Thou-thee-thy from other angles

May 21, 2009 | 73 comments
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In General Conference of April 2009, Elder Russell M. Nelson reminded us:

Our prayers can be enhanced in other ways. We can use “right words”—special pronouns—in reference to Deity. While worldly manners of daily dress and speech are becoming more casual, we have been asked to protect the formal, proper language of prayer. In our prayers we use the respectful pronouns Thee, Thou, Thy, and Thine instead of You, Your, and Yours. Doing so helps us to be humble.

The current connotation of reverence, attached to those T-words, is undeniable. Aside from its obvious realm of application for Anglophone Latter-day Saints, the topic is also interesting from other angles.

- One is the international perspective. The Church operates in many languages: To what extent can the counsel apply to them?

- Next, we tally among us many (recent) members with limited knowledge of English, who attend Church in English: How do they cope with this “proper language of prayer”?

- Then there is the unavoidable disparity between formal, public prayer and the varieties of informal, personal conversation, or attempts at conversation, with God: How does this affect our lingual interaction with Deity?

- Finally, the way we pray, and the scriptural language we use, define, at least partially, our relation to other Christian churches, where the usage is different: What are possible implications?

These are the four questions this (long) post tries to explore.

But first, a look at the origin of the T-forms, which will help us address some of the questions raised.

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Where do the T-words come from?

Thou-thee-thy are common words, originating thousands of years ago. How did one address other people in those primeval times? Ancient Indo-European language forms, from which many current languages, including English, evolved, made a clear difference between addressing “one person” (singular) and “more than one person” (plural).

For the singular, this meant, here rendered in an English perfectly common at some time in the past:
- subject of the verb: Jake, thou must come quickly!
- object of the verb: So long, Magda, it was good to see thee and talk to thee!
- possessive: Ah, is Emma thy sister and Sam thine uncle? (thine before a vowel)

For the plural:
- subject of the verb: Children, ye should be ashamed!
- object of the verb: Cherry pickers, I’ll see you tonight to pay you.
- possessive: My friends, I appreciate your help.

These pronouns are identical in dozens of languages that have Indo-European roots—as diverse as Danish, French, German, Hindi, Hittite, Icelandic, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and on. Through phonetic assimilations and morphological adjustments these words have evolved from their primeval stems to their present forms in modern languages. E.g. (can you identify the language?):

- singular (known as predominantly T-forms): du, þu, te, thou, ti, tii, to, toi, tu, tui, tuk, ty, tvam…

- plural (known as predominantly V-forms): u, uw, vas, vi, vie, vii, vo, voi, vos, vous, vy, ye, you…

Originally the distinction between T- and V-forms was only numeral, without any other connotation, neither of reverence or of intimacy. Only the tone and content of the sentence, as used by an individual, set the “register”—respect or contempt, love or anger, decency or vulgarity.

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The T-V distinction: intimacy versus deference

In the early Middle Ages a practice developed to address the emperor, the king, or the pope with the plural form, therefore a V-form, in Latin vos. It recognized the ruler as superior to a simple, single person, or as representative for all. In the later Middle Ages this metaphor for power spread to also address noblemen with the plural form, and next any superior. Both vanity from above and servility or flattery from below bolstered this social play with semantics. Slowly European society as a whole moved to the so-called T-V distinction. In nearly all languages this shift occurred.

In French, for example, the pronoun tu became solely used for inferiors, close relatives, friends, children, or pets. Vous extended to address any superior, and, politely, every equal adult with whom one was less acquainted. By the 17th century, elegance among French nobility and bourgeois even required to address your own close adult family members with vous. Servants and peasants were T-users among themselves.

In English the plural you first addressed the king and next spread to all superiors, while thou-thee-thy dealt with equals or inferiors. But over time, compared to other languages, English prolonged this inflation of politeness, until the plural you became the standard for all relations, even when addressing children or intimates. The singular thou-thee-thy became more and more relegated to colloquial speech, even vulgar, or contemptuous. In some local English dialects that despising style survived up to now: “What’s thee doing, little brat? – Don’t thee me, it’s rude!”

The verb thoutheeing—as used by Goold Brown in The grammar of English grammars—to express this more intimate addressing, is found in many languages: tutoyer in French, jijen en jouen in Dutch, duzen in German, tutear in Spanish, tykat in Russian, etc. In those languages it is a social sign of closeness to be allowed to use the T-form with someone.

(Note that another style of distant politeness turned to the third person, to highlight the position of the addressee: Your Majesty, Your Highness, Your Excellency, Your Honor, with the verb following in the third person. In Spanish it led to an additional generalization: vuestra merced (your mercy) first became extended, from addressing nobility, to addressing all persons who aren’t close. The form next evolved into vusted, and then to usted. In Italian a similar development led to the use of the third person “courtesy pronoun” Lei. Indeed, honorifics, as they become common, never cease requiring altered forms.)

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How did English T-words become “reverential” for Deity?

How then to explain that thou-thee-thy, words which in common English finished at the lowest end of the spectrum—actually connoting coarse familiarity and rudeness—, are also identified as reverential religious forms? Simply because, already centuries earlier, they got secluded within their separate, sacred semantic field. The same word can have very different values according to its realm of use.

The earliest Old English (Anglo-Saxon) scriptural translations, such as those by the Venerable Bede and by Aldhelm in the 8th century, addressed Deity with the normal T-forms of their time (back then with the initial letter þ—the so-called thorn-letter). For example:

Fæder ure, þu þe eart on heofonum, si þin nama gehalgod.
(= Father our, thou that art in heaven, be thy name hallowed.)

It was simply logical: the singular T-forms were used to address one person, while plural V-forms were reserved to address several. No doubt this habit was already present in the earliest oral preaching when Christianity spread westwards.

