continued from No. 1, 3,
Religious belief fosters a language variety in which all aspects of
structure are implicated. Enormous influence on the development of religious as well as
standard English exercised a new translation of the Bible – the King James
Bible – published in the 17th century (1611) which is also known as the Authorized
Version of the Bible. Its analysis throws special light on the peculiarities of
orthography, grammar and vocabulary in religious English. The style of the King James
Bible is very conservative. As the translators say in their Preface, their
aim was not to make a new translation, ‘but to make a good one better, or out of
many good ones, one principle good one’. They aimed for a dignified, not a
popular style, and often opted for older forms of the language, when modern alternatives
were available. The style of the King James Bible greatly influenced both oral
and written forms of language.
Religious English is homogeneous by its nature. There is a unique phonological
identity in such genres as spoken prayers, sermons, chants, and litanies (long
prayers in Christian Church in which the priest says a sentence and the people reply),
including the unusual case of unison chants. Graphological identity is found in
liturgical leaflets, catechisms (a set of questions and answers about the Christian
religion that people learn in order to become full members of a church), biblical texts,
and many other religious publications. There is a strong grammatical identity in
invocations (a request for help from God), prayers, and other ritual forms, both public
and private. Structural identity of diverse ritual forms (grammatical and lexical
parallelism) backs the metrical character of rhythm. An obvious lexical identity
pervades formal articles of faith and scriptural texts, with the lexicon of doctrine
informing the whole of religious expression. And there is a highly distinctive discourse
identity in such domains as liturgical services, preaching, and rites of passage
(e.g. weddings, funerals).
The oral variant of religious English, a kind of the oratory style, is especially close to
spoken language in its emotional aspect. It is aimed at logical and emotional persuasion
of the audience. As there is a direct contact with the audience, it allows the speaker to
combine effects of written and spoken varieties of language. The priest can use direct
address (the pronoun of the second person – you), and often begins his
speech with special formulas of address to the audience, Brethren, for example.
As the priest attempts to reach closer contact with the audience, he may use such features
of colloquial style as asking the audience questions, which is usual with Baptist
communities, e.g. Am I right about it? More often the questions are rhetorical
and are (as a matter of fact) statements in the form of a question. Rhetorical questions
also presuppose the possible (though not of demanded) answer: the positive form of the
rhetorical questions predicts the negative answer, the negative form – the
positive answer: Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices
partners in the alter? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or
that an idol is anything? (St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 10).
On the other hand, unlike colloquial style, the vocabulary of prayers, sermons, litanies
and printed religious texts is usually elaborately chosen and remains mainly in the sphere
of lofty (high-flown) style. Consider the following extract from The Lord’s
Prayer (Matthew 6:11):
Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be
done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our
debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from
evil: For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever, Amen.
Like colloquial style, religious language is usually characterised by emotional colouring
and connotations, but there is a difference. The emotional colouring of religious language
is lofty: it may be solemn, or it may be mournful, or instructive, or ironic, but it
cannot have the “lowered” connotations (endearing, rude, or slangy)
found in colloquial speech. Consider an extract from the Bible (Genesis 27.10-22): And
he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven:
and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood
Religious English, in short, is probably the most distinctive of all domain-restricted
language varieties. There are three main reasons which provide for peculiar features of
this functional substyle:
• It is consciously retrospective, in the way
it constantly harks back to its origins, and thus to earlier periods of the English
language (or of other languages). People set great store by the accurate and acceptable
transmission of their beliefs. That is why religious English abounds in archaic, obsolete
words and forms: thy = your; thou = you; thine = yours; thee = you (the object form of
thou); thou art = you are; shalt = shall. Some other features of archaic forms are:
> Many irregular verbs are used in their older forms: the examples include digged (dug),
gat (got) and gotten, spake (spoke), holpen (helped), wist
(knew); brethren, kine, and twain (two different things).
> Older word orders are in use, such as follow thou me, speak ye unto,
things eternal. In particular, the modern use of do with negatives and in
questions is missing: they knew him not instead they did not know him.
