Kingdoms and empires

The hymn The day thou gavest, Lord, has ended (Wikipedia, performance) has as its last verse:

So be it, Lord; Thy throne shall never,
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.

We quite often refer to God as king and to God’s kingdom or the kingdom of God, but we almost never refer to God as emperor or to God’s empire or the empire of God, even though King of kings and Lord of lords is more analogous to an earthly emperor than a king. 

The only reference to empire/emperor/imperial in the King James/Authorised version of the bible is in the comparatively late OT book of Esther (1:20):

When the king’s decree which he will make is proclaimed throughout all his empire (for it is great), all wives will honor their husbands, both great and small. 

(The king being Ahasuerus and the empire being Persia.)

Of the other 27 translations on Bible Hub, one uses realm, four use empire and the rest kingdom.


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The hymn Just as I am, without one plea (Charlotte Elliott) (or at least some versions of it) contains the verse

Just as I am – of that free love
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above,
O Lamb of God, I come!

Breadth, length and depth, as well as width, are a small group of words in which the noun is formed from the adjective by changing the vowel and adding -th, which was obviously a standard procedure at one stage in the history of English. Height doesn’t quite fit, but heighth is a “chiefly dialectal” alternative. To these we might also add strong > strength. Alongside the noun is another formed by adding –ness to the adjective, and we can also add a verb ending with –en:  

broad – breadth/broadness – broaden
long – length/longness – lengthen
deep – depth/deepness – deepen
high – height/highness – heighten 
wide – width/wideness – widen 
strong – strength/strongness – strengthen 

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death defying

James Edmeston wrote the hymn Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us in 1821. His original second verse, addressing Jesus, includes:

Lone and dreary, faint and weary,
Through the desert thou didst go

Many Christians are hesitant to think, talk, write or sing about Jesus as in any way limited, even as they talk about him being fully human (and fully divine). Some modern hymn books have changed that to:

Self-denying, death defying,
Thou to Calvary didst go

but death defying just gives the wrong impression. Google Ngrams reports death(-)defying stunts, feat(s), leap(s), act(s), death(?), courage, spirit and notes(?). Death-defying is a very 20th-century concept, and was almost unknown before then. 

(Google’s first suggestion of a video was from the Queen’s 90th birthday service of thanksgiving (2016), at which this second version was sung.)

A third version is:

Yet unfearing, persevering,
To thy passion thou didst go

which sounds the most reasonable. Note that the original words refer to Jesus’s 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, while the altered words refer to his crucifixion and death. The last lines of versions 2 and 3 are probably interchangeable. (Note also that the first line each time rhymes within itself, while the second line rhymes with lines earlier in the verse. The overall rhyming scheme is A B A B cc B.)

Many hymns are rendered problematic to some degree by changes of meaning, grammar, theology, sociology or taste. The question is whether we stop singing them, stick with the original words at the risk of people misunderstanding them, or change them; if so, by whom and how.

Love’s pure light loves pure light

Six years ago, very soon after started this blog (I can’t quite believe it’s that long), I wrote about Round John Virgin and some other linguistic aspects of the Christmas hymn Silent Night.

Recently, one of the choirs I sing in was invited at short notice to record some items for a Christmas musical entertainment to be streamed into aged care facilities around Australia. (We have just begun to rehearse together again.) One of these was as the backing for a soloist singing a slightly jazzy arrangement of Silent Night. Among other things, there were several extra notes inserted into the melody, which then required extra words (or maybe the arranger decided to insert extra words, which then required extra notes). Small example: in one verse, Silent night, holy night became O silent night, and holy night. Larger example: Son of God, love’s pure light became Son of God, he loves pure light, which is not just adding a word, but changing the grammar and meaning of what follows.

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Dawn rising on a spring morning

The subtitles for a music education video referred to the first section of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring as “Dawn Rising on a Spring Morning on a Farm in Appalachia”. I wondered if that was the official title of the section (in which case it would be in upper case) or a simple description of it (in which case it would be in lower case), because a) I have never heard or read that the individual parts have titles, and b) the title Appalachian Spring was suggested by the choreographer Martha Graham after Copland had completed the score, so he wasn’t thinking about spring mornings in Appalachia when he wrote it,* and the title must have been applied retrospectively. (The presenter’s spoken inflection didn’t make it clear whether he was using it as a title or a description.)

