Daily Archives: December 15, 2014

Original Pronunciation and the Prayer Book

On Sunday at church we sang “Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” As is often the case, I was struck by the couplets of the fourth verse:

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The first two, “come/home” look good on paper but don’t rhyme in American mouths. Even worse is the second pair: “high/misery.” We have to conclude one of three things.

First, the twentieth century approach to classical hymnody being what it is, maybe somebody has fiddled with the words. Second, John Mason Neale didn’t know what he was doing and flubbed the rhyme. Third, there’s an entirely different way of pronouncing English from what your average Baltimore congregation sings, and this hymn assumes those sounds rather than what I was hearing.

In regard to the first, no—not this time. In regard to the second,  John Mason Neale won medals for his poetry at Cambridge and is one of the best translators of hymns of his day; incompetence is likely not the answer. That leaves us with the third and to the video presentation of the day… I ran across this a little bit ago and was greatly intrigued by it. It’s a short video on the Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare’s English. Clearly, this wasn’t the  tongue that Neale was writing in (as he was a couple of centuries later), but the mention of rhyme as a means for getting a feel of the language jumped to mind when we hit the fourth stanza yesterday.

What this does move me to consider is the pronunciation of the texts from the first English prayer books. What sort of rhymes and other forms of assonance do we miss because we read through it in our English rather than theirs? The same, of course, is true of the King James Bible of which we are told that Blessed Lancelot Andrewes and others read their work out loud to test the sound of it before making final decisions?

No point to make, just a shift in perception…