From The Times

Weekend Review, April 30, 2005

Changing Language: Where there's a will there's a want

By Guy Deutscher

Promises, promises . . . marriage vows haven't changed in 500 years, but the meaning of one little word has.


“I will.” For better or for worse, marriage has been in the spotlight. With the wedding season off to a royal start, the words “I will” will be ringing out from churches across the land this summer.

But isn’t the wording of this solemn promise in the Anglican service of matrimony rather odd, if not downright unlikely? To the question: “Will you have this woman to your wedded wife? Will you love her, comfort her, honour and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?” the groom (and the bride in her turn) does not answer with “I’ll try”, not even “I promise” (we all know promises can be broken), but with a startlingly confident, almost hubristic “I will”.

Why does the Anglican Church — possibly alone among the world faiths — require the bride and groom to make such an impossibly categorical prediction about the future? Why does it — at least in retrospect — make so many of those who walk down the aisle into false prophets? The reason turns out to be a simple historical misunderstanding. On the face of it, what could be more crystal clear, less ambiguous, than those two solid syllables, unchanged as the wedding vow since The Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1549 during the reign of Edward VI. Give or take a “thee” and “thou”, the wording now is exactly as it was then: “Wilt thou haue thys woman to thy wedded wife? Wylt thou loue her, coumforte her, honor and kepe her, in sickenesse and in health? And forsakyng all other kepe thee onely to her, so long as you both shall lyue?” To which the groom was required to answer: “I will.” A model, then, of English stability and continuity. But appearances are deceptive. For whereas tradition has managed to preserve the wording of the wedding ceremony and protect it from change, there is one fickle player in this game that has refused to bow to the authority of church or state: the English language.

To expose this linguistic philandering, look at the origin of The Book of Common Prayer. The service of matrimony of 1549 was an almost direct translation of the Catholic Latin service that was used in southern England until the Reformation, and was known as the Sarum (that is, Salisbury) Rite. In the Sarum order of matrimony, the priest asks the bridegroom in Latin: “Vis habere hanc mulierem?” — “Do you want to have this woman ( . . . so long as you both shall live)?” and the bridegroom is required to respond with the word “volo” — “I want to.” The bride is then asked: “Vis habere hunc virum?” — “Do you want to have this man?” to which she also answers “volo ”. So the original idea of this response was not to require the couple to make a prophetic prediction, but simply to assert before God and the congregation that their entry into the marriage is voluntary.

The roots of this practice lie in the Middle Ages, when the Church gradually took over the institution of marriage, which had previously been a mainly contractual, even commercial, business, in which the bride was handed over like chattel from father to husband. In attempting to transform marriage into a spiritual rite, it was paramount to emphasise publicly that both parties were entering into this state voluntarily. There are contemporary parallels in some other countries. In Turkish civil weddings, for example, the law requires the registrar to ask the bride twice if she is entering the marriage without coercion.

So, in 1549, why did Archbishop Cranmer translate “volo” (“I want to”) as “I will”? Not because his Latin wasn’t up to scratch, but simply because in the English of his day, the verb “will” meant “wish” or “want to”. There are vestiges of this meaning in modern English, in phrases such as “as you will”, “free will”, or “willing”. But English has undergone considerable changes since Cranmer’s day, not only in pronunciation, but also in the meaning of many words, even the most common ones. And “will” is one example of a verb that has gradually weakened its resolve, and ended up as a mere indicator of the future tense. This deviation in meaning may seem surprising, but the explanation is straightforward: often, when one wants to do something, it implies that one jolly well will. And when speakers started using “will” more and more frequently to express their intention to do something (“I will behave better next time”), the original sense of desire gradually faded away.

And if there still seems to be something rather eccentric about this loss of will-power, it’s worth mentioning that countless other languages, from Greek and Romanian to Swahili and Chinese, have undergone exactly the same change. In Romanian, for instance, the original Latin “volo” (“I want”) ended up as “voi” (“will”), and the same thing happened to the Swahili verb “taka”. So there is nothing untoward or peculiarly English about the inconstancy of “will”. The only English twist to the story is the triumph of form over content — sticking willy-nilly to the same old words in the ritual, even though their meaning has shifted, and in so doing entirely blurring the original sense of the wedding vow.