I searched for “dawn rising on a spring morning” and got 

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Eff it!

Yesterday one of my colleagues said something close enough to ineffable, which led to me paraphrase Douglas Adam’s line: “Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.” (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency)

We got talking about this strange word, and soon after he quoted the hymn O worship the King, all glorious above, the last verse of which begins O measureless might! Ineffable love! Today he added Crown him with many crowns, which contains the lines Creator of the rolling spheres, Ineffably sublime.*

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“Let us all Thy grace receive”

If there’s anything worse than a linguistic rabbit hole, it’s a theological rabbit hole.

At choir practice on Thursday night, we rehearsed an anthem on the famous hymn Love divine, all loves excelling by Charles Wesley. For the first time, I noticed the ambiguity in the line:

Let us all Thy grace receive.

Is that:

(Let) (us all) (Thy grace) (receive)


(Let) (us) (all Thy grace) (receive)


Linguistically, there’s no way to decide in this case. Both are grammatical and usual/natural. In both, the word all can be omitted, perhaps with a change of emphasis but not of basic meaning. To the extent that I’d ever thought about it, I had always assumed the first reading.

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Christmas hymns

Two of the most popular Christmas hymns are Hark, the herald angels sing and Joy to the world. We sang both on Tuesday morning, which sparked this post.

Hark, the herald angels sing is usually sung to the tune MENDELSSOHN, which is usually credited as, eg, “From a chorus by Felix Mendeslssohn-Bartholdy 1809-47 adapted by William Hayman Cummings 1831-1915” (The Australian Hymn Book). So which work of Mendelssohn is this adapted from? Something pretty obscure. The website states:

The tune is from the second chorus of Felix Mendelssohn’s Festgesang (Op. 68) for male voices and brass; it was first performed in 1840 at the Gutenberg Festival in Leipzig, a festival celebrating the anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

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Singing in Korean

Sometime about the beginning of November, my wife arranged with the conductor of her church choir that I could join them to sing in a cantata on Christmas Day. (My church choir is singing at a very early service, and I just can’t get there in time.) I have been attending Sunday afternoon rehearsals for about six weeks, and learning the words by myself on the train. The music is straightforward enough, but the words are entirely in Korean. I’ve sung (actually performed) in other languages before; lots of Latin, some German and French, a sprinkling of Italian, Spanish and Welsh, one movement of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms in Hebrew and all of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers in Russian. As far as I can remember, the words for the Bernstein were given in transliteration, but the words for the Rachmaninoff were in Cyrillic and transliteration. (Hebrew is written right-to-left, and would not naturally fit into in a musical score. I have seen a hymn in Arabic for Arabic-speaking Christians, and the whole score is reversed.)

The cantata was written and/or arranged in the USA (I’ve found information online, but I’m not going to give them free publicity). The Korean version is licenced by the US publisher, unlike at least some Korean choral music. It intersperses modern songs with traditional hymns and narration. There is a CD of the cantata in English, which my wife has been listening to in the car. The Korean words, so far as I can understand them, are a close equivalent, but obviously concessions have to be made to the SOV word order and the multiple verb inflections of Korean. Just occasionally there are slurred notes in one language and separate notes in the other. For example, the last phrase of O come, all ye faithful has three words in English (Christ – the Lord) and four in Korean (구주 났네, gu-ju natt-ne, Saviour (was) born), but the Korean copy still has the slur. In some places, slurs have been added or deleted as required, but there are few stray examples where the slur (or lack thereof) clearly refers to the English. There is one example of a different rhythm. The Korean version of O come, all ye faithful has an extra note in the first and third phrases; it is the equivalent rhythm of ‘O come, all ye faithfully’ and ‘Come and behold himmy’. In the hymn book, the last two notes of each phrase are written as crotchets, but in this arrangement they are quavers, which catches some of the Korean singers by surprise (possibly a different one each time). (Note that this hymn is irregular in English, too.) The placement of the Korean words into the rhythm is sometimes awkward. At one point, the words 왕의왕 (wang-e wang, king of kings) is put into the rhythm as // – / 왕 / 의 / 왕/, which is the equivalent of singing // – / king / of / kings. Even though Korean is a stress-timed language, 의 really should not be on the third beat of a bar.

