My tongue broke out in unknown strains

Yesterday, shapenote singing (Sacred Harp, Denson Revision 1991) in Palo Alto. The Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend (in the U.S.), so songs of thanks (there are a great many of these). And the first Sunday of Advent, so songs with come significantly in the text (pretty many of these) and, looking forward, Christmas songs (there are tons of these); meanwhile, we are now firmly into the commercial and cultural Christmas season, so of course Christmas songs. But we wandered onto other church holidays: Easter Anthem #236, and the passionate Pentecost song Conversion #297:


In the events alluded to here, on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, a group of very early Christians (among them, the Apostles and Mary, the Mother of God) are possessed, enraptured, by the Holy Spirit, manifested as tongues of flame that descend upon them, granting them God’s grace and so transforming them, making them new, and, in addition, giving them the ability to speak in all languages (earthly or divine), to speak in tongues, as this ability came to be known.

So Pentecost is one of a small set of linguists’ holidays (up there with Hangul Day in Korea and an assortment of invented occasions like National Grammar Day).

Here you can watch Kalamazoo MI singers singing 297 on 7/21/13

The crucial Pentecost lines in Conversion are from the two choruses:

My rapture seemed a pleasing dream, / The grace appeared so great.

My tongue broke out in unknown strains / And sung surprising grace.

I’ve occasionally had the task of explaining fundamental ideas of Christianity to people with virtually no experience with the beliefs and practices of the religion. This is a hard slog: there is so much that’s deeply weird about Christianity, starting with the history of Jesus, which begins with one miracle (the virgin birth) and ends with another (rising from the dead and ascending into heaven), with several miracles in between (loaves and fishes, water into wine, and so on) and then some Apostolic miracles (like the rapturous flames of Pentecost) not long after. And that’s before we get to Catholics vs. Protestants, Roman vs. Orthodox Catholics, Anglicans vs. nonconformists, Evangelicals, Mormons, Unitarians, and all the rest. (It all sounds like an elaborate fantasy universe until you have to explain that people were killed over these matters, sometimes really large numbers of people, and that deep animosities persist.)

But on to Pentecost, which is a great big bundle of weirdnesses. There’s a Wikipedia page, of course, and it gives crucial basic facts, but after that I’ll turn to a more linguistically oriented piece by Robert Lane Greene (writing as the language columnist Johnson) in the Economist of 5/20/15. From Wikipedia:

The Christian holiday Pentecost (Ancient Greek: Πεντηκοστή [ἡμέρα], Pentēkostē [hēmera], “the fiftieth [day]”) is celebrated fifty days after Easter Day, counting inclusively (including both the first and last days), i.e. seven weeks after Easter Day. It falls on the tenth day after Ascension Thursday (which itself is 40 days after Easter).

The Christian Pentecost is based on the New Testament, where it refers to the occasion of the descent of the Holy Spirit [often represented as a dove] upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ, as described in the Acts of the Apostles 2:1–31. According to Luke 22:12–13, the Descent of the Holy Spirit took place while the Apostles were celebrating the Jewish day of Shavuot (Hebrew: שבועות‎‎, lit. “Weeks”), the Feast of Weeks, a prominent feast in the calendar of ancient Israel celebrating the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai. Subsequently, the term Pentecost may refer to the Pentecost of the New Testament and Shavuot of the Old Testament.

… In the Christian liturgical year it became a feast commemorating what is described by some Christians as the “Birthday of the Church”. The Pentecostal movement of Christianity emphasizes direct personal experience with God, akin to the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles.

The feast is also called White Sunday, or “Whitsunday”, especially in the United Kingdom, where traditionally the next day, Whit Monday, was also a public holiday. In Eastern Christianity, Pentecost can also refer to the entire fifty days between Easter and Pentecost, hence the book containing the liturgical texts for Paschaltide is called the Pentecostarion.

In Germany Pentecost is referred to as Pfingsten and often coincides with school holidays and the beginning of many outdoor and spring related activities such as festivals and organized outdoor activities by youth organizations. The Monday of the Pentecost is a legal holiday in many European countries.

… The biblical narrative of Pentecost is given in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. Present were about one hundred and twenty followers of Christ (Acts 1:15), including the Twelve Apostles (i.e. the Eleven faithful disciples and Matthias who was Judas’ replacement) (Acts 1:13, 26), his mother Mary, various other women disciples and his brothers (Acts 1:14).

Their reception of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room is recounted in Acts 2:1–6:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

NOAD2 on glossolalia:

the phenomenon of (apparently) speaking in an unknown language, especially in religious worship. It is practiced especially by Pentecostal and charismatic Christians.

Meanwhile, the fiery aspect of the story has provided names for (at least) novels (Tim Parks, Tongues of Flame), films, and rock groups (Flaming Lips), if only through the vivid expressions tongues of flame/fire, tongues on fire, tongues afire, flaming tongues/lips. The Parks books goes beyond this, since it’s about its protagonist’s struggle to feign glossolalia to fit into his church.

On to Lane Green’s “Tongues of fire and sacred mysteries”:


Another linguistically interesting holiday is upon us [back in May 2015]: Pentecost, from the Greek for the “50th [day]” since Easter. The other Germanic languages tend to call it something like the German Pfingsten, which is just plus a thousand years of sound change. In Britain, it is Whitsun or Whitsunday, a derivative of “White Sunday”, which itself has several competing explanations.

There is more to Pentecost than just its etymology, though. The holiday highlights the very different attitudes of the major world religions towards language. On Pentecost, according to the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’s followers saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit [often represented as a dove] and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?”

Christianity is a translating religion. Jesus preached in Aramaic, but in Roman Palestine, the language of prestige and commerce was Greek (not Latin, a flub made by Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ”). As a result, just a few of Jesus’s Aramaic words make it into the Gospels; the rest of his teachings were translated to convert the widest possible audience, in Greek. Non-canonical gospels were also written in languages like Syriac and Coptic. It does not seem to have bothered early Christians much that anything critical would get lost in translation.

After the western Church moved to Rome, it translated once more, then froze that translating tradition in place: a Latin Bible and liturgy would prevail for more than a thousand years, with the Council of Trent in 1546 even declaring St Jerome’s fifth-century Vulgate translation of the Bible into Latin official: “no one is to dare or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.” But the church had split; eastern Orthodox churches went on using Greek and added Church Slavonic. And the Reformation, with its emphasis on a direct relationship to God and the scripture, would bring more translation into the picture: Martin Luther’s German version of the Bible became the Ur-text of modern High German, and the Authorised (King James) Version of the Bible in English would be the most important book in the history of the language. Christian missionaries remain busy translating the Bible into the world’s smallest languages, the better to convert their speakers.

RLG goes on to “original language” vs. translation traditions in other religions.

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