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Friday, July 08, 2005

Church English

I have had a Quick Poll up for quite a few weeks asking if visitors to this blog understand "church English." It is time to take that poll down. I will probably replace it with some other poll one of these days. The results from this Quick Poll are:

Do you understand church English?

Answers Votes Percent
Yes 72 79%
No 4 4%
I don't know what it is. 13 14%
I'm not sure. 2 2%

Total Votes: 91

91 responses is decent for this blog, and I thank each of you who voted in this poll. The poll confirmed what I suspected that most visitors to this blog are speakers of "church language." The vote spread has, from the beginning, indicated that far more speakers of church language visit this poll--or at least chose to vote in the poll (!)--than those who do not speak church language. A few individuals voted that they are not sure what church language is, so I'll explain some of what I know as a fluent speaker of church English.

Church English, sometimes called Biblish, is a special dialect of English. As with any dialect, church English has some unique vocabulary, syntax, and even phonetics. There are some subdialects of church English dependent on what denomination a person most closely associates with, and, of course, there would be some geographical influences, such as differences in church language based on what country a person lives in. But there are enough similarities in church English that it is possible to make some linguistic generalizations about it. Here are some words and phrases used in church English which are seldom used by those who are not speakers of church English (not all of the words are used by everyone who understands church English):
Have you been in the Word yet today?
Do you know the Lord?
It's such a blessing to be here.
Let's have a word of prayer.
Let's go to the throne of grace.
Let us lift his name on high.
My heart is overflowing with the Lord's goodness.
We'll give you all the honor, and the praise, and the glory.
Lord, we lift our hearts to you.
growing in the Lord
under conviction
the Word
One phonetic characteristic of some varieties of church English is to pronounce the vowels of these words farther back in the mouth than one does in ordinary speech:
Another phonetic characteristic is to use a flapped "r" rather than a more liquid "r" when pronouncing
Holy Spirit
Using the flapped "r" gives a perception of a more British sound to American or Canadian English, and British English is perceived by many Americans and Canadians as sounding more spiritual than their own dialects. Listen to some radio or T.V. evangelists sometime and notice how some use the flapped "r" when preaching. British speakers are especially desired at U.S. and Canadian church conferences because they barely have to open their mouths to speak and they already sound spiritual to us on the west side of the Atlantic! It is always a coup when an American or Canadian church conference is able to book someone like John Stott, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J.I. Packer, or F.F. Bruce to be its conference speaker.

In terms of syntax, church English uses many more "in" prepositional phrases to communicate meanings normally communicated by manner adverbs or manner relative clauses. In the following list, for each line the first phrase will be church English, and the second phrase will be a more typical form that a speaker would use for the same meaning:
speaking in love, speaking lovingly
responded in anger, responded angrily
in the fullness of time, when it was the right time
in that day, at that time
in truth, truthfully
in fear, fearfully
in righteousness, righteously
What relationship is there between church English and English Bible translation? Often the relationship is quite direct. If you do a quantified analysis of the vocabulary of many English Bible versions (it is possible to do so with a number of computer programs today, including a fairly primitive method of using Microsoft Word to place each word of a version on a separate line, then alphabetize the entire list), you will find a much higher percentage of church English words in those versions than you would in ordinary original compositions from those who use those versions.

There are some sociolinguistic advantages to knowing church English. One of the most obvious relates to what we have just said about English Bible versions. If you understand church English, you have a much better chance of understanding many English Bible versions. Along the same line, if you understand church English and use a Bible version written in church English, your Bible will sound right, familiar, comfortable, to you. It will sound like we have been led to believe that an English Bible should sound.

Another advantage to knowing church English is one that is true of any jargon or speciality dialect: being able to speak and understand church English creates a sense of solidarity or oneness among its speakers. One of the first jobs that a new believer has in many churches is to learn to speak and pray in church English. The more fluent the new believer becomes in church dialect, the more others in the church sense that that person is progressing spiritually (or, "walking in the Spirit," as it might be said in the dialect).

