Linguistic answers to theological questions

February 19, 2007 | 25 comments
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The southern German and Austrian greeting Grüß Gott! ‘may God greet [you]‘ is perceived by many local members and American missionaries as a too-frequent or otherwise inappropriate use of a divine title. While the theological reasoning is opaque to some, the linguistic context seems quite clear. Grüß Gott requires American missionaries to pronounce the German uvular tap, trill, or fricative pre-vocalic /r/, one of the most difficult phonemes for Americans to produce correctly (although eased somewhat because it follows uvular /g/). This is immediately followed by a long rounded high front vowel /y:/ (round your lips to say oooo, but say eeee instead), another sound missing from the phonemic inventory of English and consequently produced badly by most Americans. For a phrase with only two vowels, the second of the two is equally problematic for Mormon missionaries, predominately from the American West, as the short open /o/ is missing from their dialect of American English as well. If cot and caught sound exactly alike to you–and don’t kid yourself; unless you’re from the right parts of the Eastern US or the Commonwealth, they do–you will have a hard time hearing the distinction in a foreign language, let alone producing it yourself. In other words, the taboo on Grüß Gott may include both theological concern and linguistic anxiety.

Are there other key phrases in foreign languages that are difficult for Americans to pronounce? Is there a chance of declaring them blasphemous? It’s a coping strategy worth some consideration.

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25 Responses to Linguistic answers to theological questions

  1. Ardis Parshall on February 19, 2007 at 8:28 am

    Frogs (grenouilles) and squirrels (ecureuilles) maybe don’t come up that often for French missionaries, but the difficulty of pronouncing and spelling those words should be enough to declare the animals unclean, at least for American tongues. More to the point, discussions of spiritual vs. physical death should be elevated to the level of the mysteries until missionaries learn to distinguish the vowel sounds in l’amour and la mort. However, no matter how badly they mangle the sounds, basic human rights demand that everyone be allowed to attempt the words chocolat, fromage, and patisserie as often as desired.

  2. Ardis Parshall on February 19, 2007 at 8:32 am

    Also fondue, at least for missionaries based in Geneva.

  3. Peter on February 19, 2007 at 9:10 am

    If a missionary incorrectly pronounces “Grüß Gott!” is she still blaspheming? How about English speakers when they say, for example, “good bye”?

  4. Russell Arben Fox on February 19, 2007 at 9:45 am

    I’m not sure how this relates, but amongst the numerous and confusing honorifics and levels of grammar in Korean, the very highest and most archaic always came to me easiest. I have no idea why. (I was never able to learn “pan mal,” or Korean slang, and thus was usually incomprehensible to Korean teenagers and children, and I could only with great difficulty understand them.) Anyway, the point being, I found myself understanding the temple ceremony language pretty well, and would occasionally slip into those forms when speaking with people. Some members thought it was funny, some thought I was showing off, and a fair number of Korean sisters and elders told me I was blaspheming. I suppose the latter claim could be said to reflect a lingusitic desire on the part of native speakers not to have to learn yet another set of honorifics, one which Elder Fox for no good reason had unaccountably picked up on.

  5. rk on February 19, 2007 at 10:52 am

    In Danish you have to be very careful when talking quickly about the “Holy Ghost” (Hellige Aand) or you will pronounce it the “Holy Duck” (Hellige And) or worse yet the “Holy Evil” (Hellige Ond). The members don’t think it is blasphemous, just really funny. Mispronouncing vowels can really get you in trouble.

  6. Mark B. on February 19, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    The Japanese for “excuse me” (literally, “I lost my politeness”) shitsurei shimashita presents a challenge to some. The syllables of the first word are shi tsu re i, but Americans not accustomed to the “ts” sound at the beginning of syllables can make the word sound bad to American ears.

    But there’s no way in polite Japanese society to get rid of the word.

  7. MDS on February 19, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    Don’t forget the schwul/schwül problem. There’s nothing like observing a fellow missionary trying to tell a German-speaking member that he feel its a bit muggy and inadvertently outing himself instead.

  8. Jonathan Green on February 19, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    All of these are excellent examples, and more reasons why language classes should spend more time on pronunciation, where direct instruction can have a big communicative payoff, but it rarely happens. Another odd thing is that slaughtering the pronunciation of some difficult sounds, like the German /r/, does not hinder communication at all, while a little sloppiness in some sounds, like the vowels RK mentions, results in blank looks (or worse).

    MDS, my solution was simply never to mention muggy weather. It just wasn’t worth the risk.

  9. gst on February 19, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    So the Danes believe that the Holy Ghost descended as a duck?

  10. greenfrog on February 19, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    Not “as” — “from.”

  11. Matt Evans on February 19, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    Jonathan, I thought the MTC should not teach missionaries to read until they could speak. Seeing the words written in our alphabet contaminates the ear. Few missionaries pronounce the spanish B and V identically, because they can’t hear the sounds they’re hearing because they know how they’re spelled. It wasn’t until I saw Spaniards mispell words with B and V, spelling “vaca” (cow) as “baca,” for example, that I realized that they make *no* distinction in sound. Before that I thought I’d heard a slight difference. That wouldn’t have been the case had I not learned how they were spelled.

