When the Tabernacle Choir goes on international tours - as it will to eastern and middle Europe June 8-29 - its members rely on more than just music to sing anthems, hymns and folk songs with correct pronunciations.
The choir literally has its own language, called Lingua-Tone, which was developed specifically for the famed singers. When choir members perform in Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Soviet Union, audiences will undoubtedly be impressed with their linguistic ability.During its last international tour - to the South Pacific in 1988 - a New Zealand television commentator marveled at the choir's ability to sing flawlessly the New Zealand national anthem in the Maori language.
Dennis Mead, the choir's language coordinator and the inventor of Lingua-Tone, is given credit for the choir's linguistic fluency. He has served as director of translation for the Church in Europe, is fluent in Russian, French, Swedish and Norwegian, and is familiar with German, Danish and a number of other European languages. A former professor at Indiana University, he has a bachelor's degree in French, a master's degree and a doctorate in Russian.
Mead's development of Lingua-Tone has much to do with the choir's ability to sing familiar songs meticulously in many languages. It is, in effect, a phonetic language and uses characters generated on a standard typewriter or computer keyboard to represent specific sounds. The sound for each letter or character never changes, no matter what the language.
Lingua-Tone was born out of necessity. Several phonetic systems are used for the spoken language, and the choir tried quite a few of them when learning songs or hymns in unfamiliar languages.
But different composers and arrangers tend to use a variety of systems, and since the choir has an enormous international repertoire, it became confusing for choir members to juggle so many systems.
The logical step was to create its own language, which would be used for every non-English piece the choir would sing.
As a result all the non-English language selections the choir now sings are "translated" into Lingua-Tone.
The first step is for Mead to visit a native speaker of the language, taking a copy of the music with him. He listens to the person pronounce the sound, and then transcribes each sound into Lingua-Tone. He then reads back to the native speaker from his Lingua-Tone notes to ensure he has the sound exactly right. If there is an unusual sound not yet covered by the system - for example, a difficult Polish nasal vowel - then he assigns another keyboard character to the Lingua-Tone alphabet.
"When choir members sing in Lingua-Tone they don't really need to know the language or even which language they're singing," Mead said. "The music itself adds the depth and the feeling. Lingua-Tone is designed for singing, not for speaking. In singing, the music takes care of the pitch and the duration of the sounds.
In practice, Mead often provides translations to choir members so they can gain a greater cultural appreciation of the people whose music they are singing. He uses an electronic optical scanner and a computer to replace the standard texts with Lingua-Tone, and then prints out the sheets for each choir member. In many cases, he leaves the original language in place for those choir members who are familiar with it.
Recently, he extended the system further. Not only do choir members have a manual and video training tape, but also audio tapes are being made of the selections the choir will sing on its upcoming tour, with people who are from those countries singing one phrase at a time.
The whole process is just a small part - but a key part - of the task of preparing one of the world's largest and most impressive choirs for an international tour.