The T-forms thus became ingrained in scriptural readings and quotations, in prayers and hymns, long before the T-V distinction became generalized in societal relations. Having attained such formulaic value in the closed religious realm, these forms escaped the later T-V distinction that developed in common language. It was therefore normal that they transferred into the more complete Bible translations—Wycliffe’s (1380), Tyndale’s (1526) and the King James version (KJV, 1611). It is also possible that Wycliffe and Tyndale sought to preserve the singular and plural distinction that they found in their sources (Latin, Greek, Hebrew)—a distinction which you alone, used for both singular and plural persons by Late Middle English and in Early Modern English, could not make.

Codified in the KJV, the T-forms remained the standard for addressing God, further reinforced by the Book of Common Prayer (1662). Thus, in a strange twist of language development, the more deferential form you was not used to address God, while what became less respectful in common language, thou-thee-thy, remained reverent in the religious realm (and was also kept alive in some rhetoric literature and poetry for archaic effect). The main reason for the T-forms to finally stand out as unique “religious language,” was their slow disappearance in common language. Thus these forms were not especially created to address Deity, but are isolated remnants of ordinary language use.

Whatever the history of the T-forms, in our Mormon sphere it is the present lingual experience, based on relentless identical input, that irrevocably ties to them the connotation of respectfully addressing Deity. Elder Dallin H. Oaks phrased it as follows, stressing that the very obsolescence of those words makes them apt at expressing something unique:

In our day the English words thou, thee, thy, and thine are suitable for the language of prayer, not because of how they were used anciently but because they are currently obsolete in common English discourse. Being unused in everyday communications, they are now available as a distinctive form of address in English, appropriate to symbolize respect, closeness, and reverence for the one being addressed.

Of course, in that ancient religious sphere, thou-thee-thy are not reserved distinctively for God. These words continue to be used, in KJV-language, for any single person being addressed. The examples are plentiful in the Bible—Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife. — Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off. — Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? Even Lucifer is addressed that way: Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.

The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants use these pronouns similarly and abundantly to address single persons. Moreover, in various LDS hymns, admonishments and counsel are directed to you, individual person, with thou-thee-thy: Cast thy burden upon the Lord and he shall sustain thee (# 110); Be thou humble in thy weakness, and the Lord thy God shall lead thee (# 130); School thy feelings, o my brother (# 336), etc. This usage is part of the same lingual realm. It sounds “natural” for those who grew up hearing or singing those texts.

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Capitalization or not?

The use of capitals—Thou-Thee-Thy—helps to enhance deference in the written forms, but makes no difference in oral use. The Church has long followed the Chicago Manual of Style, with lower-case pronouns referring to Deity. The present editions of the standard works still follow that pattern. However, more recently, the Style Guide for Publications of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 3rd ed. (1998; printing of November 2006, p. 22), instructs to capitalize second and third person pronouns referring to Deity (Thou, Thee, Him, His…). In Elder Nelson’s recent talk, quoted at the beginning, it was printed that way. Will this change also be applied in future editions of the standard works? At the same time, the Style Guide asks to keep the relative pronouns in lowercase (who, whom, and whose).

The tendency, worldwide, also in other languages, is to lowercase all pronouns pertaining to Deity. The Associated Press Stylebook requires it, the Chicago Manual of Style, the Wikipedia Manual of Style, the Catholic News Service guidelines, etc. The basic rule is that capital letters should not be used for anything other than proper names. Capitalizing pronouns and determiners always raises questions as to the application limits, such as for the first person object Me (is it not inappropriate for God to capitalize himself when speaking?), for relative pronouns (doesn’t who have the same value as he?), and for possessive determiners (e.g. my God or My God, our God or Our God, in theory depending on who speaks, but linguistically ambiguous, and with trinitarian controversies when Jesus speaks)… It also requires lingual insight to apply capitalization correctly, such as in Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? And he said, Who art Thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus Whom thou persecutest. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?

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And still a reverent “you” for the divine

There is one peculiar Mormon context where also you and your appropriately and reverently address the divine, because of the plural need, as we sing in one of our major hymns, written by Eliza R. Snow:

O my Father, thou that dwellest
In the high and glorious place,
When shall I regain thy presence
And again behold thy face? …

I had learned to call thee Father,
Thru thy Spirit from on high,
But, until the key of knowledge
Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.

When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.

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We now come to the four questions raised from other angles.

1 – How should we speak to God in other languages?

Can the Mormon “prayer counsel” for English apply to other languages? How do General Conference translators transpose in another language that “in our prayers we use the respectful pronouns Thee, Thou, Thy, and Thine instead of You, Your, and Yours“? To what extent are there equivalents?

Let’s look at French. Just as in English, the earliest French prayer texts and scriptural translations show that tu, te, toi, ton were the normal singular forms to address God. That tradition became ingrained in formulaic liturgy. The first French full Bible translations in the 13th century use the T- and V-forms logically to distinguish singular and plural. However, contrary to English, the French T-forms remained unchanged in familiar language use. Tu, te, toi, ton did not become archaic like thou, thee, thy in English. Therefore they could not be hallowed as “special forms” later on. Students of French learn they should never address a superior, a teacher, or even an equal adult with tu. Francophones remain very sensitive to the correct social use of tu or vous. So how to address God? As in the oldest texts with tu? Or respectfully with vous, according to more recent social rules?

The matter became controversial in the 17th century. Under the influence of the T-V distinction, some French Bible editions and prayer books shifted to vous and votre in addressing God. Such was the case in most Catholic Bible editions, with the argument of greater reverence. However, the French Protestants kept the T-forms in their Scriptures and prayers. This disparity became one of the symbols for the deep divide between the churches. The Catholics accused the Protestants of irreverence. The Protestants showed that the Catholics paid homage to the devil by having God speak reverently to him with a V-form.

However, in the 19th century French Catholic Bible editions started to shift back to tu, te, toi, ton, as linguists and exegetes confirmed the original distinction as purely numeral and showed the textual ambiguities resulting from the sole use of vous for both singular and plural. Moreover, the use of vous, originally a plural pronoun, raised doctrinal issues: could it be misunderstood as praying to a polytheistic Being? The whole concept of the Trinity and the character of the Persons got involved. It was safer to clearly pray to one God, thus better return to the T-forms. To justify the shift back, some invented the rule that the original tu was actually a super-reverential form, a level higher than vous.

