‘Would it be of any use, now,’ thought Alice, `to speak to this mouse? Everything is so out-of-the-way down here that I should think very likely it can talk: at any rate, there’s no harm in trying.’ So she began: `O Mouse, do you know the way out of this pool? I am very tired of swimming about here, O Mouse!’ (Alice thought this must be the right way of speaking to a mouse: she had never done such a thing before, but she remembered having seen in her brother’s Latin Grammar, `A mouse–of a mouse–to a mouse–a mouse–O mouse!’) The Mouse looked at her rather inquisitively, and seemed to her to wink with one of its little eyes, but it said nothing (Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, chapter 2).

Even in Alice’s day, the “O” marker of the vocative case sounded artificial. It was there in the texts that shaped modern English: The King James Bible (e.g. “O ye of little faith”, Matthew 8:26) & Shakespeare (“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, Romeo and Juliet, II:2), but we don’t get to use it very often these days.

Except this week.
It’s O antiphon time.
From 17th of December, one of these antiphons is sung every day for the next seven days till Christmas, addressing Jesus with a title from the prophet Isaiah, calling on him to come:
17th – O Wisdom (O Sapientia)
18th – O Ruler of the House of Israel (O Adonai)
19th – O Root of Jesse (O Radix Iesse)
20th –  O Key of David (O Clavis David)
21st – O Rising Dawn (O Oriens)
22nd – O King of the Nations (O Rex gentium)
23rd – O God With Us (O Emmanuel)
Starting with the final one, the first letter of each – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – spell the Latin phrase ero cras or ‘tomorrow I will come’.

Here are my top 3 versions:
You can find a Dominican setting online here, in Latin with English translation.
Another early setting is Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s from 1690 (antiphons 1-3 and 4-7).
In German translation there are the Magnificat Antiphonen by the wonderful Estonian Arvo Pärt, composed in 1988 and revised in 1991.

The most familiar English adaptation of the O Antiphons, O come, O come, Emmanuel, was translated by the fabulously named Henry Coffin. It’s worth including at a time when we want everything to be the same as last year, the same as it always was.

Even though it never is quite the same.

Enjoy listening, and waiting…

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Posted in language, translation
One comment on “O!
  1. […] another favourite of mine is much older. It’s not quite as old as the O Antiphons, the basis for the best-known Advent hymn in English, O come, o come Emmanuel. But it’s from the […]

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