gnädig und gerecht

One of the choirs I sing in has just presented our first concert since coronavirus restrictions were eased. The program was very carefully chosen around the themes of remembrance and renewal. One of the two longer works on the program was Das ist mir Lieb, a setting of a German translation of Psalm 116 by Heinrich Schütz. Although English is a Germanic language, singing in German is a strange mix of the familiar and unfamiliar, even allowing for the fact that the choirs I sing in don’t sing in German much.

Two of the verses are:

Der HERR ist gnädig und gerecht, und unser Gott ist barmherzig. 
Der HERR behütet die Einfältigen; wenn ich unterliege, so hilft er mir. 

Alright then:

The Lord is something and something else, and our God is something different again.
The Lord does something to some people. When I somethinged, he helped me.

Actually, I can do better than that, because I’ve sung the English equivalent so many times, but I’ll pretend I haven’t and apply a bit of linguistic analysis.

Gnädig doesn’t look or sound like anything in English (at least that I know). Given the word with no context, I wouldn’t even be able to guess whether it is a positive or negative word. Given the context of a Jewish/Christian psalm, I’ll guess that it’s positive.

Gerecht is probably related to ‘right’, maybe upright.

Barmherzig has herz = heart in it. 

Behütet and Einfältigen again don’t look sound like anything in English.

Unterliege is probably related to ‘under’. 

But I know the English is (using the King James/Authorised Version, the closest equivalent):

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful.
The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me.

The Latin equivalent is: 

Misericors Dominus et justus, et Deus noster miseretur.
Custodiens parvulos Dominus; humiliatus sum, et liberavit me.

Our introduction to this work was interesting, to say the least. We sight-read through 22 pages of intricate 17th-century German 5-part polyphony in German while a major social function was going on in the church’s courtyard, complete with amplified music in a vastly different style. We didn’t fully recover from that (at least I didn’t).

I had been planning to write about this before the concert, but didn’t get around to it. By coincidence, during the interval, a fellow-chorister friend asked me whether English is a German language or a Latin one. (Actually the better question is whether it’s Germanic or Latinate.) I gave him a brief explanation and he said “I completely agree with you”, which makes me wonder why he asked. Even if a language has borrowed a lot of words from another language, as English has from Latin, its affiliation is determined by the basic words and structures: compare Der HERR ist gnädig und gerecht, und unser Gott ist barmherzig and Misericors Dominus et justus, et Deus noster miseretur

Many religious words have come into English from Latin, Greek and Hebrew, but compare God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit with Gott, Vater, Sohn und Hielige Geist and Deus, Pater, Filius et Spiritus Sanctus


2 thoughts on “gnädig und gerecht

  1. That last comparison is even clearer if you use Holy Ghost in place of Holy Spirit.

    “Unterliege” appears to be parallel to “underlie”, but the sense of the German word seems more like “lie under”, a closer translation being “be brought down low.” It’s also somewhat analogous to “suffer”, whose Latinate meaning is “to bear under” or, more closely to English, “to undergo” … which also might make it a bit clearer why “suffer” also used to mean “allow.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. Knowing the English equivalent meant I could have guess lie liege, but for the purpose of the exercise I had to pretend that I didn’t know. I also thought of ligature > bound, but that’s Latin, and something else which I’ve now forgotten.


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