The World Vernacular Is English, Korean Edition

I’ve mentioned a number of times here, from points abroad, that English is the world vernacular. As Latin was in the West, and Greek was in the East, so now English is, everywhere.

Our Holy Father’s recent apostolic voyage was an opportunity for him to speak publicly in English.

In Korea.

The reasons for historic language hegemonies may not be the most religious reasons, and in fact they often are tied primarily in a rather unsavory way to economic and military realities. And it may not be a great boon for other reasons as well. I spoke about the dominance of English with a priest–himself from New Jersey–who works internationally. His feeling about English is that it is unfortunately too direct for the best kind of dialogue. Romance languages tend to allow for nuance, for mentioning things in a non-confrontational way, touching ideas without committing to them. English tends to aim at “sealing the deal” of meaning.

For better or worse, English is the language spoken by the world. And even more so with music. American pop music is heard across Europe in every shoe or clothing store, and unfortunately in a growing number of cafes as well.

And when the Pope speaks to the young, in Korea, he speaks in English.

This means that the liturgical music resources that are produced in English must be of the highest quality in every way: theologically, musically, and poetically. We can either export shoddy plastic gimmickry, or produce beautiful art that aims towards perfect praise.

There really should be no question about which direction is appropriate.

10 Replies to “The World Vernacular Is English, Korean Edition”

  1. The influence of English-language liturgical music is a bit round-about. You don't even hear English music at a Spanish Mass in the US. But there are English-language Masses all over the world, primarily for the benefit of foreigners as a lingua franca Mass but often attended by natives. They will adopt whatever we're doing in the US and by the power of the music director, it can spillover into the local vernacular Mass. Not wholesale. Particularly for chant, there has to be unique adaptations based on speech patterns and Latin would be the basis for translations. But if the English-language Mass at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul uses propers, someone's going to wonder if it can be done in Korean.

  2. Wrong.

    Mandarin is the "language spoken by the world". English was once second, but has since been pushed aside by Spanish.

    If one chooses to qualify this by inserting the qualifier, "languages spoken by Catholics in the world", there "really should be no question" that the correct answer is…Spanish.

  3. John, thank you for this beautifully perceptive comment.

    I agree with you about the gentle, local way that good–or bad–English-language examples of liturgical music will influence the practices in other languages.

  4. Noel, I think we must be talking about apples and oranges.

    You are probably speaking about the language that is statistically spoken by most people in the world, as their first language.

    I'm talking about the language that is the lingua franca, the language of business, the language we all have in common–the language most non-native-English speaking schoolchildren around the world begin learning in the first grade.

  5. By ignoring the Chinese and, in the Americas, the majority of Catholics – who are Spanish-speakers, turn Catholicism into a country club religion.

    Hooking english to the success of liturgy as you have done makes English the new Latin.

    This is not progress.

  6. Well, Noel, nobody's suggesting that other languages be neglected.

    To say that English is an influential language, even in matters of the Church's liturgy, is not something new. Helen Hitchcock wrote in 2006:

    "The English translation of the Missal is especially critical because of its international influence. English is the principal language of eleven countries and a significant secondary language in fifteen others; second, because many other languages translate liturgical texts from the English version rather than directly from the Latin."

  7. I served on an international World Youth Day volunteer team in 2005. During our time off, or when we were waiting for food or transport or orders (being a WYD volunteer involves a lot of waiting), the young people in my group constantly wanted to be singing or speaking in English and kept asking me to teach them songs from the hymnal.

    Some of the German girls sang Here I Am, Lord as their morning offering every day.

    I do remember singing Spanish songs with pilgrims from Mexico on a train platform, memorably Las Apariciones Guadalupanas.

  8. Spanish would have gone over real well in South Korea! Chinese would have been more understood, but that would have gone over much, much worse. Can you imagine how offended Koreans would be if the Pope started speaking Chinese???

    Semi-joking aside, I think the point is that there needs to be further encouragement for good liturgical music in English. We can't ignore the reality that English is a language understood worldwide (even if it's not a first language, which really doesn't matter in this regard.)

  9. I travel to china often on business, and we speak English in the factory.

    I go to mass in China and the only non-chinese mass is in English — attended by French, German, and other expats living in China. (and their music is the worst drivel you might hear in a suburban parish in the US, complete with clapping and tambourines. I prefer the chinese!)

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