Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

At Church

Posted by Neal on December 7, 2009

Now that Doug’s in fifth grade, he and the other fifth graders at our church are doing acolyte duty, which (I found out at the same time as Doug) means assisting in the church service by doing things like lighting the candles or bringing more bread or wine to the communion assistants. Yesterday was his first day on the schedule, and all in all it went well, except for the one candle that refused to be extinguished at the end. He was putting that snuffer on again and again, and it was like one of those relighting candles you put on someone’s birthday cake as a joke. He finally succeeded, but it meant that instead of getting out of there as soon as the last announcement was made, we had to wait for Doug to finish putting out all the candles at the ends of the pews.

One of the things he had to do was hold up the liturgy for the pastor to read during a baptism. As the baptism proceeded, my wife and I read along on an insert in the bulletin. In several places the congregation was supposed to speak; mostly short responses like “We do”, and “I renounce them”,
but also some longer passages, including the Apostles’ Creed. As I read along, I noticed this part in the middle:

Jesus Christ … who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, and was buried.

It’s another multiple-level coordination! The full verb phrases are was conceived by the Holy Spirit, suffered, died, and was buried. Buried among them is the participial verb phrase born of the Virgin Mary, with the was that would complete it understood from the first VP. To be perfectly parallel, the passage would have to be one of the following:

Jesus Christ … who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, and was buried.
Jesus Christ … who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, and was buried.

There are a few other linguistic observations I’ve collected at church, but never put into posts of their own, so I might as well put them here. First is some variation in possessive morphology I’ve noticed between the regular pastor and a newly hired associate pastor. Specifically, I’ve been noticing how they pronounce Jesus’. I’m used to seeing the bare apostrophe after Jesus — why, even Strunk and White condone it after Biblical names! However, in my dialect, the possessive suffix on a singular noun is pronounced, whether it’s written ‘s or just as an apostrophe. So for me, Jesus’ is pronounced [ʤizəsəz]. That’s how the regular pastor says it, too. The associate pastor, though, pronounces it as if it were like the bare, unpronounced apostrophe that you find on plural possessive nouns. He just says [ʤizəs], which I find disconcerting in the same way as when I hear people say Texas’s or Texas’ as just [tʰɛksəs]. In fact, I wonder how our pastors would say Texas’s, and whether it would match up with how they spelled it.

Then there’s the pronunciation of worship. I’ve always pronounced it [wɔrʃəp]. It sounds a lot like warship, which is kind of funny, but for me, the two words are distinguished by the non-reduced second vowel in warship: [wɔrʃIp]. Still, maybe that’s too close for comfort for a lot of people, and I wonder if that’s why I hear the regular pastor (also my wife, and others) pronounce worship as [wrʃəp]. That’s a syllabic [r] in there (although I can’t get the IPA symbol for it to show up); it’s as if he’s saying wereship. That is, the plural past tense of be plus ship, not a person who turns into a ship during a full moon. It also sounds like the pastor is reducing the second vowel as much as possible. He and I both say [ə], but it sounds like they’re trying to eliminate it altogether, as if they were trying to say wershp, but were stopped by the phonotactic unacceptability of a [ʃp] syllable coda.

And on the subject of worship, there’s also the strange path it took from transitive to intransitive to transitive again via causativization, in that one church bulletin I read a few years ago. Worship the transitive verb is easy; people worship a god, or gods, or whatever else they find worthy of reverence. As an intransitive verb, as in We worship at such-and-such a church, it’s the same action, but the object of worship is left unsaid. (Linguists call this “unspecified object deletion” or “indefinite NP deletion”, and it happens with numerous verbs: eat, teach, write….) The next step is causativization. This often happens with intransitive verbs, which are turned into transitives with the meaning “make/let someone Verb”. You can walk, or you can walk the dog; you can sleep in a room that sleeps four. But when you causativize a verb that also exists as a transitive, you end up with ambiguities like this one:

Last week, we worshipped 372 people.

Wow. Does your church worship you?

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12 Responses to “At Church”

  1. John Cowan said

    I have the SQUARE vowel in nonce compounds with were-, but the NURSE vowel in worship, so your analogy doesn’t work for me — but I know what you mean anyhow. M-w.com lists both NURSE and NORTH/FORCE pronunciations: AHD4, which differentiates between NORTH and FORCE, shows only NURSE.

    Also, I have no phonotactic problems with final [ʃp], though I can’t think of one offhand. Of course, English didn’t use to have even initial /ʃC/ (except /ʃr/), but shmuck, shpiel, shtum, and a bunch of other Yiddish borrowings put paid to that rule.

    Do you have the weak-vowel merger (in which chicken and thicken rhyme)? Does the associate pastor?

  2. bearing said

    Thank you for that rant. I have been bothered by that sentence in the Apostle’s Creed ever since I became a Catholic.

    I hear they’re going to re-translate the liturgy from the Latin. Maybe they’ll fix it!

  3. Jamie said

    [ʤezəs]? Not [ʤizəs]? I have been sitting here for five minutes saying it experimentally.

  4. dw said

    The original Latin has “crucifixus, mortuus et sepultus”: which means, according to my
    rusty Latin, “was crucified, died, and was buried”. The translation “dead” presumably arose when the authors of the Book of Common Prayer misread “mortuus” as “mortus”.

    I (grew up in England, now live in California) have the NURSE vowel in “worship”: as far as I know this is completely standard — I have never heard the NORTH vowel in this word. Do you have the NORTH vowel in “world” as well? I hear that pronunciation sometimes hear in the US, although I have NURSE there too.

    • AJD said

      I’m not sure what you mean by your first paragraph; there is no such Latin word as mortus. Mortuus means ‘dead’.

      Worship definitely standardly has NURSE in it. The American Heritage Dictionary isn’t even aware of the NORTH pronunciation. (Merriam-Webster is.)

  5. The Ridger said

    I too say worship like nurse. But I’ve never seen it as a causative.

    Saying Jesus’ as two syllables is tightly linked in my mind with evangelicals. You sound like Episcopalians (which I was brought up as), so it’s odd to me that your associate pastor says it. Does he also hit and hold the Je, too (in ‘Jeeeeeee-sus name)?

    However, I should note that it’s been years since I was in a church, so the pronunciation may be much more mainstream than I think.

  6. Estel said

    Another linguistic observation from creedal translation:
    In my church, when we say the Nicene Creed, there’s a line that goes:
    “he will come again to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end”

    That reads as if it’s saying that the kingdom of the dead shall have no end, when that is most definitely not what’s intended!

    In Greek and Latin, the relative pronoun there is singular and has to refer back to “he”; if it referred back to “the dead” it would have to be plural. But the relative pronoun doesn’t have the number distinction in English, and we are not fond of separating relative clauses from their antecedents, with a rather infelicitous result.

    • Neal said

      Thanks for that. Without the knowledge of the singular relative pronoun in Greek and Latin, I’d’ve taken whose to refer not to he, nor even to the dead (though I can get both those parses), but to the living and the dead.

  7. You wouldn’t expect my pronunciations to be the same as yours, given that we’re on opposite sides of the planet, but around here, Jesus usually (not always) ends with a voiced fricative: [ʤizəz] not [ʤizəs].

    I agree that the common spelling Jesus’ is strange given the pronunciation [ʤizəzəz], and I would never spell it that way myself.

  8. Claire said

    “I have been bothered by that sentence in the Apostle’s Creed ever since I became a Catholic.” – The current Anglican version is different. It has semicolons and is “he suffered death and was buried”. If anyone wants to do some comparative translation work: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_versions_of_the_Nicene_Creed_in_current_use

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