Why Use Sacred English?

A Catholic Mass in Sacred English

In a previous essay, I discussed the difference between Sacred English and Common English. I insist on using these terms to describe the two. Common English is what is commonly spoken in the world today, and as any casual observer can see, it varies from place to place.

Common English in the UK is considerably different than Common English in the US. Even the spelling is remarkably different. English in the UK primarily uses the Oxford Dictionary, while English in the US primarily uses the Webster's Dictionary. For example; in the United States we spell color, while in the United Kingdom it's colour. In the United States we spell center, while in the United Kingdom it is spelled centre. On this blog, and in my books, I typically use the Oxford form of UK English. I have my reasons for this, and some of them are personal, but for the most part we could just say it allows my writings to appeal to a broader international audience.

Of course the sound of Common English is remarkably different too, depending on what part of the world we're talking about. It doesn't take long before the casual listener can detect profound differences between the way words are pronounced between the UK and US. Even sentence structure is slightly different, as well as the choice of words, idioms, and word plays. It would be difficult to limit the variations of Common English to just international bodies. Even within the United States, and the United Kingdom, there are wide varieties in the way Common English is spoken. We need only point to the profound difference between Scottish English, and the form of English that is spoken in England itself. Even the City of London has variations of English pronunciation depending on what part of the city the speaker hails from. The same is of course true in the United States. Here on this continent we typically lump variations of Common English according to accent, and classify them largely based on states and regions. For example; New York English is very distinctive and different from New England English. Travel further south and you'll hear some variations of what is colloquially called "Southern English." This is actually quite nuanced depending upon what part of the US South one hails from. For example, people from Georgia sound remarkably different than people from Tennessee. The same can be said of the stark difference between Texas English and Louisiana English. We could break Southern English down into two main camps: Appalachian and Deep South. While there are still variances within, these two groupings probably capture the main variances in Southern English.

Of course, the point I'm trying to make here is that Common English really is common. It's entirely depended on what is common to the area in which it is spoken. There is nothing wrong with any of this, of course, because that's just how languages work. No language has ever been truly standardised and universal. Though there have been attempts to regulate language, and some regulation is necessary to prevent regional variations from evolving into whole new languages, for the most part we can just expect differences in Common English. I've read that during the American Civil War (War of the Rebellion, or the War of Northern Aggression), the accents between the northern armies and southern armies were so profound, that some of the northern officers where unable to understand southern prisoners when they interrogated them. A short scene from the 1993 film 'Gettysburg' illustrated this, when an officer from Maine engaged a Southern prisoner of war in a conversation. He asked him; "Why are you fighting this war?" The prisoner replied; "I'm fittin fur may rats!" The exchange went back and forth a couple times, same question, followed by the same answer. Eventually the Maine officer figured it out. The southern prisoner said he was fighting for his rights. Thankfully, the invention of the radio and television in the 20th century, did much to rein in wild variations in English accents. Had the technological breakthroughs of the 20th century never happened, we might all be speaking entirely different languages by now.

However, something interesting has developed in the English language over the past six centuries in the area of religion, and this transcends both the Catholic and Protestant divide. Gradually, over time, the English language began to lack a distinction between the second-person-singular and second-person-plural pronouns. Common English has just one second-person pronoun -- you. It applies to both one single person and multiple people. In Common English, when we address another single person we say "you." But when we address multiple people we still say "you." There is no distinction between one person, or multiple people. In the United States, there have been several attempts to address this linguistic problem. For example, in Pennsylvania the words you'ins or yins was developed to address more than one person. In the US South (both Appalachian and Deep South) the contracted word y'all (for "you all") is commonly used. Nationwide, the term "you guyz" is commonly used as well, regardless if the people being addressed are male or female.

