‘Than when we first began’

During the week I went the funeral of the mother of a dear friend. I hadn’t met her, but I wanted to support him. The service started with a recording of ‘Amazing Grace’, which included the extra verse:
‘When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less time to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.’

Perhaps I should put my language analysing functions into neutral while at a funeral, but sometimes it’s just too strong a habit. ‘begin – began – begun’ is a member of a small group of irregular verbs which change the vowel in the order i > a > u in the spelling and /ɪ/ > /æ/ > /ʌ/ in the pronunciation. The first issue is that in many non-standard forms of English, people use the past participle form in place of the past simple form: ‘I done it’.  The second issue is that even in standard English, it is very easy to accidentally use the past participle form instead of the past simple form, particularly with the ‘i/a/u’ group of irregular verbs. People who would never say ‘I eaten it’ could easily say ‘I drunk it’ (particularly if they had, indeed, drank it).

John Newton, the slave trader turned Anglican priest and hymnwriter who wrote the words, was born in London, which, then as now, was a melting pot of varieties and accents of English, and there’s no way of knowing what his natural mode of English was. As a hymnwriter, he collaborated with the poet William Cowper. ‘Amazing grace!’ (Newton’s own exclamation mark, now usually omitted) originally had six verses: the now-standard ‘Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound) … ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear … Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares … The Lord has promis’d good to me’ and the now-generally omitted:

‘Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.’

The widely used current fifth verse was/is not by Newton, but was added in America sometime before 1852, as Harriet Beecher Stowe records Uncle Tom singing it. The verse itself was first recorded in print in 1790, as part of another hymn with the same meter (see Wikipedia).

Changing the last line to ‘began’ would, of course, spoil the rhyme. At least one source online tries to overcome this by writing ‘Than when we’d first begun’, which causes more problems than it solves.

In fact, many hymns include couplets which don’t rhyme when they are meant to. In some cases this is due to the the fact that the the pronunciation of one or both of the words has changed since the hymn was written, particularly with older hymns. At others, hymnwriters seem to have adopted a ‘near enough is good enough’ approach to rhyming. This afternoon, at the three-hour service for Good Friday, I noticed a number of occurrences (see what I mean about not putting my language analysing functions into neutral?), which I later counted as 12 times in nine hymns or anthems.

These were ‘unknown – down – alone’ and ‘love – prove – above’ in Just as I am; ‘God – blood’ in When I survey the wondrous Cross; ‘Blood – God’ and ‘station – compassion’ in Sweet the moments, rich in blessing; ‘good – blood’ in There is a green hill far away (but note ‘flood – blood’ in The royal banners forward go); and six times in Robert Bridges’ translation of O sacred head sore wounded: ‘wounded – surrounded’, ‘grandeur – splendour’, ‘deflower – adore’, ‘Passion – salvation’, ‘movèd – belovèd’, ‘beneath – death’. Intriguingly, Bridges’ six examples fall in the same places in verses 1 and 3 (lines 1 and 3, 5 and 7, 6 and 8), while lines 2 and 4, and the entire of verses 2 and 4, rhyme conventionally. Note also that he was translating a German version of a Latin hymn, not directly writing an English poem. Newton includes a ‘not-quite-rhyme’ in Amazing Grace – ‘come –  home’.

It is interesting to note that most of these occurrences involve vowels like /ʌ/, /ɒ/, /ʊ/, /u/, /oʊ/ and /aʊ/, which were historically some of the last vowels to shift in standard pronunciation and which are still subject to considerable variation in non-standard varieties of English (indeed ‘blood – good’ has a profane parallel in the standard and best-known non-standard pronunciation of ‘the F-word’!).

Some hymn-writers relax their rhyming scheme even further. In Take up thy cross and There is a green hill far away, lines 1 and 3 don’t rhyme but lines 2 and 4 do, and Drop, drop slow tears (written as a poem and not as a hymn) has the rhyming scheme of ‘x-A-x-B x-A-x-B x-C-x-C’ (‘x’ being ‘anything else’ – something different each time).

The three-hour service really was three hours long (the heritage bell-clock opposite the church struck three as the priests and servers were processing out) but this probably doesn’t excuse my mind’s linguistic digressions.


2 thoughts on “‘Than when we first began’

  1. I’ve always just assumed I don’t sing them in the right accent. Another example is a lot of early Australian poetry, which only works in an Irish-y accent – “The Bush Christening” and “Said Hanrahan” being two examples that immediately spring to mind.


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