In Mormon tradition in French, the use of the T-forms prevails, since nearly all Bible translations follow that pattern, including the version adopted as standard by the Church.

Scores of other languages follow the same pattern—German, Spanish, Farsi, Serbo-Croatian, Urdu … They use, to address God, the same informal, familiar T-forms that are still being used to speak to children or very close friends. There are no special pronouns to “protect the formal, proper language of prayer.”

What does that imply for reverence? Of course, none will pretend that the lack of special pronouns reserved for God makes the prayers of these people less humble or less respectful. It’s all in the tone, the intention, the spirit… This also shows that the use of thou-thee-thy in English is purely conventional. Conversely, one can ramble through a prayer with thou and thee, mumble stereotype sentences, and finish off with a breakneck inthenameofjesuschristamen.

Only very few languages in the Indo-European group use V-forms to address Deity. In Dutch, my mother tongue, the normal preference is given to U, which is a V-form, comparable to the English you. Portuguese, as far as I know, also uses a similar V-form, though its pronominal system is complex, with diatopical variations in Brazil and in Portugal. These V-forms are not uniquely religious either, just regular ones used for polite speaking. As to Eastern languages, such as Korean and Japanese with sensitive honorifics, how do they use pronouns to address Deity? Are there any “special ones,” solely reserved for God?

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2 – Limited English: how to cope with the “proper language of prayer”?

Elder Dallin H. Oaks expressed the following concern in the talk quoted above:

We are especially anxious that our position on special language in prayers in English not cause some to be reluctant to pray in our Church meetings or in other settings where their prayers are heard.

How true! If that is already a concern for some Anglophones, imagine what it means for the tens of thousands of non-Anglophone Mormons who attend English-speaking wards and branches and who have only a limited knowledge of English. Though I am reasonably fluent in English, and have heard thousands of thoutheeing prayers in English over several decades, I am most reluctant to pray in English in front of an Anglophone audience. When I have to do it anyway, I am compelled to concentrate on the forms I’m supposed to use, not on the prayer itself. At the same time, I try to circumvent: instead of We thank thee for the Gospel thou hast restored, I can move to We are grateful for the restored Gospel. But such techniques require pre-operational strategic thinking, which undercuts naturalness in praying.

Indeed, thoutheeing is not as easy as sometimes presented. In 1976 Don E. Norton devoted an Ensign-article to “the language of formal prayer.” An experienced Anglophone Mormon will have no or few problems with the following exercise, but the hurdles for others are real. Replace by the proper forms where applicable:

- We are thankful to you for all the blessings you give us.
- We are thankful that you restored the gospel through Joseph Smith.
- We thank you for all that you have done for us.
- We thank you that you do help us daily.
- You help us and you protect us always.
- We ask you that you will bless the sick in our ward.
- We ask you that your hand will protect us.
- You know our needs and we ask you that you keep watch over us.
- We know you are helping us with your blessings.
- We pray that you may always watch over us.
- Will you now bless this food.

With only you and your, and common verbal forms without any change, it remains feasible to pray “normally” with a limited knowledge of English. It should also be noted that all those sentences above, with you and your, can be said with due reverence, without the special forms. It’s all in the tone and in the spirit. Trying to use thou-thee-thy, along with forms like dost and hast, without proper lingual command, is not conducive to saying a natural prayer. Is it wilst or wilt? Thy hand or thine hand? Restorest or restoredest? Moreover, while listening, will not experienced Anglophones in the audience automatically focus on the lingual errors heard? Happily not so our Heavenly Father. Elder Oaks confirms:

I am sure that our Heavenly Father, who loves all of his children, hears and answers all prayers, however phrased. If he is offended in connection with prayers, it is likely to be by their absence, not their phraseology.

The reminder is most welcome. Are we fully tolerant when someone prays with you and your? Or could the repeated emphasis on the “correct prayer form” trigger negative reactions if one errs? How sad it would be if a foreign child, or a young convert, asked to pray in an English-speaking class, would be mocked or criticized for errors made.

If “the formal, proper language of prayer” is to be used correctly, should not some appropriate instruction be devoted to it, geared toward converts and members with limited English?

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3 – Public or private: Does this affect our lingual interaction with Deity?

For public prayer, we usually adopt, when called upon, a voice of quiet restraint. We speak in behalf of the group who listens to us. Social rules, tradition, and circumstances determine content and style. It can go from the quick prayer to bless the food to the most ornate dedicatory prayer. In any of these circumstances it is normal for experienced, Anglophone Latter-day Saints to pray with thou-thee-thy. No doubt many of these members address God the same way in private prayer—at least in normal conditions and in the steadfast relation they have built with him, especially if from their infancy on they only have heard praying with T-forms and if constancy is their life mark.

However, for average mortals, private prayer is often a battleground. We pray in despair. We pray in rebellion. We pray frantically in an agonizing process of repentance. We pray with anger at God’s apparent lack of intervention in unjust tragedies. Sometimes praying mingles with self-reflection, turns into an alter-ego dialogue, as thoughts and emotions roam, engaging God and self indistinctively. Prayer reflects the moods and levels of our faith—disbelief that anyone listens, desire to be listened to, a sprouting of the tiny seed, anticipation, hope. Or, at some other end, reaching profound intimacy, even camaraderie—speaking with God like a friend speaks with a friend.

It would make an interesting study of the language of prayer to analyze, if possible, to what extent Mormons, used to thoutheeing in their public prayers, shift to the more conversational, normal you when praying privately, intensely, pouring out their heart, their gratitude or their anxiety. In this deeply personal contact-seeking with the Lord, are they still using thou and thee? Moreover, it is not easy to transfer to T-forms earnest, but more colloquial sentences such as What can you do for us now? Why couldn’t you have prevented this? Why did you let this happen? Why aren’t you listening?

