Mark Pagel is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading, a distinguished scientist and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Most of his papers have titles like “Mate fidelity and coloniality in waterbirds: a comparative study.” But he has recently been studying the evolution of language, and his research was profiled in last Sunday’s Times.

He claims that “language is a piece of social technology for enhancing the benefits of co-operation.” At the same time that the total number of languages in use globally is falling rapidly (it is now something between 7,000 and 8,000), some groups, e.g. on Pacific islands, are creating new languages every day, with significant language variation appearing every kilometer or so. Papua New Guinea, for example, has somewhere between 800 and 1,000 distinct and mutually incomprehensible languages.

Pagel sees language as a means of strengthening group identity. “We use language not just to co-operate but to draw rings around our co-operating groups.”

“This seemingly natural tendency we have toward isolation, towards keeping to ourselves, crashes head-first into our modern world,” he says. He cites the EU as an example; it spends over €1 billion (about 1.3 billion U.S. dollars) annually on translation costs alone. And he concludes:

If language really is the conduit of our co-operation, can we afford to have all these different languages? … In a world in which we want to promote cooperation and exchange, and in a world that might be dependent more than ever before on cooperation to maintain and enhance our levels of prosperity … it might be inevitable that we have to confront the idea that our destiny is to be one world with one language.”

The quotes above are drawn from a talk that Pagel gave at a conference in July of this year; you can watch the video here.

I’m sure that others can contribute sources on language and identity, but I have enjoyed The State of the Language by Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels, published first in 1980 and again in 1989 by the University of California Press, with different essays in the second edition. The 1980 edition features a blistering attack on the language of the revised Episcopalian Prayer Book, and the same author, Margaret Doody, returns in 1989 with an essay on the folly of revising classic hymns for inclusive language. Both editions seem to be readable online through Google Books.

The discussion of language and identity naturally led me to think about the new translation. Some praise it because it will ‘strengthen our Catholic identity’; several blog posters have commented that it ‘sounds more Catholic’ than the 1973 translation. This idea of a distinctively Catholic liturgical language seems to have been mooted in Liturgiam authenticam:

§27   … it will be seen that the observance of the principles set forth in this Instruction will contribute to the gradual development, in each vernacular, of a sacred style that will come to be recognized as proper to liturgical language. Thus it may happen that a certain manner of speech which has come to be considered somewhat obsolete in daily usage may continue to be maintained in the liturgical context.

Similar remarks crop up about Latin, once proposed as a universal language, more recently seen as the ‘sacred language’ of a specific group, rather as classical Hebrew is used in Jewish liturgical worship.

One problem with a group-defining language is that it naturally excludes others. Apparently this was not a problem for the authors of LA:

§29   It is the task of the homily and of catechesis to set forth the meaning of the liturgical texts, illuminating with precision the Church’s understanding regarding the members of particular Churches or ecclesial communities separated from full communion with the Catholic Church and those of Jewish communities, as well as adherents of other religions – and likewise, her understanding of the dignity and equality of all men.  Similarly, it is the task of catechists or of the homilist to transmit that right interpretation of the texts that excludes any prejudice or unjust discrimination on the basis of persons, gender, social condition, race or other criteria, which has no foundation at all in the texts of the Sacred Liturgy. Although considerations such as these may sometimes help one in choosing among various translations of a certain expression, they are not to be considered reasons for altering either a biblical text or a liturgical text that has been duly promulgated.

Our group-defining language is here. Like the rosary or holy cards or the Angelus prayer, the new translation now distinguishes us from other Christians: we are the ones who now say ‘consubstantial’ in the Creed, ‘chalice’ in the Eucharistic Prayer and ‘with your spirit’ to the priest. As a writer in Our Sunday Visitor put it,

The [1973] translation, growing out of the changes initiated by Vatican II, was born in a period of great Catholic optimism. In the spirit of the council, at least as it was popularly understood, the Church was more a partner to society than its scold or its antagonist. In this country, the council coincided with the election of John F. Kennedy, and there was a palpable sense that Catholics had arrived in America. No more Latin. No more fish on Friday. Like the theory that had guided the first vernacular translation, there was now a “dynamic equivalence” between Catholics and their fellow Americans. What so many Catholic leaders of the 20th century had worked for was now true: Catholic Americans were seen as the same as all other Americans.

Some of the younger priests I know seem enthusiastic about no longer being seen as the same as others.  They lard their conversation with Latin words – mens instead of mind, creatio instead of creation; and Latinate locutions – ‘apprehend’ rather than ‘understand,’ for example. Their language creates a stronger Catholic identity.

If all this is true then what does this imply for ecumenical work and worship? Some Orthodox friends of mine say that they are forbidden from praying with non-Orthodox. We aren’t barred from praying with Protestants, but in what language should we do so? How, like Paul, can we become ‘all things to all people’ when our language is distinctive?

To put it another way, how can we be truly Catholic, in the sense of ‘universal’?

Jonathan Day is a consultant and writer; he is also a member of the parish council of the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception (Farm Street) in central London.