>The third person singular of the present tense of verbs is –(e)th: goeth,
>His is used for its, as in if the salt has lost his savour,
wherewith shall it be salted. The modern use of the genitive is not established, as
can be seen in such usages as for Jesus Christ his sake.
> Several prepositions have different uses from today. Of, in particular, is
widespread: the zeal of (for) thine house, tempted of (by) Satan,
went forth of (from) the Arke. Other examples include in (at) a
good old age, taken to (as a) wife, like as (like or as) the
sand of the sea.
> An is used before many nouns beginning with h- in a stressed
syllable, such as an husband, an helpe, an harlot.
Consider a few excerpts from The Ten Commandments:
1. I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other Gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.
4. Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days be long upon the land.
5. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
6. Thou shalt not steal.
• It is consciously prescriptive, concerned
with issues of orthodoxy and identity, both textual and ritual. This is reflex of
English-language religious history since the Reformation. Religious texts tend to sound
imperative, hence, special grammatical forms and structures are used: the predominant use
of the Imperative Mood and modality, e.g. the negative form of the modal verb shall to
show a law, a command. See the examples: Seek and ye shall find. Remember the Sabbath
day, keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do thy work: But the seventh day is the
Sabbath of the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not bear false witness
against thy neighbour. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto
God the things that are God’s.
• It is consciously imaginative and exploratory,
as people make their personal response to the claims of religious belief. These responses
require the choice of a special kind of vocabulary and syntactical structures, for
example, the use of lofty, bookish vocabulary including certain cliches, e.g. Hallowed
be Thy name! Blessed be the Lord!, Amen (at the end of a prayer) or Hallelujah
(as an expression of thanks, joy or praise).
Some of religious expressions – Bible words and phrases – may be based
on metaphors and thus they are emotionally coloured – the fat years and the
lean years; the land of milk and honey; voice crying in the wilderness; the golden calf; a
fly in the ointment. Consider an excerpt from Genesis 3.1–7: But the
serpent was sotyller than all the beastes of the felde which ye LORde God had made, and
sayd unto the woman. Ah syr [sure], that God hath sayd, ye shall not eate of all maner
trees in the garden.
The syntax of religious English is characterised by the frequent use of non-finite forms
of the verb, especially of the Infinitive and Past Participle (hallowed be Thy name;
Thy will be done on earth; that which is planted) and complex structures with them.
The Infinitive is mostly used in attributive constructions performing the syntactical
function of attribute to a noun in which it has a modal meaning of possibility or
necessity. Consider a few excerpts from Ecclesiastes: A time to love, and a time to
hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to
keep, and a time to cast away.
As seen from the examples above, the syntax of religious English is not complicated
– the bulk of utterances are simple extended two-member sentences. But this
substyle is often characterised by repetition of structures ( syntactic parallelism)
– a device to arouse the audience emotionally due to certain rhythmic
organization of the utterances. For example, Thou shalt not covet thy
neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.
(The Ten Commandments). For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for
ever. (Matthew 6:11). A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down,
and a time to build up. (Ecclesiastes).
The synthetic forms of the Subjunctive Mood to denote a hypothetical action referring to
the present or to the future are not seldom in religious language. They are confined
mainly to formulaic expressions – prayers and wishes – and are usually
memorised as wholes: Heaven forbid! God save the Queen! The source from which
people still obtain formulaic expressions is “The Prayer Book” which
appeared in 1549. It provided a single order of public worship to be followed throughout
England. The Prayer Book is responsible for a great deal of the vernacular idioms
of English prayer, such as As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be:
world without end. Amen; Lord have mercy upon us; be amongst you and remain with you
always. A few of its phrases (such as holy wedlock) have achieved broader
currency, and a much larger number achieved the status of quotations: Read, mark,
learn, and inwardly digest (Collect, 2nd Sunday in Advent); Renounce the devil
and all his works (Public Baptism); Wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded
wife? (Solemnization of Matrimony); Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust
(The Burial of the Dead).
