perfectly intelligible to me after studying 16th- and 17th-century literature, but which I would not recommend for a current liturgy. It has seemed to me to be a little presumtuous of people to object to translating Scripture with the benefit of scholarship since 1611 or conducting public worship in language that the particpants understand. The texts of the Authorized Version and earlier versions of the Prayer Book are readily available for people who want to admire Tudor and Stuart prose.

  6. Nathan Myers said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    If people really did want to understand what they were praying, they would be more careful about what they pray out of in the first place. Resistance to updating the liturgy is prima facie evidence that they don't so want; rather, they only want to chant together. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

    McIntyre vs Brewer cage match? My money's on Mac.

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

    We may have to agree to disagree as to how much more comprehensible the new liturgical texts were (which depends both on how clueless the one thinks readers/listeners were with regard to the older style and how good or bad a job one thinks the drafters of the replacement did, both of which could be argued). But the question in the Episcopal Church in U.S. in the 1970's was not replacing the 1559 edition of the BCP but replacing the 1928 edition (four revisions down the road from the 1559), which reflected a substantial number of cumulative changes from its 16th century predecessors, many of which had unobtrusively pruned away some of the archaisms that were most likely to be confusing (as well as silently updating spelling, punctuation etc. — that Folger edition of the 1559 is a modernized-spelling version that is thus of somewhat limited use for scholarly work).

    More broadly, there's a potential vicious circle, such that if people are not exposed when growing up to texts from prior centuries (whether the KJV, Shakespeare, or even Dickens or the Federalist Papers) that haven't been rewritten, the alleged incomprehensibility of earlier styles will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we will end up like the Turks who are unable to read any pre-Ataturk text in their own language without special training.

    But I don't dispute there's a respectable case for reworking frequently-used religious texts into a more modern English that dispenses with thees and thous and -ests and -eths for the use of those who might find such a change beneficial. It's just been done in practice in a dismal cocked-up fashion that: a) reflects no consistent or coherent theory; b) did not result in a particularly "natural" contemporary style in either syntax or vocabulary (at least on the liturgical side as opposed to the Bible side) but only created a different stiff and artificial liturgical register (e.g. saying "and also with you" is no more actual contemporary English than saying "and with thy spirit"); c) used the transitional confusion of language change to smuggle in substantive theological changes that might have attracted more controversy if they had been made under circumstances of stylistic stability; and d) has not yielded stable results. On the last, the RSV translation of the Bible decried by Dwight McD. was largely disowned and superseded by its own institutional backers less than four decades after it was published despite the fact that English-language texts from c. 1950 have not generally become unintelligible, and many of its rivals have seen a similar fate. The circa 1970 English translation (or paraphrase) of the Vatican II revision of the Roman Catholic mass is right now in the process of being superseded in the U.S. by a new version. The book the Church of England put out in 1980 to de facto supersede the 1662 BCP was itself superseded in the late '90's. And so on and so on.

  8. John McIntyre said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 11:33 pm

    Re the Folger 1559 Prayer Book: I was referring to the vocabulary and syntax rather than the typography, but you can change "u" to "v" and insert the long "s," and my comment will stand.

    Re the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: We can certainly agree to disagree about this version, which I have been using week to week for the past thirty years and more, as have the other members of my various congregations.

    But perhaps it would be better to discuss theology and liturgy in some more appropriate venue (best two falls out of three), since the point of the original post was to identify examples of peevology.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    Happy to have reached agreement to disagree. I do think that, once the forthcoming Musee des P. is fully endowed and is considering proposals for lavishly-funded research fellowships, it might be worth taking a look at 20th century liturgical reform as an interesting area where one might find examples of equal and opposite peevologies — some contending that particular sorts of linguistic change are unacceptable with others simultaneously contending that the very same sorts of change are not only acceptable but mandatory, with both sides uncritically assuming that any linguistic conundrum must have One Right Answer which can be identified and enforced by the appropriate authorities. And of course on both sides it may be the case that arguments framed as being about language serve as proxies for disagreements about other matters.

  10. acilius said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    What an interesting series of comments! I can't be the only one who wishes the commenters on this thread would start blogs of their own. Perhaps they might go in together on a group blog. I would certainly read such a blog regularly.

  11. mollymooly said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

    Saying "and also with you" is no more actual contemporary English than saying "and with thy spirit"

    Both may fall outside the boundary of actual contemporary English, but the latter is much further from that boundary.

