Substrate : Superstrate

October 4, 2006 | 10 comments
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Contact between religions is a lot like contact between languages. One way for two language communities to interact is through invasion. Conquests leave a relatively small number of invaders in control of the political and cultural institutions in the subjugated territory, and faced with the problem of how to talk to the conquered population. In the linguistic landscape of the invaded region, or of any region where a small group achieves dominance over a larger subordinate group through any means, the dominant group is said to form the superstrate, while the subjugated peoples form the substrate. It’s in the interests of the substrate population to be able to communicate with the new boss, and in the interests of the superstrate to be able to efficiently administer the conquered area. Interesting things often happen to the languages of both groups.

Sometimes the superstrate language replaces the substrate language with near totality, as Spanish, Portuguese and English have largely displaced the original languages of the Americas. In other cases, the substrate re-emerges as the language of learning and administration, perhaps in altered form, after decades or centuries have passed, as Middle English did after the Norman Conquest. For language families with a long history of expansion like Indo-European, the odd nature of insular Celtic or the characteristic features of Germanic have been explained with appeals to substrate effects. On the one hand this makes sense, because there were clearly people already living in the British Isles and Central Europe before the Celts and Teutons arrived. However, the nature of the substrate languages is all but unknown, so it’s difficult to make a solid argument that a substrate language left traces of itself. It’s easier to make a case for substrate or superstrate effects when both languages still exist. The Franks who replaced the Roman administration of Gaul lent their name to modern French, but within a few generations the language of the West Franconian elite was no longer a Germanic dialect but rather a form of Latin, although several Germanic words remained.

(The Book of Mormon seems to describe a classic substrate-superstrate situation, where the Nephite language and political system supplant the illiterate Mulekite rule. To a certain degree, the Book of Mormon before 3 Nephi is a history from the perspective of the victor. To what extent did Nephite interactions with other peoples result in, say, Helaman speaking a language as different from Hebrew as modern French is from Old Low Franconian? It’s impossible to know, but it should be added to the list of possibilities that can be contemplated.)

One of the important developments in medieval Christianity was in a sense a case of substrate effects. Christianity was spread to Germanic peoples from the second century onwards, first by contact with the Romans, then through Irish missionaries, finally by the Frankish nobility who wouldn’t take no for an answer from their subjects or their neighbors. By the ninth century, the Franks had achieved a substantial degree of influence on the Christian institutions of Europe. While the Germanic substrate religion had entirely disappeared, some have argued that the result of christianizing the Germans was a Germanicized Christianity, a religion that was strongly influenced by Germanic values and concepts. Sometimes the spread of religion works the other way: the first Visigothic Christians in the third century were converted from paganism to Arian Christianity through the example of their slaves who had been captured in Anatolia.

It’s not too hard to find substrate and superstrate effects in Mormon history, and maybe even in your own ward. Some have argued for a latent–substrate–Puritanism in the earliest Mormons. Others have observed that former Baptist preachers can give rocking good sermons. Wilfried has mentioned that the odd Dutch speech patterns of American missionaries come to be adopted by native members. As much as members of my German ward shy away from singing “O Savior, Thou who Wearest a Crown” with the remark “but that’s Lutheran,” I like to think that the area’s predominant religion and many members’ former church is behind the reverence with which the priesthood brethren reverently bear the implements of the sacrament out of the chapel at the close of the meeting while the congregation sits in contemplation. Church doctrine and organization are the same everywhere, but superstrate notions do not always prevail in determining how the members implement teachings and programs. Sometimes the substrate shows through.

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10 Responses to Substrate : Superstrate

  1. A. Nonny Mouse on October 4, 2006 at 10:27 am

    The Book of Mormon seems to describe a classic substrate-superstrate situation, where the Nephite language and political system supplant the illiterate Mulekite rule.

    Although it may be untennable, I’ve been thinking about making a different case, at least linguistically, based on this passage:

    Now it came to pass that there were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers.
    (Mosiah 26:1)

    You could argue that the Nephite language had become so corrupted in the rising generation that they couldn’t understand what the heck King Benjamin had said, because they didn’t grow up speaking the same language he did.