Even the strongest do not escape such moments. President Hugh B. Brown told of his struggles in dire circumstances and his frequent, anxious cry in response: Father, are you there? It’s difficult to imagine a Father, art thou there? to sound natural in such situations. If thoutheeing enhances reverence, it also creates distance.

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4 – Relation to other churches: What are possible implications?

As members of the Church, we accept the counsel given to use the KJV and abide by thou-thee-thy. Inevitably, the matter then raises a question as to our relation with other churches. Our use of thou-thee-thy is one element that contributes to the difference between us and many, if not most Christian churches today, as well as other religions. For these outsiders, our formal language of prayer may evoke the realm of old-generation Quakers, or of a dwindling group of rigorous, fundamentalist preachers. Together with pockets of staunch evangelicals, Anglophone Mormons may end up as the last major group to thouthee God. Perhaps this is a good thing, to stress our uniqueness that way. Perhaps it is not, if rapprochement with mainstream Christianity is deemed important. If we join in prayer with others, they may find our language and manners archaic and bombastic, and we may find theirs irreverent.

As to our missionary work among Anglophone Christians, those who have been exposed to the KJV constitute a shrinking pool. Most Christians have become unfamiliar with its language. Their conversion to Mormonism thus requires them to give up their familiar, easily readable Scriptures, as well as a prayer form they have grown up with.

Indeed, it seems that most Christian churches have now moved away from the T-words in English. Since the middle of the 20th century, new Bible translations, sponsored by various Bible societies and interdenominational councils, have modernized the biblical language, thus also modifying thou-thee-thy to you and your. In order to better understand our fellow Christians, I believe it is informative to summarize their main arguments, which are linguistic, social and scriptural:

aLinguistically, languages never stop evolving. Words disappear from use or take on different meanings. New words enter to express old concepts. Structures alter. Pronunciation shifts inexorably. That way Old English became, after a few centuries, mostly incomprehensible: Fæder ure, þu þe eart on heofonum… In contrast, the 17th century KJV-version was “modern” at the time, written in “Early Modern English” (which still drew much from medieval French). As such it continued to have a major lingual impact up to the 19th century, especially in Anglican, Calvinistic, Puritan, or Quaker realms, where The Book was continually read and quoted. But since the middle of the 19th century societal changes deeply affected language use also in those realms. Nowadays the KJV contains hundreds of words and structures that, for most people, have become obsolete in form or in meaning. Certain structures offend current grammatical rules. Some are, strictly speaking, now disrespectful, like in Our Father, which art in heaven. The relative pronoun which, indeed, now only applies to objects. The KJV does not meet current readability standards for average readers. Moreover, four or five hundred years from now, our own, present English will sound archaic. The distance from the KJV will have doubled, making it even more difficult to comprehend. Therefore even the new Bible editions of now will need to be revised over time.

b – The social argument stems from the linguistic. According to modernizers, current language use broadens the appeal for the gospel message. As Christian missionary efforts are geared towards younger generations, and to the millions of less literate persons and non-native English speakers, the argument is that comprehension of the message should not be hampered by a 17th century lexicon and style, nor should Christianity be experienced as an elitist and archaic religion. Edwin H. Palmer, spokesman for the New International Version of the Bible, argued:

Do not give them a loaf of bread, covered with an inedible, impenetrable crust, fossilized by three and a half centuries. Give them the word of God as fresh and warm and clear as the Holy Spirit gave it to the authors of the Bible … For any preacher or theologian who loves God’s Word to allow that Word to go on being misunderstood because of the veneration of an archaic, not-understood version of four centuries ago is inexcusable, and almost unconscionable. (quoted in D.A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea For Realism, Grand rapids: Baker, 1979, p. 102).

The debates on Bible versions have been fierce. Before the “modern” viewpoint became generalized in Christian churches during the second half of the 20th century, opposition had to be convinced. Plenty of examples of verses can be given to sustain arguments in both directions. New translations miss a few of the fine distinctions that the KJV-language is able to make (if one knows how to discern them), while the KJV is far from perfect itself and will continue to distance itself from contemporary readers.

c - The scriptural argument deals with correct translation. The KJV was the product of its time, translated with only a narrow access to sources, controversial expansions, and the limited scholarship of a few individuals. Its first editions are said to be riddled with errors, which later editions tried to correct. Since the 20th century, the discovery of older sources and the use of advanced research techniques, supported by interdenominational teams of experts, have been able to better assess the oldest sources available. For our thou-thee-thy topic, the introduction to the New International Version of the Bible mentions:

As for the traditional pronouns “thou,” “thee” and “thine” in reference to the Deity, the translators judged that to use these archaisms, along with the old verb forms such as “doest,” “wouldest” and “hadst” would violate accuracy in translation. Neither Hebrew, Aramaic nor Greek uses special pronouns for the persons of the Godhead.

Such are the main arguments by modernizers. Over the years their viewpoint won by weighing: if in new translations something is lost, so much more is gained. Sales of new Bible translations have soared, bringing God’s word to millions who would never have taken the step to the KJV. But “KJV-only” tendencies remain, usually evangelical and fundamentalist, which continue to draw the rebuttal of others. Some churches, like the Seventh Day Adventists, have no official preference and leave it to the members to use a version which they like and comprehend best.

Though Mormon viewpoints toward Bible choice had been diverse and sometimes even quite liberal (see Phil Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible), in the 1950s a number of Church leaders adopted a clear stance in the KJV-debate. Apostle J. Rueben Clark published his Why the King James Version in 1956—a staunch defense of the KJV. In his Answers to Gospel Questions (vol. 2, 1958, p. 17), President Joseph Fielding Smith stated:

The changing of the wording of the Bible to meet the popular language of our day, has, in the opinion of the writer and his brethren, been a great loss in the building of faith and spirituality in the minds and hearts of the people.

