Language and Lent

There are many wonderful things about being a Catholic in a “Latin Mass only” parish. One of them happens to be language immersion. In this post I share some scattered thoughts on language and liturgy that I have had this Lent.


“Everybody” knows that Lent is forty days long . . . and “everybody” is wrong! Lent is spiritually forty days long, inasmuch as it represents the forty days that Our Lord spent in the desert. But it is not literally forty days long. If you don’t believe me, take out your calendar and start counting!

If this is shocking news, to you, then you probably don’t hear the Traditional Latin Mass regularly. In the traditional calendar, the first Sunday of Lent is still Quadragesima Sunday, from the Latin for “forty.” And the three Sundays before that are Quinquageisma (“fifty”), Sexagesima (“sixty”), and Septuagesima (“seventy”). Are you doing the math? With only seven days in a week, four consecutive Sundays can’t be the seventieth, the sixtieth, the fiftieth, and the fortieth days before the same date!

(The First) Passion Sunday

My parish marks the Sunday before Palm Sunday with a Way of the Cross around the neighborhood. Fourteen homes volunteer to host one Station each, and all the neighborhood “types”are usually represented. This year’s mix included religious communities, middle-class families, and poorer families squatting on the land. If you had to choose only one language to touch them all, you would pick English.

Most of the middle class families hear Mass in the Ordinary Form, in English rather than in Tagalog. The religious communities have members from all over Europe and Asia, and even if some never pick up Tagalog, they do learn English. And the poorer families who may never speak English fluently are surrounded by English-language media: Their ears will be quicker than their tongues. This is why the Stations of the Cross were in English last year. This Lent, however, Father had a different focus.

The religious communities and middle-class families are relatively rich, spiritually speaking. They may not like their liturgy in Latin, but they’re very religious in their own ways. It is the poor families who are most likely to miss Mass, stay away from the sacraments, and be uncatechized. And it was for them that Father made us all pray in Tagalog this year.

It was much fancier Tagalog than I was used to. Sadly, I hardly pray in my own mother tongue. Tagalog is what I use to chat with friends, to go shopping, and to make small talk with strangers — but until this Lent, not also to pray with my community.

Palm Sunday

If you celebrate Palm Sunday — the second Passion Sunday — in the Philippines, you will learn the word “palaspas.” This refers to the decorative palm fronds that we carry in memory of Our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem. I’m guessing that it originally meant all palm fronds, but now they mean only the sacramentals. It’s so specific that even Filipinos who prefer English will slide into “Taglish” to use it.

By the way, another perk of a “Latin Mass only” parish: Your friends casually refer to “palaspas” as “ramos olivarum” (olive branches). “Taglish” is nice, but it’s nothing next to “Latalog.”

Bonus: Easter Sunday

The Philippines must be the only country in the world where the translation of “Pascha” (Latin for “paschal lamb”) points to Christmas rather than to Easter. So “Maligayang Pasko” means “Merry Christmas” and not “Happy Easter”! If you want to greet Filipinos this Sunday, you have to be a little more specific and say: “Maligayang Pasko ng Pagkabuhay!” — “Happy Easter of the Resurrection!” (It’s only redundant in English, I promise!)

But we’re not the only country with translation issues . . . At work I talk with a cross-section of Americans, and many of them now say “Resurrection Sunday” instead of “Easter Sunday.” It may be because of the “pagan” roots of the word “Easter” — an issue I never cared about!

On the other hand, I do care about changes in language. And I’m not a fan of this one. “Resurrection Sunday” might be more specific, but it’s far less traditional. I think any change in language that makes it harder for you to talk to your great-grandparents about things you both share is a bad idea.

Do you use “foreign” words for Lenten or Eastern traditions?

7 thoughts on “Language and Lent

  1. Normally I say that English is the only language on Earth that screws up by translating “Passover” into “Easter.” If only I had known that in the Philippines it means Christmas!

    I think you are right that “Resurrection Sunday” has risen in popularity based on the perceived paganism of the word Easter, but the words Lent and Easter represent an Anglo-Saxon language choice so old that I don’t see the point in fighting an archaeo-linguistic battle over it. Besides, we should all be using Quadragesima and Pascha anyway. ­čÖé

    1. Cristina @Linguavert

      Happy Easter, Rob! Thanks for your comment! I’m sorry to reply so late, but I stayed offline during most of the Triduum.