  12. Norbert on February 19, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    In Dutch, the word ‘hoor’ is hard to define. It emphasizes whatever one has said in a manner expressing a casual relationship. So if I said, ‘Dat weet ik, hoor’ it means ‘I know that,’ but with a sense of friendly insistence. The ‘h’ is very soft, even silent in some dialects, but some missionaries would hit it with a very heavy ‘h’ and mispronounce the vowel, and end up calling people whores. Otherwise, it was overused by missionaries in situations in which it was not appropriate. I seem to remember it was banned at some point.

  13. jose on February 19, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    In high school, I learned of a very derogatory Cantonese insult from a classmate from Hong Kong (hey I can’t resist being culturally diverse). After high school, I didn’t hear the word said again till my MTC teacher had the class repeat a certain benign French word over and over again. I wonder how many Chinese have become aghast upon learning French.

  14. Pam W. on February 19, 2007 at 9:02 pm

    So do you think “Grüß Gott!” is blasphemous? (I think it’s kind of fun to say, myself.) I remember my classmates during my Study Abroad in Vienna debating the topic, with one saying he’d heard that if you said the phrase, you couldn’t take the sacrament (which sounds ludicrous; where did he hear that?). I noticed that no one at church said it, so I refrained. But I think the sentiment is nice rather than blasphemous.

  15. rk on February 20, 2007 at 12:12 am

    #9

    That is a good one.

  16. Jonathan Green on February 20, 2007 at 3:47 am

    Pam, I don’t think it is blasphemous, and I know local members who don’t think so, either. But other members do find it blasphemous. I don’t have to consciously avoid it at church because it doesn’t come naturally to me anyway; I learned German in an area that used the easily pronounceable and theologically unproblematic guten Tag. Also, Americans should probably avoid getting into the middle of intra-Teutonic linguo-theological squabbles.

  17. Russell Arben Fox on February 20, 2007 at 9:35 am

    “intra-Teutonic linguo-theological squabbles”

    Just how many of those are there, Jonathan? Do they ever turn violent?

  18. Kristine Haglund Harris on February 20, 2007 at 10:19 am

    Russell, why do you think there are so many lapsed Germanists hanging around the blogs? Some of us just couldn’t stomach the boxing matches that were our required linguistics seminars…

  19. Jonathan Green on February 20, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Russell, you should have been in priesthood meeting a couple weeks back, where a discussion of honorofic forms of address ate up half the hour, right before my lesson. I ducked and covered until it was safe to come out.

  20. Pam W. on February 20, 2007 at 7:18 pm

    Jonathan, thanks for answering my question. And no, I certainly don’t wish to get into the middle of intra-Teutonic linguo-theological squabbles!

  21. Rich on February 21, 2007 at 12:52 am

    My first door approach in Mannheim, trying hard to imitate the local dialekt that added more of an “s” to the usual “ch” sounds, was to introduce ourselves as representatives of the “Kirsche Jesu Kristi”. Of course it was met with a hearty laugh from the woman to whom I said we were from the Cherry of Jesus Christ…

  22. Floyd the Wonderdog on February 21, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    Fox sunsangnim, I love the way the individuals’ use of honorifics change during the Korean temple ceremony. The same individuals use more and less honorific forms when speaking to the same people depending on the commission they are given. Korean is such a beautiful language! I can understand that Koreans might be offended if you were to use verb endings that are only suitable to be used by God and Jesus.

    I picked up Grüß Gott while in Bavaria. I consider it the linguistic equivalent of HOWDY since it serves as a greeting that warns the hearer that the speaker is a hick. At least, that’s the way it struck me when I went to Dresden. One lady told me that she had thought that I was Bavarian. She didn’t mean it in a nice way either.

  23. Ardis Parshall on February 21, 2007 at 5:25 pm

    Veering from the original post but sparked by what Floyd just wrote, I loved the film of Les Miserables that came out in 1982. When Javert comes to release Valjean from prison early in the story, he sneers at Valjean, “Tu es libre.” At the end, when his ghost greets the dying Valjean, he says, “Maintenant, vous etes libre.”

  24. Jonathan Green on February 21, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    Rich, there ought to be a rule in the missionary handbook about Americans attempting to replicate the local dialect. Bad things happen. I’m glad you came away relatively unscathed. And Floyd, you were just lucky you were in Dresden and not Cologne or Düsseldorf. That could have gotten ugly.

  25. Hans on February 22, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    The Norwegians run into the Hellige Ã…nd/Hellige And (Holy Ghost/Holy Duck) thing just like the Danes.

    I was in a movie theatre in Oslo with some other missionaries and our companions left to get some refreshments, leaving me with a greenie. We had “saved” the seats and when some people tried to sit down, the greenie told them that the seats were “frelst” (saved, as in salvation, rather than “opptatt” (occupied). He sure got some weird looks!