The Sacred Register


For Muslims, the revelation of the Qur’an in seventh-century Arabic is not a historical accident.

Every syllable in a modern copy of the Qur’an is shown exactly as it was dictated to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel; so the language of the text (not just its sense) is considered miraculous and holy. This means that, while almost all dialects drift and die out over the centuries, Qur’anic Arabic will be a living tongue as long as there are pious Muslims.

Of course, everyday spoken Arabic has drifted just like every other language — so most native Arabic speakers are practically bilingual, using classical Arabic for elite stuff (law, religion, politics, culture, etc.), and another, completely different colloquial Arabic for everything else. Basically, imagine that you speak modern English, but every politician, news anchor, preacher, and novelist talks like this.

This complicates a few things: for starters, it’s harder to teach literacy when your written language is so different from the language kids hear at home. It also means that uneducated folks have a harder time engaging with politics and news, since it’s in a language they barely understand. But it’s rich, and beautiful, and anyway God speaks classical Arabic, so there’s not much to be done about it.

English has registers, too, but they’re subtler.

Our high, formal English involves a lot of Latin words, and we use it for medicine, law, academia, or when we just want to sound authoritative/educated. In a cover letter, most people don’t “ask about the job”, they “inquire about the position”. Most of our swear words are just the Germanic equivalents of respectable Latin words like “copulation”, “excrement”, “urination”, etc.

A big part of the joke in “Can I Have Your Number” is a low-class guy’s attempt at a high, Latiny register of English (“can I please receive the secret code, that if entered telephonically…”) Which makes that sketch seem a lot meaner, now that I think about it.

But the “formal register” really sticks out with police, because they’re basically the only blue-collar guys who have to speak regularly on television. Next time you see a cop at a press conference, watch how they pile every sentence with Latin, especially when they’re nervous (“…at that juncture, we apprehended the suspect, and proceeded to…” etc.)

Of course, now that common, dirty rubes use Latinate words as a class signal, it no longer works as a class signal — so the trend in business and creative writing is to move back toward the blunt, visceral Anglo-Saxon register.

For Mormons, there’s also a “sacred register”.

Like classical Arabic, Jacobean English was sacralized and frozen in time by its use in a prestige text (the King James Version of the Bible). Unlike classical Arabic, it isn’t exactly a prestige dialect — you’d never use it in an academic paper or a job interview. It’s strictly used for scripture, prayer, and ritual.

I’ve occasionally heard Mormons complain about this, for basically the same reason Arab reformers do — it adds a linguistic burden to our attempts to teach and understand the gospel. And those complaints never go anywhere for the same reason: God gave us the Book of Mormon in Jacobean English, so that’s what we’re going to use.

And the dialect of the Book of Mormon also isn’t a historical accident. I don’t know exactly how Joseph received the language of the Book of Mormon, but it clearly came through in a dialect that Joseph understood to be “holy”; and my heuristic for these things is, “When God does something weird, at least consider the possibility that he knew what he was doing.” With that in mind:

Having a sacred register is more useful than it looks.

First, there’s evidence that language influences cognition and personality — and if that’s true, the benefits of a holiness dialect seem obvious. I don’t kneel to pray because I think it suits God’s vanity — I do it because the physical act triggers a mental change. Even if there’s nothing special about Jacobean English, the fact that it instills a mental “posture” is valuable.

Second, the challenge of archaic language may be a feature, rather than a bug. There is no such thing as a “plain English” translation of an ancient Middle Eastern text — the cultural and linguistic divide can either be obvious to the reader, or it can be bridged with heroic leaps of assumption and interpretation. (Not to say that the KJV is perfectly impartial — but at least modern readers know that they aren’t getting the plain, unambiguous sense of the original.)

Third — and this is pure aesthetics — I think there is something a little bit special about Jacobean English. It’s gave us Shakespeare, for one thing, and the King James Version is itself a towering achievement of English literature. Handel’s Messiah would not have worked in the New Revised Reformed Common Man’s Living Translation.

And maybe it’s just tribalism, but I can’t read the NIV without hearing it in the voice of a hip youth pastor with a headset mic and a tambourine. (Ok, it’s probably just tribalism.)

Fourth, it’s really not that hard. Stop sniffing around for things to complain about, you look ridiculous.

The Sacred Register

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