One of my favourite movies (from whence the line that titles this post) is MGM’s 1939 classic, The Women. It’s a wonderful, dated, sexist and horribly conservative romp through the upper crust of society in the late 20s, I assume, perhaps imagining a time from before the Great Depression, although there are enough references to the then-current situation (such as a swastika) to make me think that some part of it, at least, was modern for its time – 1936 – in the mind of the play-write, Clare Boothe Luce.
Apart from the comedy of manners that is the play, itself, and the movie, the thing that interests me most is the language. I am amazed at the literary version (at least) of the language of the upper, middle and lower classes as depicted in the script. I note the affected British accents of the upper class and their servants. The accents of the latter turn to broad American/New Yorker when the bosses are not watching. The accents of the middle class – shop keepers, gym instructors, etc – would, today, be best heard in old recordings of William F. Buckley; whilst the lower classes – servants, persons of color, etc – all use highly educated but rougher versions of Buckley. I note especially that no one can seem to say the letter “r”. The lead character and her daughter, both named Mary, are called, what I can best type as “mah-ly” and “little mah-ly”. If you say it fast enough, of course, l does sound like r and it is an affectation useful for singing as well. This last makes me imagine it was an acting convention rather than a then-used dialect.
What I most enjoy, however, are the words, themselves. Words like tragic, ghastly, and disloyal show up in conversations. “Reno-vated”, a then-slang for divorced (which often took place in Reno, Nevada, where the laws were more liberal), “Basil” (I think that’s how it’s spelled) for “counter worker” or “shop keeper”, and “Chorus Girl” are used with comfort indicating common parlance not only with the characters but with the assumed audience which was all classes of people.
I find the same now as I watch Downton Abbey: even the most-under of the under classes seem to have vocabulary 3 or 4 times larger than most modern Americans I know no matter what their assumed class.
This language discussion is, of course, one that comes up in liturgical context. I’m quite happy using my WR texts drawn from the 1662-1928 BCP, the KJV Bible, the Coverdale Psalter and the Anglo-Catholic revival. I’m ok with the awkward “Liturgical English™” of the OCA, although I can think of a few places where it needs ironing out. Even the 1979 BCP sounds rather non-pedestrian, unlike the former version of the RC Missal which sounded like it had been ripped from the pages of not even the NY Times, but rather the Daily News.
This came up today during discussion at the SF Orthodox Institute’s Symposium on Prayer. A question was asked about praying in a language that the party asking “understood” – specifically in the context of the Divine Services (rather than private devotions). Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) gave an answer which surprised me: the Hebrews of Jesus time used a liturgical language out of sync with the streets of Israel. The Greeks of Byzantium and today use a church language that was nothing like the Greek spoken by anyone. The Slavs used “Church Slavonic” which is not Russian now nor before. To which I will add that the Latin of the Church is not the written Latin of Cicero or the spoken Latin of Jerome and Augustine. And even the KJV/BCP is not street English.
It’s only we moderns – in the last 50 years or so – that reject a language of intellect and beauty in favor of Sup?, Yo!, Eh?, and ironic understatement, vulgarities, indiscriminate lewdness and insults. And we call all attempts to repair the language racist and classist. Shouldn’t Language be beautiful and fun to use – not only in the liturgy but in daily life? I will leave debates about racism to those who know more about such things. But I will take the label of classist: provided that my purpose is understood as bettering everyone because even our “upper class” say “nukuler”.
I’m not discussing regional dialect here: George W should sound like a hick. But if you listen to or read the sermons of yesteryear, you know that even the hick preachers sounded better educated than most of us.
Despite objections from the Boomers, Rome is fixing her liturgy – let us pray the next Pope is as concerned with tradition and meaning. But in our country, the Boomers, happily followed by Xers and those succeeding us, seem to have left English in the boys’ bathroom of a Middle School between classes. Is it not time we rescued our forgotten tongue and caused it to go to college, use dictionaries, read better books, and find out how to diagram complex sentences?