However, in the religious realm of English, a solutions for this problem was created long ago. The ancient Greek and Hebrew languages had specific pronouns for second-person singular and plural, but English did not. So, English translators simply pulled up an older English version the second-person-singular pronoun called thou. The variants being: thee, thy and thine. So when you see these words used, you know that only one person is being addressed. Likewise, the words ye and you were exclusively in reference to multiple people. So when you saw those words, you know the author was addressing more than one person. In translating the ancient Scriptures into English, the translators also had to recall variants of verb endings from older forms of English to distinguish between first-person, second-person and third-person. I explained all this in greater detail in my previous essay. This kind of language has gone by many terms. Some call it Archaic English, which is really a misnomer because no English-speaking person ever really spoke that way. The terms Elizabethan English, Tudor English, Shakespearean English, and Early Modern English are also used. Granted, the pronouns thou, thee and thy were used in regular speech from time to time, but often not in the ways we might expect. In fact, at one point in English history, these pronouns were actually used by rich and powerful people to talk down to the common folks. It was actually considered demeaning to be referred to as thou. This just goes to show how much Common English can change over the centuries. Today, this type of English is used almost exclusively in a religious context. We do occasionally see it in poems, songs and of course Shakespearean plays, but we don't see it outside of religion very much. Where it is particularly active, and is still very much a living language today, is in three particular religious bodies. The first is Anglicanism, particularly among the more traditional Anglican communities. The second is in the Ordinariates for former Anglicans within the Catholic Church. The third, and this may seem the most surprising, is among the Latin mass devotees within the Catholic Church.

I call this form of the language Sacred English, and I put it in contrast with Common English. What has effectively happened in English is something that was probably intended by the original translators of the ancient Scriptures, but happened unbeknown to English-speaking people while it was happening. Sacred English is not Archaic English, or Elizabethan English, or Early Modern English. As I said above, nobody ever really spoke that way in everyday speech, except in variant forms at different points in history. The usage we see in religion was designed, rather explicitly, for the translation of the ancient Biblical languages into English. From there, it found its way into English liturgy and prayers. It's not a dead language. It is rather living, as it is used all the time, in very practical ways, just in a religious setting. Effectively, what happened is this. English has created a variant of itself to be used almost exclusively for religion. It's sort of like how scientific and legal terms were developed from Latin. The idea was to draw upon a language that is considered static for the purpose of creating an entire vocabulary for disciplines that would remain constant. Sacred English is sort of like this, but different, because it's not about creating a static vocabulary. Rather, it was developed to be specific toward who you're talking to and about. It's not archaic English. It is rather a hybrid English, designed specifically for Christian settings, because it picks up on the nuance of Biblical pronouns and verbs in ways that Common English simply doesn't.

This is part of the reason why some Protestants, and a few Catholics, insist on using Sacred English translation of the Bible exclusively. Now while their reasoning is sometimes flawed, and I think exclusion of Common English translations is a mistake, they do make a good point. Now, I am not a King-James-Only Protestant, nor am I a Douay-Rheims-Only Catholic. So don't misunderstand me here. There is much value to be gained from Common English translations of the Bible, and I am particularly fond of the Revised Standard versions. However, there is something to be said about having a Bible translation in which the person being spoken to, or about, is always made clear. That's not a flaw of Common English Bible translations, but rather of Common English in general. The problem is not with the modern English translators, but rather in the English language itself. The English language just isn't specific in this area, which is why Sacred English (a hybrid form of English) was invented in the first place.

On a personal level, I think use of Sacred English is tremendously valuable for all Christians, especially Catholics, and I'm certainly not alone in this. Anglicans, of the more traditional persuasion, have been living this way for centuries now. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer has always utilised Sacred English as either its main text, or one of two possible forms for worship. Anglican liturgy typically has two forms; Sacred English and Common English. For centuries, Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) have recited common prayers in Sacred English, such as the "Our Father" and the "Hail Mary" for example. Even to this day, Sacred English is used in all English celebrations of the Catholic mass during the "Our Father" prayer. Typically, Sacred English is the preferred form of English used in English prayer books, and we typically see Sacred English used (almost exclusively) in parallel translations of the Old Roman Missal, with Latin on one side, and Sacred English on the other.