In the language of religion, where a male-dominated conception of God has been handed down
from patriarchal times, there exists a bundle of attributes which are stereotypically
associated with men, such as toughness, coolness, and authority. Missing are attributes,
such as caring and weeping. God, it seems, could not possibly cry for a lost creation.
British hymn writer and minister Brian Wren has attempted to subvert some of these
traditional attitudes by inverting them. Bring many Names (1989) is one of religious hymns
of new times. Here, the words reverse the expected stereotypes and introduce fresh
resonances and collocations: Bring many names, beautiful and good; / celebrate, in
parable and story, / holiness in glory, / living, loving God. / Hail and Hosanna,
/ bring many names! / Strong Mother God, working night and day, / planning all the wonders
of creation, / setting each equation, genius at play: / Hail and Hosanna, / strong Mother
Religious language has always been a fruitful source of rule-breaking. This is because
those who believe in God are continually trying to say what cannot be said. If they choose
to operate linguistically at all, they need to bend language to express their sense of
something that exists beyond it.
The search for a special language in religion – a language which breaks away
from the norms of expression used elsewhere – is in itself nothing new.
Metaphors and paradoxes are found throughout the history of English-speaking Christianity,
some (such as I eat your body) deriving from its very foundation. Consider a
series of striking paradoxes from John Donne’s “Divine
Meditations’ (XIV): Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I, / Except you
enthroll mee, never shall be free, / Nor ever chast (chaste), except you ravish mee.
Words which in other situations would seem meaningless, absurd, or self-contradictory, are
accepted as potentially meaningful in a religious setting. Expressions of this kind are
especially frequent in Christianity, though they can be found in the thought of several
But figurative language does not stay fresh for ever, and the metaphors of traditional
religious expression need to be regularly refurbished if its message is to stay relevant,
meaningful and alive. The devising of new ways of talking about God is always a
controversial activity, but it is always there; and the process presents people with a
steady flow of fresh language, whose aim is to make people think again about their
response to the issues the language conveys.
In the communication-aware 20th century, the process of criticism and revision of
traditional modes of expression was particularly noticeable, and spilled over into several
everyday religious contexts in the form of new prayers, hymns, and biblical translations.
The unexpected collocations of the prayer Litany for the Ghetto provides a
striking case in point where the divine and the human are lexically juxtaposed: O God,
who hangs on street corners, who / tastes the grace of cheap wine and the sting / of the
needle, / Help us to touch you… / O God, whose name is spick, black-nigger, /
bastard, guinea and kike, / Help us to know you… / O God, who lives in
tenements, who goes to / segregated schools, who is beaten in precincts / who is
unemployed, / Help us to know you…
As English expanded around the world, its religious variety moved with it. And in new
situations, religious English acquired new peculiarities conditioned by the cultural
traditions of other peoples. The most striking feature of difference in English beyond the
British boundaries is observed in prosody. The prosodic characteristics of religious
English – the rules of arranging the patterns of sounds and beats, –
range from the highly structured to the totally unpredictable, and from the voluble to the
silent. The contrasts can be seen in the tightly structured unison responses of the Roman
Catholic Mass, the spontaneous loudness of celebration, and the quiet and meditative
atmosphere of a Quaker meeting for worship, fuelled by their founder’s
admonition: “let your words be few”.
To have a better understanding of the peculiar features of the religious English outside
Great Britain, consider one of religious genres which is highly distinctive, especially in
its prosody and the use of formulae. It is a highly rhetorical, spontaneously composed
sermon, heard especially in Baptist communities within the USA. The extract from one such
sermon given by the Rev. D. J. Mc Dowell in 1967, shows the oral formulaic character of
Keep your hand in God’s hand,
And your eyes on the star posts in glory.
The Lord said he would fight your battles
If you’d only be still.
You may not be a florist,
Am I right about it?
But you must tell them that He’s the Rose of Sharon.
I know that’s right.
You may not be a geologist,
But you must tell them that he’s the Rock of Ages.
I know that’s right.
You may not be a physician,
But you must tell them that He’s the great Physician.
You may not be a baker,
But you must tell them that He’s the Bread of Life.
Am I right about it?
You must tell them that He’s a Friend that sticks
close t’his brother.