Apparently, the new Bible versions were sensed as a betrayal of values, as a capitulation to modernity. While a peculiar liturgical language, just like Latin for Old Catholics, biblical Hebrew for Jews, or classical Sanskrit for Hindus, not only exudes a charm, but stresses coherence and reinforces unity. For people raised within the sphere of such language, it retains the essence of intimate childhood memories, tied to the earliest experiences of religiosity. The archaic terms, moreover, evoke the savor of the ancient world where it all started. President Gordon B. Hinckley expressed what many feel: “I love the King James Version of the Bible. I love the lift of the language, the depth and the height of its words, and the strength and the grace of its expressions.” There is no doubt that many Anglophone members, even young people, especially if they were raised in the Church, can identify with that statement.

What could further have prompted the Mormon rejection of modernized versions? Distrust of “higher Biblical criticism” as well as isolation may have played a role: Had Mormon experts been involved early on in Bible societies and interdenominational councils, perhaps reactions would have been different. Textual changes, decided by outsiders, carry risks of doctrinal mismatches. In 1992, a statement of the First Presidency affirmed: “While other Bible versions may be easier to read than the King James Version, in doctrinal matters latter-day revelation supports the King James Version in preference to other English translations.” There is little doubt that the use of different Bible versions in the church would reveal small differences with possible doctrinal implications.

Probably most decisive for retaining the KJV is this close relation of our other standard works—Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price—with the KJV-language and style. That relation stems quite naturally from the context of Joseph Smith’s religious world in the 1830s, where the KJV was the main source of literary experience and its language utterly familiar. Joseph rendered God’s words in the religious idiom of his time and his environment. But it made, more than a century later, any acceptance of modern Bible versions a matter with far-reaching implications, considering the other standard works. At present, in that same context, the gigantic efforts of the Church to produce correlated Scriptures with indexes, cross-references, footnotes, Bible dictionary, topical guide, etc., all tied to the KJV, make the idea of lingual modernization all the more remote.

Since then the repeated admonitions to continue to use the KJV and apply the formal style of prayer confirm the Mormon position taken in the 1950s.

The point here is not to debate the choice of the KJV or of modern translations, only to draw attention to the growing distance between us and other Christian churches in terms of religious language.

( Note, however, that in other languages Mormons habitually use more modern Bible translations, depending on local decisions and availability. Moreover, to my knowledge at least in Dutch and in French, the new translations of the Book of Mormon, made in the 1990s, deliberately modernized the language compared to the old translations which contained more outdated words. True, a major reason for the retranslations was to guarantee closeness to the original English, and therefore transpose it as literally and as coherently as possible. Even so, the translators replaced archaic words and expressions, found in previous translations of the Book of Mormon, by modern ones, for more fluency and readability. The principle that keeps the English Scriptures intact and its charm unspoiled has not been followed in other languages. Converts from decades ago still regret that the new Book of Mormon lost the charm of the religious language in which they were led into Mormonism and which for so many years nourished their scriptural reading. I admit that I share those feelings. In church classes I still use my old Dutch Book of Mormon. But I wonder: Am I just driven by selfish nostalgia that trumps concern for incoming generations? How mature is my religiosity if it needs the impulse of peculiar prose?)

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Final thoughts

Thou-thee-thy is becoming one of the elements that affirms Mormon peculiarity. However, it only applies to the English-speaking part of the Church. It does not work in most other languages, where no thou-thee-thy equivalent exist, and where, moreover, the Church uses more modern Bible translations and also modernized language in the other standard works. Could this difference contribute to some cultural discrepancy between Anglophone Mormonism and the rest of the world? Probably not yet now, but it’s worthy of a reflection in the broader perspective of further archaicization of scriptural English and of further internationalization of the Church.

An interesting phenomenon in this international Mormon context, which I observed in church lessons in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, is the use of different Bible versions (and of old and recent versions of our other standard works) among the audience. It triggers attention-grabbing discussions, as members point to differences when Scriptures are read aloud, often leading to fascinating lingual comparisons and sometimes to helpful doctrinal clarifications, because of the choices the different versions offer. This textual diversity seems, overall, to deepen insights in scriptural translations and to make it easier to interpret God’s word in the framework of restored doctrines. Indeed, detachment from literalism allows for adjustments. Joseph Smith’s approach to the KJV, which led to the Inspired Version, was not different.

As to English, if the Millennium is still centuries away and if the Church continues to protect the lingual invariability of the standard works, the same is likely to happen as in other religions with untouchable scriptures. As English will further evolve, the time will come that KJV-language will have to be studied painstakingly, just like biblical Hebrew or classical Sanskrit, in order to be able to read the sacred writings. Will all members, whatever their mother tongue, be encouraged to do the same, in order to belong to the circle of believers competent to read God’s word in its original format? The scenario is utopian, but history is there to show what has happened in other world religions. Whether this development is desirable or not is a debatable question. Venerable religions like Judaism and Hinduism draw a major part of their uniqueness and generational continuity from their sacred language and, educationally, from the prolonged initiation to its understanding. But would such a sphere harmonize with a lively religion actively reaching out to the rest of the world in so many other languages than English?

73 Responses to Thou-thee-thy from other angles

  1. aloysiusmiller on May 21, 2009 at 12:29 am

    Well argued.

  2. Michelle Glauser on May 21, 2009 at 2:07 am

    This is very well thought-out. Thanks for all the info. I’ve been fascinated with this subject as I’ve given up praying in English. My tongue seems to twist on theethouing now if someone asks me to pray in public in English. And just to satisfy your curiosity, I always stuck to the formal words with my private prayer when I still prayed in English.

  3. James on May 21, 2009 at 2:09 am

    In the Thai language there are different levels of speech for Royalty/Deity, polite society, and common or vulgar speech. I’m oversimplifying it a lot but that illustrates the progression. Church materials translated into Thai always use the nouns and verbs of the Royalty/Deity level of speech with referring to the Lord and the Savior.

  4. Peter LLC on May 21, 2009 at 4:06 am

    Thanks for an informative and interesting post.