I think it's time we stop thinking of Sacred English as old, outdated or archaic. As I said, people never really spoke that way to begin with, not in the form we see in religion anyway. It's a hybrid form of English used for the Sacred texts, and that's how we should think of it. Likewise, modern English translations of the Bible aren't really modern. They are rather "common" in that they change, depending on what part of the world they're translated in, and what common form of English is used there. The Revised Standard Version, for example, has two forms; one for US English, and another for UK English. Common English changes, depending on where you live, and so likewise, Common English translations of the Bible change as well.

For this reason, I think every Christian should have a copy of a Sacred English Bible, and by that I mean one they will use, not just one that will sit on the shelf. For Protestants, the King James Version (KJV) is the standard, and I recommend New Cambridge Paragraph Bible. For Catholics, the standard has always been the Douay-Rheims Bible (DRB), which is actually a bit older than the King James and is based on the Latin Vulgate with reference back to the original Greek and Hebrew. It's been a staple of Catholic Bibles for centuries, and is still a favourite among Catholics in general. I recommend the Douay-Rheims Bible (Black) or the Douay-Rheims Bible (Burgundy), both of which are portable in size, which is important to insure regular use. The Burgundy version is slightly smaller than the Black one.

Thankfully, many Catholic and Anglican prayer books still incorporate Sacred English into the text. One that has stood the test of time is the Anglican St. Augustine's Prayer Book, originally published by The Episcopal Church, and available now from other sources. One of my favourites is this leather cover Saint Augustine's Prayer Book, which while not a Catholic prayer book, many Catholics would find it Catholic friendly. However, a solid Catholic prayer book is Catholic Prayers: Compiled from Traditional Sources which utilises Sacred English almost excursively. There are of course more Sacred English prayer books out there, and more are on the way, but for now this will serve as a good introduction.

There are only two places where you can hear Sacred English in liturgy. The first is an a traditional Anglican Church, which you can find here, and here. The second is in a Roman Catholic Church which is part of one of the Ordinariates for former Anglicans established by the Pope...
An unexpected place where we find support for Sacred English, albeit not liturgical support, is among the devotees to the traditional Latin mass. The most common translation of the 1962 Missal is in Sacred English, with the Latin text on one side, and Sacred English on the other. These missals often double as prayer books as well. Likewise, the pocket-size traditional Catholic prayer books (such as Blessed Be God) are also in Sacred English. Prayers offered in such communities are usually said either in Latin or Sacred English. Vary rarely (almost never) are prayers offered in Common English.

Sacred English is an important feature of the English language itself which has had significant influence on the arts: poetry, music and theatre. I find it tragic when people refer to it as "archaic" or "obsolete" as there is nothing archaic or obsolete about it. It's just as much living language today as it was 500 years ago. People didn't talk that way on the street back then, not in the form we see in Scripture anyway, nor do they talk that way now. It's a special form of English, that is meant to be set aside primarily for religious use, and we would do well to begin appreciating it more.

If you're an English-speaking person, then Sacred English belongs to you. It's one of the two forms of English commonly used in the world today. We have Common English, which is what we typically use on the street, and varies from one region to another. Then we have Sacred English, which remains somewhat universal and is reserved primarily for Christian religious purposes -- Scripture, liturgy, prayer, etc. -- with some bleed over into the arts. Teach your kids Sacred English, and the best way to do that is by using it! Get yourself a Sacred English Bible and prayer book. Start using them daily in your home. Consider plugging your family into a religious community that uses Sacred English if one is nearby. Read my article on Sacred English here, and use it as a basic guide for teaching your family how it works. After that, the best advice I can give you is to start reading it and praying it. In no time you'll be finding yourself composing Sacred English prayers and poems with ease.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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Damaris said…
I applaud you in your work to revive Sacred English. Thank you. Are you familiar with Martin Joos's work on language registers?
Jin Pol said…
I still think that liturgical prayers should be presented in the language spoken during the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth - King James English.
Anthony Silva said…
I opened this link and thoroughly enjoyed the Mass of my youth. It was a beautiful nostalgic service. Too many bishops are gung-ho to suppress the Mass of yore that brought peace in our society gone mad!. PEACE TO ALL!

Bishop Emanuel