  12. acilius said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 8:20 am

    @mollymooly: I think I have to disagree with you. First, let's look at the phrases in isolation from their context as responses made in unison at set moments in the Anglican liturgy. If we were students learning English as a second language and our teacher gave us the assignment of converting the phrase "and with thy spirit" into something you would be likely to hear in a spontaneous conversation among speakers of contemporary English, all we would have to do would be to change "thy" to "your." That's one change. Given the same assignment with the object phrase "and also with you," we would have to change the word order; "and with you, also." Which is really more than one change.

    Then, let's remember that each of the two phrases is a response made in unison at set moments in the Anglican liturgy. What you are not likely to hear in a spontaneous conversation among speakers of contemporary English is a group of listeners responding to a speaker by solemnly reciting a familiar phrase in unison. No ritual utterance will ever meet a description of naturalness that is keyed to spontaneous conversation, regardless of its form. So if a faith community has a ritual that people whom that community wants to attract find offputting, replacing the vocabulary or phrasing of the utterances involved in that ritual with vocabulary and phrasing of a more familiar register is unlikely to solve their problem.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    My original point was probably too cryptic. The issue I was alluding to is that the Anglican / Roman Catholic / etc. revisers of '60's and '70's did NOT replace "and with thy spirit" (or "et cum spiritu tuo") with "and with your spirit," which would have been the obvious thing to do if you were primarily concerned about the alleged unintelligibility of an older style (although I think it's pretty easy to develop passive competence and not actually be confused by thees, thous, etc. — somewhat harder to develop the capability to form your own grammatical sentences in the older style, but it's not necessary for the average worshipper to do so). Switching to "and also with you" (which is no clearer or more natural contemporary English than "and with your spirit") is a piece of evidence that either some agenda beyond eliminating allegedly confusing archaisms was being pursued and/or that the people developing the new texts had tin ears.

    Anglophone Roman Catholics in the U.S. are now about to be forcibly switched over to "and with your spirit." Some less trend-conscious groups of U.S. Anglophone Christians who went over to "contemporary" language started off with "and with your spirit" and stayed there (at least most Eastern Orthodox and I believe some of the more "confessional" Lutherans), although I don't know how much of that was good sense as opposed to good luck.

    Again maybe this is all just peeves set against other equal and opposite peeves. But I think my position is what might be a meta-peeve, which is that the key linguistic peeve supposedly motivating/justifying the changes (the alleged unintelligibility of the traditional texts) was not only itself dubious, but the resultant new texts cannot be accounted for by assuming competent implementation of the strategy that peeve would support. It's like an instance in which the editing necessary to eliminate a split infinitive produces a sentence that is otherwise unnecessarily infelicitious. (To be fair, some of the revisers were open about other non-linguistic agenda items, but I agree with Mr. McIntyre that this is not the right forum for that discussion.)

  14. acilius said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: I think you've proven your case.

  15. Graeme said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 7:57 am

    At risk of turning this thread into The Anglican Herald…

    I do love my BCP in its earlier forms (to the point of attending the city cathedral which employs the 1920s version rather than the 1978 'Australian Prayer Book').

    But when Patricia the Terse shakes her peevish tongue at "my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth" – instead of "my tongue cleaveth to my gums/mouth" (Psalms 22 & 136) – I wonder if she is aware that outside metaphors for marriage, to 'cleave' more commonly survives as 'to split' rather than 'to adhere (to)'. Perhaps this is because the word survives mostly in the term 'cleavage' as a ref to female secondary sexual parts. The image of one's tongue splitting one's mouth, even in a fey and morbid psalm
    like # 22, is a bit off-putting.

  16. acilius said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    btw, I was quite in earnest in comment #10 above. I envision a form something like the Becker-Posner blog, where one author drafts an argument, then another author writes a response to that argument and posts the resulting pair as point and counterpoint. Readers could thern comment. I think that Becker and Posner agree about rather too much- their blog can become quite airless. A (let's say) McIntyre-Brewer blog would not have that problem.

    Hey, if Becker and Posner can find time…

  17. Simon Cauchi said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    @Graeme: I wonder if she is aware that outside metaphors for marriage, to 'cleave' more commonly survives as 'to split' rather than 'to adhere (to)'.

    Proof, please? My dictionary lists two verbs, cleave(1) and cleave(2), which have become homonyms in modern English but remain distinct, with slightly different spellings, in Dutch and German. So far as I know both verbs remain current in modern English: the cleave meaning "split" or "sever" and the other cleave meaning "stick fast to".

    "Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth": that's the "stick fast to" meaning, not the "split" or "sever" meaning. And it's the same meaning in "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and cleave unto his wife". These particular examples are of course biblical and somewhat archaic.

  18. mollymooly said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    – peace be with you
    – back atcha

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