    A native speaker of English recently moved into the ward and I’ve noticed that his prayers seem more self-conscious than most, with very deliberate attempts to use the prescribed language of prayer, complete with self-correction during the prayer, like a priest blessing the sacrament who realizes he made a mistake. Given how unnatural theethouing seems to be for him, I’ve been curious about what prompted the switch, though I hesitate to ask out of fear of drawing undue attention to a potentially sensitive topic.

  5. Sharon Mystic LDS in Tennessee on May 21, 2009 at 6:00 am

    I am living this experience currently. As a personal care assistant for an 83 yr. old neighbor with dementia, one of my duties is to companion her to the Wed. night activities at her local Baptist Church. This has taught me many lessons. One is the realtime effects of using the casual as opposed to formal addressing of Diety.

    In all their worship and prayer time no one uses the formal, excepting one older lady who also uses the King James Version and she mixes it up flipping back and forth with both ways. When I offer prayer there, I do of course too. Not out of any requirement from my LDS training… or even trying to teach others listening at the Baptist worship/ class setting, but because my relationship with Father is so sacred and personal. The feeling inside is changed. I know those around me are very sincere and trying hard to pray with full intent. But there is such a difference in many ways. A kind of atmosphere where addressing Him that way is ‘bringing Him down to our level’ instead of ‘bowing down in humility and respect’. The whole attitude is shaped acccordingly – from our hearts, the tone, the humble emotion is more full of love and ‘casting of ourselves’ & our whole being unto Him… with a trust and reaching out to a Heavenly God father, exalted and full of love and light and truth.

    Should we not pick the most respectful and honored language possible in 2009… according to our own homeland language..to talk to the GOD of the whole universe & the Creator of all! In that light of those two points… Relationship feelings / attitude and honored respect I vote for Thee, Thou and Thine ! THANKS for great insights on this subject. Love to you all out there.

  6. TT on May 21, 2009 at 6:32 am

    This is excellent. One other thing to consider is how this affects missionary work. One friend laughed after I prayed and said I sounded Amish. This deliberate anachronism and affected piety of theethouing makes us seem really weird.

  7. Joel on May 21, 2009 at 6:50 am

    A. Why not update the standard works into modern English.
    B. Doesn’t this enforce Mormonism as a kind of imperialistic Americanism overseas? (dress in ties, behave like northern Europeans, read Elizabethan English, etc.)

  8. Ardis E. Parshall on May 21, 2009 at 7:39 am

    We’ve given up virtually all of the Mormon culture I grew up with, in the interest of unity in the world-wide church: We gave up our dancing and music and speech and athletic program because it was too complex for small congregations. We stopped singing patriotic songs in July out of sensitivity to non-American Mormons. We can’t sing pioneer anthems any more without somebody in Texas objecting to singing about pioneers and somebody in Florida refusing to sing about mountains. We gave up Relief Society work meetings, and turned Primary and MIA into Sunday School, and gave up our hymn practices and Sacrament Gem memorization in favor of consolidated meetings to cater to regions where people drove long distances to church. We replaced stake conferences with mechanical satellite broadcasts (which in my case means we sit in the *very building* where the broadcasts originate but have to watch the shadows of apostles on a stupid screen rather than hear them live) because we won’t favor one stake over another with regard to apostolic access. We have kept the doctrine, but jettisoned the culture, across the board.

    Now, despite instruction otherwise from apostles like Dallin H. Oaks, there are calls to jettison the old and — to me — familiar and tender and meaningful language of scripture and prayer because it’s “too difficult” for lazy Anglophones to learn.

    You can take my prayer language from me when you can pry it from my cold, dead tongue!

  9. Bro. Jones on May 21, 2009 at 7:41 am

    Outstanding article, with great research. (I majored in Old English in college, and with my lofty scholarship I decree thy research to be good!)

    1. Re #7 and points in the article on that subject: I do fear that theethouing will become another artifact of American Mormonism in our now-global Church. We have a lot of international members in my area, and unfortunately there’s a very distinct educational divide between the people who have adopted theethouing and those who struggle with it: that is, people with more education seem to adopt it quickly, those with less struggle and do seem embarrassed by it. Heck, my wife who is a convert of some 5 years still struggles with it. While I haven’t personally witnessed an instance of this, the rumor mill has dredged up stories of new members being called out from the pulpit (by local leadership) for incorrectly theethouing. If true, this just seems unnecessarily hurtful to new members, especially given Elder Oaks’ statement quoted above.

    And given that so many other languages in the Church either don’t make the theethou distinction or err on the singular/informal side, it just seems like it’s us strange Americans who are doing things differently and then calling it “the Gospel way.” Like a number of other cultural artifacts which seem to be fading, but slowly. [sigh]

    2. Can’t speak to Chinese, but Japanese doesn’t really use pronouns in the way that Indo-European languages do. It’s generally much easier (and more polite) to keep referring to the personal noun or else omit it entirely. That is, instead of saying “God is great and His glory eternal, all praise Him,” you’d say something more like “God is great, and God’s glory eternal;all praise [God].” My limited experience with Japanese LDS scripture seems to bear this out.

  10. Bro. Jones on May 21, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Sorry for double-post, but I find it wonderfully ironic how my post followed #8. Really Ardis: you’d rather continue to force “lazy Anglophone” immigrants to learn 15th-century language so archaic it’s practically German–even if they may have been taught in their native language to use familiar language–just because it’s “special” to you?

    Seriously, tell me again about people who are “lazy” and unwilling to make a significant sacrifice in their life for the greater glory of the Kingdom of God.

    To dial it back a notch: we had a similar thread in which we discussed whether the English Book of Mormon, as the “original” translation, should be privileged like the Arabic Koran. That is, whether we should only teach officially from the English scripture even in non-Anglophone countries. We don’t seem to do that, do we?

