Words from paradise

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a work consisting of five movements each setting one word from the Bible. The words – holy, hallelujah, selah, hosanna and amen – are from Germanic, Hebrew, Greek and/or Latin, and are now different degrees of ‘English’.

Holy is Germanic, and has been part of English since before 900 (that is, for as long as we can say that English has existed). The spelling has changed from Old English hālig and Middle English holi, and the word is related to whole and hale, and cognate with Dutch and German heilig and similar words in other Germanic languages. Scholars have reconstructed Proto-Germanic *hailaga and Proto-Indo-European *kailo- “whole, uninjured”, from which we also get health.

The equivalent words in the other relevant languages are Hebrew קָדוֹשׁ kadósh or qadosh, (related to kiddush, a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Shabbat and Jewish holidays), Greek άγιος ágios and Latin sanctus (for the latter two, see the Trisagion, which begins Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός, Agios o Theos in Greek, Sanctus Deus in Latin and Holy God in English). Sanctus, in turn, is related to Latin sacer, from which we get sacred. Note that these four words are completely unrelated. Different languages seem to have their own words related to holiness. Korean has 거룩한 (geo-ruk-han).

Hallelujah began as halălū + yāh, the plural imperative of hallel, to praise (also a song of praise) + a short form of the name of God יהוה, YHWH, Yahweh or Jehovah, usually translated as Praise (ye) the Lord. It also functioned as an expression of praise, which might be translated or just transliterated. The transliteration halleluiah also exists, and the spelling –iah also occurs in names like Isaiah (God is salvation) and Jeremiah (God is exalted).

The Greek version is Αλληλούια allelouia, Latin hallelujah and alleluia and Korean 할렐루야 (hal-lel-lu-ya). Alleluia was used in English first (c 1175-1225, compared with c1525-35 for hallelujah), but Google Ngrams reports that hallelujah was used more until the 1910s, after which the two spellings have been about equal. If anything, the standard spelling is hallelujah. If a writer wanted a character to say “Well, glory hallelujah to that, my friend!”, they would use that spelling. Alleluia is the more liturgical spelling. Scholarly articles on the Latin mass use that spelling to refer to the special text sung before the gospel reading.

Selah (Hebrew סֶלָה,) is a literary, musical or liturgical direction. In his notes for the piece, the composer confidently states that it means “a ‘suspension’ of music – a pause or rest”. No other source I consulted shares his confidence. Some say that it “perhaps” means a pause, but other suggestions are a musical interlude, a raising of the voice, to introduce a new paragraph or quotation, or to stress the importance of what has just been said or sung, or what is about to be. The problem with all of these is that the word appears at the end of a psalm, at the end of a verse and in the middle of a line.

Some translations omit it completely, or relegate it to a footnote. The Greek Septuagint translates it as διάψαλμα, diapsalma, “apart from psalm”, while another important Greek version transliterates it as σελ, sel. The Wikipedia article states that one version in English translates it as “pause, and think of that”, but the text of that version on Bible Gateway has the word Selah and a footnote: “may mean: Pause, Crescendo or Musical Interlude or may have some other unknown meaning”. The first Korean bible I consulted has 셀라 (sel-la) in brackets, but the version on Bible Gateway doesn’t.

Hosanna also began as an imperative; this time, directed towards God. The earliest Hebrew form was הושיעה־נא hôšîʿâ-nā, help/save (me/us) + emphatic particle, translated as anything from Lord, save us! to Save now, I beseech Thee, O Lord. The name Joshua and its Greek-ised form Jesus are related. Like hallelujah, this became an expression of praise, and spellings with and without h are both used: Greek Ωσαννά, ōsanná, Latin hōsanna and ōsanna, Old English osanna and  Korean 호산나 (ho-san-na). Osanna is the liturgical spelling, but hosanna has not entered general use in the way hallelujah has. I can’t imagine any writer making any character say “Well, glory hosanna to that, my friend!”.

The last word – literally, in many cases – is אָמֵן amen, which began as a noun meaning “truth” which was used as an adverb meaning “certainly, absolutely”, affirming either another speaker’s words (Hebrew usage) or Jesus’s own (no-one else in the New Testament is recorded as using it in this way). In this sense it is often translated “verily” or “truly”, and was sometimes repeated for emphasis. As a prayer ending, it might be translated “so be it” or “let it be” (compare Paul McCartney’s song, which is not a prayer), but rarely is (though Old English also used Soðlic! (sooth-ly), Swa hit ys (so it is) or Sy!). Some parts of the Christian church use it at the start of prayers; for example, the Russian Orthodox all-night vigil, well-known to choral singers through settings by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Its spelling hasn’t changed through Greek, Latin and English. Korean uses 아멘 (a-men).

In spoken English, the pronunciations ah-men and ay-men are both used, the former associated with Judaism and the more formal/liturgical to mainstream denominations of Christianity, and the latter with the less formal and/or evangelical denominations, especially in the USA. Choral singers always use ah-men (I’m trying to imagine the last chorus of Handel’s Messiah sung as ay-men) but the Russian liturgical pronunciation is ah-meen.

So are these words ‘English’? Holy definitely is, and selah definitely isn’t (among other things, the spell-checkers on Pages for Mac and WordPress don’t recognise it). Amen, hallelujah and hosanna exist on a spectrum of ‘English’-ness probably in that order, if it matters.

I haven’t mentioned the composer’s name because any living composer whose music is being performed, recorded and published doesn’t need any help from me, and I’d prefer if choirs were singing my compositions, but search and you will find.

PS There’s more to be said about all of these. I could have written about double what I did.


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