Korean is written in syllables, but there is no indication of how those syllables join into words. For example 높이계신주께 is, essentially, ‘to God in the highest’. There are various rules about breaking Korean into words, but I would write, in a musical score, 높-이-계-신 (no hyphen) 주-께. Most of the modern songs have words which are slow enough or repetitive enough that I can sing them, but the hymns zip by with not much repetition, and I’m struggling with those. There are times when I can translate the words, especially after hearing the English version so many times, but otherwise I just have to ‘chunk’ the syllable into words and words into phrases whether it actually makes sense in Korean or not. One thing I’ve noticed is that the Korean uses the same word in ‘King of kings’ and ‘Prince of peace’; the Korean is literally ‘peace-of king’ (the Korean word for prince has one more syllable, which the music just can’t be adapted to). (In English, ‘King of peace’ isn’t wrong, but ‘Prince of peace’ is far more common.)

Unlike most other examples of modern-day Korean, which are sprinkled with modern English words, there are no modern English words in the text. But there are a number of Hebrew and Greek words, which are often rendered closer to the original than they are in English: 예수 (ye-su, Jesus – as the standard form of the name, not just poetically, as in the English Jesu, joy of man’s desiring), 다윗 (da-wit, David), 임마누엘 (im-ma-nu-el, Immanuel), 알파오메가 (al-pa o-me-ga, alpha [and] omega – not a and z in English and 가 and 하 in Korean), 베들레헴 (be-deul-le-hem, Bethlehem – which has four syllables in Korean, which takes a bit of getting used to) and 알레루야 (al-le-lu-ya, alleluia).

The music was written and/or arranged in the USA, but it has many features in common with Korean choral music (I think Korean choral music borrowed the style from a certain genre of US choral music), including many unnecessary modulations. The first movement goes through four modulations in the 41-bar introduction, then there’s another one (up a tone) after 10 bars of singing, and anothernother one (up a semitone) towards the end. Only one of the eight movements (the last one) remains in the same key throughout. There’s nothing inherently wrong with modulation, but too many of the same kind can become cliched.

The cantata is licenced by a US publisher, but the typesetting wasn’t checked by an English speaker. The contents page lists ‘O Cone, All Ye Faithful’ and that misspelling reappears in the title of that movement, a footnote includes a copyright notice for this arrangement of ‘He Is Born, the Divine Chirst Dhild’, an indication over the music tells that this section is based on ‘SILENT MIGHT! HOLY NIGHT!’, one movement includes the hymn ‘Angels We Have Heard High’, tempo directions include ‘Worshipgully’, ‘Much fasterm like beginning’ and ‘With grea warmth’, and another movement includes the hymn ‘ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGHF’ (appropriately in F major, but there’s no high F in the arrangement). Almost of all of these are simple typos, but they should have been checked. Could I do better in Korean? Well, I would pay an actual Korean speaker to check it. In these days of computerised music typesetting, there is no reason for the Korean publishing company to touch any of that material anyway. All they have to do is insert the Korean words and add the Korean titles and narration. (At least I assume that those mistakes are unique to the Korean edition; I can’t imagine an English-language edition containing them. Update: I’m sure it’s not the English-language edition with the Korean words inserted – one of the movements is credited to ‘[name] ald [name]’. Whatever other mistakes an English-language edition might have, that isn’t going to be one of them.)

Am I enjoying this? Well, no. I’m still too focused on singing the actual words to be able to get into the spirit of the words or music, and the music is not really my genre at the best of times. And Korean choirs tend to sing with too much heartiness at the expense of precision and shaping (there is some, but there could be more). And I’m really out of practice from not attending rehearsals up to three nights per week because I’m teaching in the afternoon and evening.

-ful and -less

One of the blogs I regularly read is English Language Thoughts, by Niall O’Donnell, an ESL teacher in Ireland. Yesterday, he posted about the (non-)word ruthful (the opposite of ruthless). He says “We don’t say ruthful though, do we? It sounds weird. It was used long ago though.”

In fact, there are enough occurrences of it on the interweb to conclude that people do use it, but these may be mentions, rather than uses, for example dictionary definitions and questions like ‘Is ruthful a word?’. However, ruthless is certainly far more common than ruthful.

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