Why does this bit of O Come, All Ye Faithful use Jesu rather than Jesus?

Yea, Lord, we greet thee
Born this happy morning
Jesu, to thee be glory given

Am I right in my thinking that Jesus is a Latinized form of Yeshua, and that Jesu is the vocative?

It certainly does seem to turn up in a vocative context in other hymns etc.:

  • Jesu, joy of man's desiring
  • Jesu, the very thought of thee

And I'm guessing we use Jesus as a throwback to the Vulgate?

PS Happy Christmas, sotto voce, till this gets edited out...

  • Good question. It's in "The Little Drummer Boy," too, and I've wondered where it came from since I was a kid. (I know there's no "J" in the Latin or Italian alphabet.) – Oldbag Dec 25 '14 at 12:56
  • I'd just add to tchrist's fine answer that there are two further points to consider. (1) Rightly or wrongly, religion hangs on to a lot of tradition. It's usually wrong where it involves a 'change is wrong per se' attitude (eg the KJV is the 'authorised' English version). (2) The definite vowel-sound in 'Jesu' may often sound more fitting than the near-schwa of 'Jesus', especially in lyrics. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 26 '15 at 14:41

TL;DR: Yes.

The hymn “O Come, All Ye Faithful” was originally in Latin, and even today is still often sung that way under the title “Adeste Fideles”.

We are not certain who wrote its original tune or lyrics, although this was probably in the 1700s or perhaps the 1600s. We do know, however, that it was translated into English in 1841 by a Catholic priest.

The line:

Venite adoremus Dominum.

Has Dominum (meaning Lord) in the accusative; it would have been Domine in the vocative and Dominus in the nominative. Both verbs can be read as plural imperatives, the first in the second person plural, the second in the first person plural. Hence the familiar translation:

O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

The verse you mention:

Yea, Lord, we greet thee;
Born this happy morning;
Jesu, to thee be all glory given!

Is a translation of the Latin:

Ergo qui natus die hodierna.
Jesu, tibi sit gloria,

Latin used Iesus/Jesus in the nominative, Iesum/Jesum in the accusative, and yea Iesu/Jesu for everything else, notably including the vocative. This is highly irregular for Latin declensions, where it fits nicely in no declension in particular, although it tends to be attributed to the fourth (not the second). It really doesn’t matter, though, what declension it’s considered so long as all the forms are known — and the gender, since that’s needed for adjectival concordance.

It has all those funny forms in Latin because it was borrowed from the Greek, where if you transliterate the declined Greek forms into Latin, you’ll see why it’s done that way,

Those funny Latin forms were even copied into the German declensions, where again it sticks out like a sore thumb from the normal scheme of things.

So in all these cases, it’s because scholars familiar with more than one language were consciously copying the earlier declensions into the later, translated language no matter whether it fit that language or not.

It’s like how we still sometimes use a few Latin plurals in English, or the rex–regina distinction. Here, the Catholic priest who translated the Latin into English merely left the inflected form intact. But ultimately he has the Greeks to thank for the strange declension.

Lastly, I have sometimes seen Jesus used here in some modern versions of the song, not the original Jesu. I cannot say whether this is an intentional updating or not, however; the rest is unchanged.

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  • 3
    Ah, I'd wondered about the German! Jesu, meine freude and all that. Thank you! – chiastic-security Dec 25 '14 at 14:46
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    Hmm, I wonder why it's adeste and not venite? The Vulgate uses the latter and never the former. In particular it's venite in Ps 95, which I'd thought was partly the inspiration for this carol (verse 6: venite adoremus). – chiastic-security Dec 25 '14 at 15:07
  • God only knows! ;-) You should probably check the Septuagint for that passage in the Psalms for just which verbs were used. The Vetus Latina was translated not from the Hebrew but the Greek. Or it could simply be a bit of poetic licence on the part of the carol's lyricist. – tchrist Dec 25 '14 at 15:45
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    Even Danish, which has otherwise lost all noun cases just like English and only has a clitic possessive suffix -s, have retained/introduced the highly bizarre and sore-thumby genitive form Jesu, the only non-fossilised case form of any noun in the entire language. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 25 '14 at 19:24
  • To make this even more fun, it's even irregular in biblical greek if I remember correctly :) – David Mulder Dec 25 '14 at 22:24

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