    I like the local culture over gospel culture notion at the end, though.

  2. roland on October 4, 2006 at 1:26 pm

    I was surprized as a young elder, to be recruited to play the hymns on a organ for the LDS branch in Brazil. They had a slightly different selection of hymns.

    The big difference was that after administration of the sacrament they expected the organist to play a short post lude music. Something I had never seen done growing up in California LDS wards, but was quite common in Brazil.

  3. Mark N. on October 4, 2006 at 1:59 pm

    after administration of the sacrament they expected the organist to play a short post lude music

    At some point during my mission (I think!), I heard some story about a ward in southern California where someone thought it was a good idea to preface the administration of the sacrament with some kind of (automated?) trumpet fanfare involving raising of curtains and who-knows-what-all to kind of play up the importance of the sacrament to those who weren’t paying attention (I guess).

    Anybody else ever heard this story? Sounds a bit like a modern myth or something.

  4. Mark B. on October 4, 2006 at 2:17 pm

    Never heard that one, Mark, but it was common in 1930′s-40′s SLC wards to have someone play an instrumental solo during the passing of the sacrament.

  5. Bill on October 4, 2006 at 4:18 pm

    In many Christian churches there is a communion motet, or communion hymns, a tradition going back into the middle ages. There is also an offertory motet, an elevation motet (for the elevation of the host), and other possibilities.

    I can remember a few instances of hearing a sacrament “postlude” as well.

    Having played organ for many different churches, I found it interesting to see how many little variations exist on what is ostensibly the same liturgy — which traditions die out, or are revived, or are maintained.

  6. A. Nonny Mouse on October 4, 2006 at 4:29 pm

    The big difference was that after administration of the sacrament they expected the organist to play a short post lude music.

    They did this in one of the wards of my Ohio stake growing up. None of the other ones, that I know of, but just one of the wards had a little organ postlude after the sacrament while the priesthood holders returned to sit with their families in the congregation.

  7. random me on October 4, 2006 at 6:39 pm

    several southern california, one virginia, and two hawai’i wards, all with the sacrament postlude. i never knew it was done any different!

  8. Jonathan Green on October 5, 2006 at 4:43 am

    ANM, thanks for the reference to Mosiah. It brings up an interesting question in how we interpret scriptural narrative. If scripture seems to describe something as the result of a process that doesn’t make sense to us, three of the options are
    1) to accept everything at face value (the Nephites grandchildren really didn’t understand their grandparents because something very unusual had happened in the space of two generations); or
    2) to question the description (the Nephite grandchildren understood their elders perfectly, and the narration is not to be trusted); or
    3) to question the causation (the Nephite grandchildren didn’t speak the same language as their grandparents because of a process the writer didn’t fully understand).

    In this case, I think it’s worth exploring the third option, because we know that up until modern times language change was not well understood, and that many explanations were offered for its causes. The previous chapter, Mosiah 25, opens with remarks about the relative sizes of the Mulekites (larger) and the Nephites (smaller); does chapter 26 suggest that the religious and linguistic merging of the two peoples did not go as smoothly as the narrative claims? Pure speculation, but speculation is fun. Also, doesn’t it seem like the Book of Mormon has far more to say about language change than any other work of scripture? The Bible offers the Tower of Babel story, but the Book of Mormon expands considerably upon it, and offeres other verses as well.

  9. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 5, 2006 at 6:51 pm

    Think about it, Alma has questions about church procedure, talks to the king, who talks to his council of priests and gets back with Alma … there is a lot going on there we don’t usually place in context.

  10. A. Nonny Mouse on October 6, 2006 at 5:52 pm

    Jonathan Green: Also, doesn’t it seem like the Book of Mormon has far more to say about language change than any other work of scripture?

    Sure does :) And I don’t know that it claims that the narrative claims that the merging was smooth, it just doesn’t talk much about the relative ease or difficulty of it… But, I haven’t read those verses for a few months, so it’s possible I’m smoking crack here…