One disadvantage of using church English in one's speech and Bible versions used is that it creates distance between them and their unchurched associates. I am astounded that Crossway is creating an edition of ESV for evangelism. The English of the ESV is loved by those are are familiar with church English but it is quite inappropriate for evangelism. That church English does not speak the language of the people we are trying to reach, which is the method Jesus used in speaking to people. A couple of blog posts back I quoted from Francis Schaeffer on this very point. I'll repeat here the two excerpts I posted from Schaeffer previously:
If we wish to communicate, then we must take the time and trouble to learn our hearers' use of languages so that they understand what we intend to convey.
Then he said:
I suggest that if the word (or phrase) we are in the habit of using is no more than an orthodox evangelical cliché which has become a technical term among Christians, then we should be willing to give it up when we step outside our own narrow circle and talk to the people around us.
What other examples of church English can you think of? What other advantages and disadvantages can you think of for using church English? Can you share any reactions you have gotten from unchurched people when you have spoken church English to them? How have unchurched people reacted when you have given them an English Bible version which is written in church English? Conversely, what reactions have you gotten when you have given unchurched people Bible versions which are, on the whole, not written in church English?

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At Sat Jul 09, 08:04:00 AM, Anonymous Rich said...

Hi, Wayne.

I appreciate your site and topics. Regarding Church English I think it is not as clear cut as we think. For instance you had examples of

speaking in love, speaking lovingly
responded in anger, responded angrily
in the fullness of time, when it was the right time
in that day, at that time
in truth, truthfully
in fear, fearfully
in righteousness, righteously

But there can be a difference between "speaking in love" and "speaking lovingly". The first use may involve more than the tone of the person speaking. In other words, it could be that "speaking in love" includes the words, but even the context of speaking, a relationship, and inner compulsion. Thus, I would not necessarily say that your adverbial suggestions are equivalent to the "in" phrases. In some contexts, that could be true, but not as a general rule. So maybe the "Church English" is more accurate than the alternatives in some cases.

So also with "in that day". If that is a reference to a clock-watching environment, the alternative might be acceptable. However, in specific prophetic contexts, "in that day" carries more than a time/day reference. Consider "the Day of Yahweh" in 8th century BC prophets, and especially the use in Zephaniah, and later allusions to that by using BaYoM HaHu . The Church English version seems to carry implications of the Hebrew phrase better than the alternative. As an example consider the distinction here (even though the first is plural):

Jeremiah 33:15 In those days, and at that time, will I cause a Branch of righteousness to grow up unto David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

Another point: isn't it interesting that those who understand (or at least claim to understand) Church English also seem to be the ones who are striving for "non-Church English" translations. Perhaps this should give us cause to ponder even more fully whether and to what extent "Church English" is not good translation. It may be better than most want to admit.

And having been around the horn on this dilemma about "church English" words, I still don't think that there are acceptable alternatives for "righteousness" (word group) and "justification" (word group). I know that became a major issue when the God's Word translation team changed "righteousness" to "God's approval" right before publication (in most cases, yet retained "righteousness" in the OT). It caused quite a stir. I think the value of the word(s) is greater than trying to find an equivalent.

Just some ramblings from an old(er) codger...

At Sat Jul 09, 08:30:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Rich, I appreciate your comments. I have to ask myself, in response, if using church English in translation is surrendering to the idea that it is not possible to translate the Bible into the ordinary (Koine) words and syntax of a language. Even though Bible translation is often very difficult, and some philosophers of language claim that, ultimately, no translation from one language to another is possible, or at least no adequate translation is possible, we still do Bible translation. In spite of the difficulties, we believe it is possible to do. Although I understand what you have said, I respectfully disagree that it is necessary to use a non-standard form of a language in order to translate adequately. To me that is surrender, ultimately, to the idea that adequate translation into a language is not possible. It is surrender to the idea that when we encounter a translation difficulty, such as finding a way to adequately express dikaiosune (righteousness) in "Koine" English, we give up and use non-standard English. The Bible was not written in non-standard forms of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. Dikaiosune was a perfectly normal word in Koine Greek. If we believe that translation is possible at all, then, logically, it follows that it is possible to translate all concepts into standard dialects of a language.

I, personally, think that one of the major problems we face in English translation is that we have put so much theological content into the words of our traditional English versions that we think it is not possible to translate the concepts behind those words in any other way. I think that the solution is to go back to the original languages, not to our theology books in English, and discover what the words meant in their ordinary usage, and then find ways to express those meanings in standard dialects of English.

At Sat Jul 09, 04:00:00 PM, Anonymous rich shields said...

Thanks for the response, Wayne. As I continue to ponder this, I wonder if perhaps we are addressing two different needs/targets. I have shared some of these ideas with you and others on the translation list in the past 4 years. Historically, the Bible has been meant for the Church. Thus, I look at translation as primarily God's tool in the congregation, and secondarily for outreach, because I believe that outreach is accomplished best by the spoken Word (which has internalized the Word as developed by the church, in the church, through the written Word and the visible Word [Baptism and Lord's Supper]).

