What big mystery

Four years ago I posted about the Latin text O magnum mysterium, and explored the links between the words in it and modern-day English words. Given that English is not a Latinate language, it is perhaps surprising that all but two of the Latin words have related words in English. Or perhaps not, because Latin was the primary language of the Christian church in England for at least approximately 950 years. 

One of the choirs I sing in recently sang the anthem to this text by Francis Poulenc. On the first page of the printed score was a French translation. French is a Latinate language, and it was interesting to see the similarities and differences between the Latin and French texts. Some words are very similar, some have been changed almost beyond recognition and some have been substituted for other words.

The Latin text is:
O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, iacentem in praesepio!
O beata virgo, cuius viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Iesum Christum.

The French text is:

Quel grand mystère et admirable sacrement, que des animaux aient pu voir, couché dans une crèche, le Seigneur vient de naître!
Bienheureuse Vierge dont les entrailles ont mérité de porter le Christ – Seigneur.

Comparing the words:

O magnum mysterium – Quel grand mystère
et admirabile sacramentum – et admirable sacrement
ut animalia viderent – que des animaux aient pu voir
Dominum – le Seigneur
natum – vient de naître
iacentem – couché
in praesepio – dans une crèche
O beata virgo – Bienheureuse Vierge
cuius viscera – dont les entrailles
meruerunt portare – ont mérité de porter
Dominum Iesum Christum – le Christ – Seigneur

Several things are apparent(e): 1) French uses articles (des animaux, le Seigneur, une crèche, les entrailles, Christum – le Christ) even more than English. 2) French truncates the ends of Latin words (mysterium – mystère, admirabile – admirable, sacramentum – sacrement etc), to the point where they must be supplemented by some other words (aient pu voir, vient de naître, de porter). In this text they are verbs, but Poulenc also sets the text Hodie Christus natus est. Latin hodie became French aujourd’hui (literally, on the day of this day.) And that’s just the spelling; the pronunciation is often even more truncated (see grand and /ɡʁɑ̃/, for example). 3) When French uses a different word, that word is usually also from Latin* and has related words in English (grand, couché, crèche, entrailles; but not the heureuse of bienheureuse. (*French also has a number of words derived from Celtic and Germanic languages, which may or may not have related words in English.) 

I’m not sure whether talking about St Mary’s entrails is any better than talking about her viscera. A group of related texts (Luke 1:42, Ave Maria, the Angelus) use ventris, which is not related to any English noun, but see the adjective ventral. (We also sang settings of Ave Maria by Bruckner and Beibl.) Most English translations use womb, and see the hymns O come all ye faithful (the original of which uses viscera) and Hark the herald angels sing (which was written in English) (and probably others). Google returns no results for “Saint Mary’s uterus”, one irrelevant result for “St Mary’s uterus” and about 1,230 for “Mary’s uterus” (compared to about 76,000 for “Mary’s womb”).

Depictions of the birth of Jesus, from fine art to greeting cards, rarely (if ever) show how visceral it was. Childbirth for common folk in the ancient world was rudimentary, and this birth was more chaotic than average, but Mary and Jesus are always shown as immaculate. 

et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis et vidimus gloriam eius, plenum gratiae et veritatis


3 thoughts on “What big mystery

  1. In your previous post you referred to “iacentem”, translated as “lying (in a manger)”, and listed the cognates thus:

    iacentem (iacere/iaceo/iacitus, to be thrown) – adjacent, ease/easy, joist

    I was going to add all the “ject” words in English (eject, reject, dejected, conjecture, etc.) but when I confirmed in my Latin pocket dictionary I saw that there are two Latin verbs that are similar but different:

    iaceo/iacere — to lie, be ill (with a macron over the penultimate e)

    iacio/iacere — to throw, lay

    It is the second one that has the past participal form “iactus”, which becomes “-ject-” in the forms which made it to English.

    Clearly it is the first of the two that occurs in the Magnificat.

    Interesting that the potential confusion (was there such among Romans?) mirrors the confusion in English between “lie” and “lay”, which is exacerbated by the fact that the past tense form of the former matches the present tense form of the latter.

    I also have observed that even the best sources of English writing are using “lay” instead of “lie” most of the time these days, as in “lay low” instead of “lie low.” I suspect this is because use of the verb “lie” in the meaning “to tell a falsehood” is such a hot button issue in the media nowadays that one tends to avoid that form entirely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your interesting-as-always comments. Iacentum is one of the two most obscure words in that (with praesepio). I can’t remember how much research (if indeed any) I did the first time. Investigating translations of lie and lay is complicated by translators giving the untruth meaning rather the the recline meaning. Google translate rendered ‘I lay the baby in a manger’ and ‘(ego) infantem in praesepio posui’ (using pono, ponere, posui, positus, which obviously has many related English words) and ‘The baby lay in the manger’ as ‘Infans in praesepio iacebat’ (presumably iaceo but possibly the two words share some forms).
      Possibly, some languages use the same word for both verbs, or two completely different words. I suspect that many use similar words, and that the speakers of those language often mix them up.
      I will maintain the distinction between lie and lay, but I could be on the losing side of history. Google Ngrams doesn’t help, because ‘lay low’ may be the (in my view) correct past-tense of ‘lie’ or the (in my view) incorrect present-tense of ‘lay’. I need a longer phrase (up to 5 words).
      I have been thinking about lie=tell an untruth recently, and may write a post about it.


  2. For Google Ngrams you could try searching for phrases like “he/she lay low” for the past tense of “lie” vs. phrases like “to lay low”, “would lay low”, etc. for the present tense of “lay.” “They lay low” wouldn’t work so well because it could be either one.


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