  11. Wilfried on May 21, 2009 at 7:51 am

    Thanks all for comments up to this point! It is clear how in a few instances the topic immediately raises understandable emotions. Language is so much part of our deepest being. My post, however, does not advocate a position against the counsel given to Anglophone members. It only tries to analyze implications from other angles as we are involved in a complex process of relations with others. Comments to help understand this process will be most welcome.

  12. Bro. Jones on May 21, 2009 at 7:54 am

    Sorry for flying off the handle–it’s a bit of a touchy issue for me. Sorry Ardis. :)

  13. Ardis E. Parshall on May 21, 2009 at 8:22 am

    No, you didn’t call for abandoning prayer language, Wilfried, although some commenters are leaning in that direction.

    Bro. Jones, my comment was in anticipation of comments like yours. No, there is no doubt that converts have made innumerable and incalculable life changes, many of them worthy of being called sacrifices. I note only that those of us who have not had to make exactly the same choices have nevertheless surrendered many precious aspects of our native culture, all in the interest of welcoming newcomers and extending the gospel to all. Those sacrifices are invisible to those who never made them. Maybe they seem trivial to you in relation to your own life changes. But they are real to people like me who did make them.

    Just as we should be sensitive to the struggles of converts to learn thou-thee-thy and be absolutely deaf to any grammatical mistakes made, we should also be sensitive to the intensely personal, heart-felt, and very real significance of the prayer language some of us learned at our mothers’ knees. I don’t laugh if your wife uses “thee” when the word should technically be “thou,” and I ache with her from the congregation when I can tell that praying publicly is difficult for her.

    I ask only that you not sneer at me for cherishing thou-thee-thy, which, because of my own life circumstances, is as precious to me as anything else connected to religion, because it is inextricably — *in*ex*tri*ca*bly* — bound up with prayer itself, and my most intimate conversations with God.

  14. Adam Greenwood on May 21, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Very thorough. Thank you. And I endorse AEP’s #13 wholeheartedly.

  15. Rob Perkins on May 21, 2009 at 10:02 am

    Personally, during my education, because I made a study of both scripture and Shakespeare, it’s possible for me to use those anachronisms correctly. So I do it because that’s the way proper prayer sounds to mine ear. :-)

    But when people are praying publicly in Stake or Ward meetings around here, the youth just don’t use the forms. They either go all Monson-y with completely indirect language and pay a surface attention to the forms (“We thank thee for the blessing that we have a beautiful day in which to worship”) or forget to do it at all.

    I expect that 20 or 30 years from now, no one will be teaching this practice.

  16. Wilfried on May 21, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Friends, let’s avoid comments that would polarize us in the pro or contra choice of T-forms. More important is to find ways that allow all of us to feel good in the Church.

  17. Derek on May 21, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Shouldn’t we also be pronouncing these words correctly? Thou rhymes with you, etc.

  18. Wilfried on May 21, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Pleasant remark, Derek. You open up the fascinating issue of historical phonology. There is only one “rule”: the way a word is pronounced most frequently is the “norm”, in whatever period or region. And so nowadays, pretty much worldwide, “thou” is pronounced like in “thousand”.

    But there has been some controversy around this pronunciation, precisely because in preceding centuries a phonetic difference could apparently be made between the deferential meaning and the common, coarse meaning… John Walker’s Rhetorical grammar: In which improprieties in reading and speaking are detected, and the true sources of elegant pronunciation are pointed out (1822) has a section on this topic in connection with thy (pp. 42-45). He explains the two possible pronunciations, “elevated” and “dignified” versus the “language of endearment or negligence”.

    There is more on this, but I’ll leave it to the English philologists… !

  19. Rob Perkins on May 21, 2009 at 11:18 am

    When I read the Book of Mormon aloud to my kids, I soften the “ye” so that the vowel sound is more like a “schwa” than a hard “e”. The result approximates Standard American English quite nicely.

    Not that they’re listening anyway, but there you are.

  20. Kaimi Wenger on May 21, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Great post, Wilfried. Incredibly good and detailed explanation of the topic. Good for ye. :P

    A few thoughts crossed my mind:

    -What does the Spanish of Elder Oaks’ talk read? Because that paragraph (it’s a less-used form) would make no sense at all to an hispanohablante. I poked around but couldn’t find a copy of the talk online (Dallin H. Oaks, “El lenguaje de la oración,” Liahona, Julie 1993). I’d be interested in seeing how the translation department handled that.

    -The issue comes up in Latin America because the Bible (at least, the Reina-Valera version) and the LDS scriptures all use vosotros, which is not otherwise used in Latin America. This creates a very similar structure of scripture-language versus real-life-language.

    A few members I knew in Guatemala would pray using vosotros (which creates some interesting theological wrinkles, when you think about it!) because it had scripturey tone. There was also some confusion because the vos form is used in Guatemala, as a kind of coarser version of tu; some members seemed to have the impression that vosotros was a special way to vosear God.

    -And thanks for pointing out that it’s a lot more than just thou and thee. Those are the easy part, really — it’s wast and doth and such where things get complicated.

  21. Geoff B on May 21, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Wilfried, very interesting post. I hope we can agree to “live and let live” when it comes to 1)those who prefer to use the T-words in prayer and 2)those who for whatever reason do not. This seems to me to be one of the most intimate, personal issues you can address — how do you talk to Deity? If anything is between them and God ONLY it is this issue.

  22. Hans Hansen in California on May 21, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    After reading the article I am reminded of a certain Texas governor from early in the 20th century:

    “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!”

    A quote attributed to Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, the first female governor of Texas, in 1925. “Ma” suceeded her husband, “Pa” Ferguson, who had been impeached. She was arguing against legislation requiring high school students to learn a foreign language before graduating. (Reportedly said while holding up her Bible).

  23. Bridget Jack Meyers on May 21, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Excellent post, Wilfried. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I told a story on my blog a few months ago about a boss I had at BYU who asked me to pray for a meeting knowing I was Protestant, then took it upon himself to critique my prayer. Among other things, he wasn’t happy that I didn’t use “thee” and “thou.” Sigh.

