Coincidentally: “Ebonics” for the new Mass

In 1996, the school board of Oakland, California, caused a stir by wanting to teach a dialect of English as a separate language. According to the New York Times, this form, known by the neologism “Ebonics,” has several characteristics, which include the use of a pronoun instead of the infinitive “to be,” dropping standard conjugations, eliminating subject-verb agreement, and replacing the qualifier “if” with the imperative “do.” For example: “My friend he smarter than you. He have more brains. I ask him do he knows the answer.” There is much to this that I find beguiling, especially since I have long advocated the Tudor first person negative “ain’t,” which in fact enjoyed a minor revival in fashionable circles of the 1920s: pace Lord Peter Whimsey. And what seems an abuse of certain infinitives actually has roots in the Elizabethan subjunctive. What I do object to is the suggestion that this is all the foundling of the Oakland School Board. Thirty years ago, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy invented a proleptical and prolegomenous “Ebonics” for the new Mass. Catholics in America have thus been speaking this way since Vatican II.

The roots are much earlier, of course. Mark Twain gloriously mastered the syntax, as did the nineteenth century repertoire of dialect songs, including those of Stephen Foster. One might object that these were affectations of an idiom, but so were the many beloved Irish songs written by the great Jewish songmasters of Schubert Alley. In the formative period of ebonical letters, only Harriet Beecher Stowe surpassed Dion Boucicault, whose play The Octoroon opened in the Winter Garden in New York City on December 5, 1859. Coincidentally, that was the day Senator Charles Sumner returned to his Senate desk after having been beaten with a cane by Senator Preston S. Brooks on May 22, 1856, during a debate over slavery in Kansas. No such violence has yet been inflicted on the translators of the ebonical Novus Ordo which reads like Thomas Cranmer on Prozac.

Not unrelated is the recent controversy over “gender-inclusive” language for the Liturgy. Current proponents of such neutering forget that this kind of grammatical mutilation was rejected in Gaul in 586 by the Council of Macon. Its decision that male and female are both included in the term “man” was pronounced precisely fourteen hundred years before the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, to which much infertility in Ukraine has subsequently been attributed. Someone identified as a spokesperson for the American bishops said that the neutering of pronouns would not apply to “vertical” language which, he (sic) explained to reporters, is language that goes up. I suppose one could choose the via media between horizontal and vertical language by keeping the texts as they are, but reading them at an angle. We might call it diagonal language. But the whole business seems ill-advised and could geld both God and man once we confront the Word Made Flesh. That, after all, was the perplexity of the monophysite Eutyches (c. 375-454) whose God, like the Duke of York’s army in the children’s rhyme, was “neither up nor down.” I do not think it was a coincidence that Eutyches’s advocate in the Byzantine court was a eunuch, Chrysaphius.

Until the current gender-inclusive debate, the Church uniformly denounced mutilation, though there were a lot of castrati, or evirati, in Italy and they even sang in the Vatican until Pius IX. The eunuch Giovanni Battista Velluti (1781-1861) starred in the opera Seria in Berlin in 1811, which happened to be the two thousandth anniversary of the accession of King Adid-Nirari IV of Assyria, who had many neutered courtiers. Velluti was almost as popular in his day as is the ebonist crooner Michael Jackson, a lapsed member of the sub-Eurychian cult known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Church never had a de-sexed Liturgy. As Chesterton said of translators in The Thing: “When we consider what they have done with the noble English language, as compared with the English of the Anglican Prayer Book, let alone the Latin of the Mass, we feel that their development may well be called degenerate.”

The most pertinent scriptural reference for gender-inclusivity is the Ethiopian Eunuch of Acts 8. As the Eastern rites include a Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and a Liturgy of St. James, the Western rite could be altered to a Liturgy of the Ethiopian Eunuch. But to do so would discredit that fine man, for he never asked Philip to neuter the Book of Isaiah. Moreover, so highly educated a member of the court of Queen Candace would never have spoken an Oriental version of Ebonics.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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