He said, ‘I’ll not cast ya out
In the sixth hour, and in the seventh hour.
I didn’t know I was turning ya out’
If y’keep your hand in God’s hand.
There are in fact two main types of formula illustrated in this
excerpt: quotations (shown in bold) and the preacher’s own verbatim expressions
(shown in italics). The preacher has an especially repetitive style. In the text of the
whole sermon, which is only 350 lines long, the phrase The Christ of the Bible is
used 24 times throughout, and Am I right about it? 15 times.
Pay attention to the line breaks which convey the strongly metrical character of the
rhythm. It does however exclude the continuous vocal reactions of the emotionally-charged
A musical transcription of a fragment from this genre of sermon, shows the wide pitch
range used by the preacher. With such intonational movement, the speech is almost better
described as a chant or song (After B. A. Rosenberg, 1970).
1. What genres are identified within spoken religious English?
2. What unites the oral variant of religious language with oratory style?
3. Describe the essential qualities of the vocabulary of oral genres in religious
language, such as prayers, sermons, litanies.
4. Prove the statement that religious English is retrospective in its nature.
5. How would you account for prescriptivity of religious language?
6. What essential feature does the use of metaphors impart to legal language?
7. Characterize the syntax of religious English.
8. What other functional styles of English is religious language similar to?
9. Comment on prosodic aspects of religious English.
10. What backs the metrical character of rhythm in sermons, prayers and other ritual
Exercise 1. Analyse a famous quotation from the Book of
Ecclesiastes from the standpoint of most essential features of religious style.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather together; a time to embrace, and a time
to refrain from embracing.
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Exercise 2. Translate the quotation into your language. Comment
on identity or diversity of syntactical structures and rhythmical patterns of the two
Exercise 3. Read an excerpt from the earliest written account
of the Last Supper (the year 57 AD). Comment on its style. Translate the excerpt into your
1 Corinthians 11
18. For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are
divisions among you; and I partly believe it,
19. For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may
20. When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.
21. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is
22. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? or do you despise the church of God
and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in
this? No, I will not.
23. For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the
night when he was betrayed took bread,
24. And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which
is for you. Do this in remembrance of me”.
25. In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new
covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me”.
26. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the
Lord’s death until he comes.
27. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner
will be guilty of profaning the body, and blood of the Lord.
28. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
29. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment
31. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged.
32. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned
along with the world.
33. So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another –
If any one is hungry, let him eat at home – lest you come together to be
condemned. About the other things I will give directions when I come.
Exercise 4. Read an excerpt from catecheses
(St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Lecture 22, ss. 1,3 – 6,9, 350 AD) on the
Sacred Scripture in relation to the Last Supper. Comment on its peculiarities as a form of
On the night he was betrayed our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given
thanks, he broke it and gave to his disciples and said: “Take, eat: this is my
body”. He took the cup, gave thanks and said: “Take, drink: this is my
blood”. Since Christ himself has declared the bread to be his body, who can
have any further doubt? Since he himself has said quite categorically, This is my
blood, who would dare to question and say that it is not his blood?
Therefore, is it with complete assurance that we receive the bread and wine as the body
and blood of Christ. His body is given to us under the symbol of bread, and his blood is
given to us under the symbol of wine, in order to make us, by receiving them, one body and
one blood with him. Having his body and blood in our members, we become bearers of Christ
and sharers, as Saint Peter says, in the divine nature.
Once, when speaking to the Jews, Christ said: Unless you eat my flesh and drink my
blood you shall have no life in you. This horrified them and they left him. Not
understanding his words in a spiritual way, they thought the Savior wished them to
Under the old dispensation there was showbread, but it came to an end with the old
dispensation to which it belonged. Under the new covenant there is bread from heaven and
the cup of salvation. These sanctify both soul and body, the bread being adapted to the
sanctification of the body, the Word, to the sanctification of the soul.
Do not, then regard the eucharistic elements as ordinary bread and wine: they are in fact
the body and the blood of the Lord, as he himself has declared. Whatever your senses may
tell you, be strong in faith.