Therefore, the use of the written Word (translation) encompasses more than Bible reading; in fact, it includes liturgy, catechesis, sermons, and bible study. Several components of a translation that fit in this context are:

1. Cross-generational: for continuity of faith statements. For example, the Lord's Prayer is a community prayer as well as an individual prayer. My mother and my grandchildren can share an expression of the faith across 4 generations.

2. Rhythm/Cadence: A good English translation needs to have that oral quality that matches the best of the English language. I think this corresponds to the liturgical use of a translation. This is one area which leaves me dissatisfied with the NIV. To me the NIV really does not have that English quality that reflects good rhythm/cadence. This may be a primary reason that translations that claim the ancestry of the KJV resonate well in a liturgical context. In our liturgy we use three readings every Sunday (OT, Epistle, and Gospel). I have made a practice to stand at the lectern/pulpit during the week and read the texts aloud, even if I think I know it well. The spoken Word is different than the written Word. Also, the sung responses using Scriptural texts reflect that quality of rhythm/cadence.

3. Adaptability: At first, this might seem to favor a CEV-type translation. However, given the multi-needs of the congregation, in the congregation, a translation needs to be consistent across a wide range of uses/audiences. I have been in congregations (not where I have served), in which the early Sunday School uses CEV, the middle Sunday School uses NIrV, the other Bible classes use NIV, and sometimes in Bible study/worship, the NRSV. That is at best causing confusion.

4. Teachability: Here I look at the catechesis process (which is life-long) and the need for a translation that will carry through that process. I find it easier to teach even the new adult convert using an English translation that has "righteousness" consistently, than to have an inconsistent translation of the word. Likewise, I desire that the person soon learn to use and study the Bible on his/her own. That includes tools such as concordances, cross-references, etc. It is here that I find translations such as CEV, NLT, and even to some extent GW, prove to be a stumbling block to continued growth in the study of the Word. Note, I am not saying that CEV, GW, etc. don't have a place somewhere, but in the overall scheme of things, I would not choose any of these as a "congregation Bible".

My own choices of a translation within the KJV legacy (NKJV, NAS, and now trying ESV) has proven that all of these are accessible/usable/sustainable, even for recent converts. Because once they finish adult catechesis, they move right into a regular, in-depth Bible study. In one of the congregations I served, we moved from 15 in adult Bible study on Sunday to 90+, with a total of 125 different individuals attending bible study during the week. The translation never was a stumbling block; actually it helped because it was consistent across the congregation scene, including liturgical use. In another congregation I had tried this approach with GW, and it became a problem, because what they thought they understood from the translation was different than the underlying Greek. And what they thought they knew was different than the liturgical use (not just the readings but liturgical responses).

Wayne, if nothing else, you always make me think and wrestle with these topics. For that I sincerely appreciate what you do, and the venue you provide for this kind of discussion. Thanks.

At Sat Jul 09, 06:51:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Yes, Rich, the nature of the target audience is very important for how an English Bible version is worded and stylized. I have made comments to this effect before, as you probably remember, on the Bible Translation discussion list. And I have said the same thing in posts on this blog. There are audiences which want and Bible which sounds to them like they feel a Bible should sound. So, if they understand such a Bible (and we only find out through some kind of field testing) then they should use such a Bible. I never encourage people to use a Bible which is not a good fit for them. I don't think the CEV is a good Bible for everyone. On the other hand, what I've been trying to get at in several of my blog posts is that new versions, such as the ESV, which emulate older versions, are also not for everyone. It concerns me a great deal that Crossway is marketing the ESV for children and evangelism. Because our English-speaking societies have moved even farther from Christian and church influence, both on behavior and language, in the past 50 or so years, it is even more important now to use versions with children and for evangelism which those particular target audiences can understand. Again, as always, we find out whether or not they understand accurately through field testing.

So, Rich, as always, you are saying wise things. I don't think we are saying much that is different. My great concern is for those people who do not speak, appreciate, and/or understand "church English." That's what my blog post was about. Church English is OK for people who speak church English. It is not OK for people who do not.

Bible publishers need to be more careful in how they market their translations. Not all translations work for all audiences. It is possible to make translations which would work for more audiences, but then we would upset those audiences that you so properly care about, those who are accustomed to a certain liturgical sound to the Scriptures.

Thanks a lot for your comments.


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