      In the Philippines, we still use the Spanish “Cuaresma” (sometimes spelled “Kwaresma”) to refer to Lent. I really don’t know how the mix-up with “Pasko” got started!

  2. Brendan

    As we were hearing the long gospel on Holy Thursday evening (despite the fact this is the OF and so we were hearing it in English) I found myself thinking about how familiar the words of the parts of the bible often heard in mass are. One of the things I noticed when studying Latin was the words which appeared in the Vulgate and the missal were by far the most familiar. A great many of them have English cognates. I wonder if that’s not entirely a coincidence. If you were hearing the Latin of the mass every week or every day, it makes sense those are the words which you’d bring into your own language.

    This got me thinking that since I’m learning German, reading some of the more familiar parts of the bible would probably be a good area to practice. I did a little bit of googling and found this site from the German bishops. Unfortunately, it’s much less easy to navigate than the USCCB site with the New American translation.

    There’s also this page which links to the day’s readings.

    A little other reading around tells me that this is from the ecumenical Einheits├╝bersetzung translation done together by Catholics and Protestants after Vatican II (but since mostly abandoned by Protestants.) Apparently there’s a more old school 20th Century version called the Herder-Bibel which some more traditional Catholics like. Then there’s the Allioli-Bibel from 1830 which was used as the translation in German-Latin missals before Vatican II.

    Have you done any German reading of the bible or the liturgy? If so, what have you used?

    Haben Sie ein gesegnetes Ostern!

    1. Cristina @Linguavert

      Right now I’m using an antique Latin-German Me├čbuch from 1959, which likely takes its readings from the Allioli-Bibel you mention. During Mass, when I can’t make sense of a Latin passage, I jump over to the German translation and have an easier time. (Even if when I don’t perfectly understand both the Latin and the German, having them as two legs to stand on, rather than just one, helps a lot.) But I haven’t really tried to read the Bible itself in German.

      I’ve also found the Vulgata relatively easy, but my own theory was that I already knew the “shape” of what I was reading, so it was easier to understand how the individual words worked together. Now I wonder whether a German speaker would make a similar observation to yours. While there are also many “Germanized” Latin verbs, I have not really noticed them in the German parts of my Me├čbuch. Instead, these tend to use very German expressions. I suspect this is more revealing of the source Bible’s translators than of what religious Germans might actually say.

      1. Brendan

        The thing about vulgate cognates mostly stuck out to me compared to other (classical) Latin. You reach for the dictionary a lot less reading the vulgate than reading Virgil or Cicero. But that may also be that it was written to be pretty easy, while Virgil and Cicero were not.

  3. Michael

    In America anyway the use of “Resurrection Sunday” is pretty much limited to my Protestant friends, and most of them (but not all) really don’t have an appreciation for tradition if it predates them more than a generation or two ­čÖé

    This is what I wrote last year on Facebook in response to all the memes that pointed to Pascha having pagan roots:

    I’m so glad Western Easter is over so I don’t have to keep seeing these ridiculous memes about the origins of the Christian celebration being rooted in Ishtar and pagan fertility rites. Those who believe such demonstrate they know little about Christianity and even less about linguistics.

    Listen, I get it if you hate Christianity in whatever form to which you may have been exposed, but it just takes a little pinky worth of research to know that Pascha, or the Christian Passover, has always been seen by Christianity as the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover and that Christ has always been considered the Paschal ( i.e. Passover) lamb. Passover as celebrated among the ancient Hebrews or New Testament era Christians has nothing to do with the pagan fertility rites surrounding Ishtar and in fact is its very anti-thesis. To once again quote my friend Chris Masterjohn from 2008:

    “Right, but there is no Christian holiday “Easter.” In every language except English and German, the word for this feast is some variant of the Hebrew “Pesach,” most often derived from the Greek “Pascha” and means “Passover.” The English Christians may have given us the pagan name, but they certainly didn’t invent the holiday.”

    1. Cristina @Linguavert

      It is easier to convince people that they need to brush up on linguistics than that they need to brush up on Christianity!

      It has just occurred to me that my three best languages all either misuse “Pascha” or don’t use it at all! If you can think of a fourth one, that may be the one I tackle next!

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