    I dislike that this divide in our prayer language exists; it was always a barrier to me back when I was investigating the church, and it just seems like such an unnecessary one. However, I’m not comfortable telling Mormons to change it, and Protestants certainly aren’t going to get more King-Jamesie anytime soon.

    So, for now, I guess I’ll settle for asking Mormons to have a lot of open-mindedness and tolerance on the way other faiths pray, and try to do the same for you.

  24. Alex on May 21, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Wilfried, I really enjoyed this post, thank you.

  25. marie joseph on May 21, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Br.Decoo,

    I enjoyed reading your article . Personally , I shiver a little hearing common language in English prayers . The same happens with unopropiate tutoyers in French and it carries over in Spanish . Probably it has to do with our upbringing and first contact with the Church . I love the richness of older literature and wonder if what some call evolving of a language ,is not really a downfall of it . How I wish I could express myself as people did in centuries past.

    About our “official ” mother tongue , but mine being older than thine [ Flemish versus ABN ] . Never did I get used to ‘jy ‘ or ‘jou’ . With nieces and a sister calling me ‘jy’ , I feel a stranger among my own people . And here is a question for you as profesor, if you permit . How about ‘gy’ , what is its place in old and modern Nederlands ?

    An example would be in the Hymn : “Gy zyt myn hoogste Goed ” This sounds respectful to me .
    Like you mentioned , it is interesting to compare translations , or scriptures in other languages , as it clarifies meanings. President Luchin from the Swiss Temple had the custom of using different languages to explain a gospel point . Maybe if we kept at reading old and new scriptures , we would be better at understanding its language which brings us to the need and benifits of reading and education in general .

    The advise given us must still be applicable to non anglo saxon languages as any culture has its proper and more vulgar form of adressing others .
    As for our family , we just teach by example and the children [some older, adopted ,non English speaking ] pick up on it quickly , they get the feel , especially as they read the scriptures – and that is how I learned it .

    Thank you , Marie Joseph

  26. Wilfried on May 21, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    Gracias for all preceding comments!

    Kaimi (20), that is exactly what I hope to hear: info about the topic in other languages. I presume many languages have a peculiar story to tell as etymological developments tend to happen everywhere. I am looking forward to hear more.

    Great to have you visiting, Bridget (23!). Yes, your experience confirms, more than theory, what rapprochement should mean. As others have also said, tolerance is the first step, next acceptance of diversity. No one should feel excluded.

    Marie Joseph (25), wonderful to see you here! You raise a major point, the power of customs and the charm of our own mother tongue in which we were raised. For us linguists, however, any state of a language, in any period, is a fleeting moment on a continuum. What we now call “proper language” is just a local dialect that was lucky enough to be ennobled and will continue to change. And this “proper language” of now will, in the future, sound archaic and charming. As to your question on “gij”, I’ll get back to it in a moment!

  27. CatherineWO on May 21, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Thank you for this most interesting post. I grew up in the Church in Salt Lake City, and using thee and thou always came most naturally. However, I have been away from Utah (and large LDS congregations) for many years and hear the you form used as often as thee and thou, both in LDS prayers and public prayers, so it now sounds just as natural to my ear as thee and thou. I find myself using both in my own personal prayers.

  28. Wilfried on May 21, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Thanks, CatherineWO! Interesting to hear about diversity among Mormons…

    Marie-Joseph, I’m back to try to answer your question (#25). I had to check some sources. The etymology of Dutch pronouns is complex and controversial. Skipping details and nuances, one can say that all the present forms, gij, jij, je, jou, jullie are originally plural V-forms and can be traced to the same root (comparable to the English you and the French vous). A form like jullie is a combination of jij lui (you people). Gij became more used in the South (Flanders), jij-jou in the North (Holland). Just like in English these plural forms transferred to also address single people, out of politeness. Next they were slowly on abandoned for the plural, as u-uw entered the picture, actually a honorific third person (uwe hoogheid, uwe edelheid, just like in English or Spanish). That’s why we can still say in Dutch u heeft (third person) as well as u hebt. And finally gij, jij, je, jou became reserved for single persons as familiar and colloquial pronouns. A lot of hoops… Gee, and this is only the simplified surface story. To discover more, read here

    As to religious language, gij got into the oldest Dutch bible translations as the standard form, hence its present survival in archaic religious language (like thou-thee in English, though gij is originally a polite plural form) and in some of our oldest hymns. To modernize the biblical language in the 20th century, there was a shift to u to address Deity, which we Mormons also adopted in our scriptures and prayers. However, other Christian churches have moved on and, these past decades, have introduced the familiar jij, je to speak to God: God, we danken jou voor het leven van je Zoon, Jezus. Sounds irrespectful? Because we are not used to it. Most European languages have used the same familiar pronouns for centuries and, because of their tradition, its perfectly respectful. All in language is convention.

  29. Katie Langston on May 21, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Fascinating post, Wilfried.

    This is a topic that caused me some distress when I was learning Bulgarian in the MTC. The fact that they addressed God informally turned my world upside down. I wondered if I had been missing out on a closer, more intimate relationship with God, because growing up, theethouing always made me feel like God was a million miles away.

    Having said that, I completely respect what Ardis said about how that same language is very special, personal, and intimate to her. These days, I figure that however a person wants to pray is probably okay with God.

  30. marie joseph on May 21, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Thank you .Yes absolutely ,it sounds disrespectful , but I suppose ,as in all things,you get used to it over time . Never the less I am glad no longer having to deal with excesive modern language [Nederlands] . Meanwhile , it will benifit all to have a common language of prayer, staying tolerant to variations . Can t wait for the Adamic language to return [together with my memory of it ]
    I will check out the reference with some more time.Thank you .m.j.

  31. DavidH on May 21, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Great post Wilfried.

    I do not have a problem with the common use among LDS of the T-form in prayer, and would never attempt to pry it from the lips of Ardis or anyone else. I do not agree, however, with the continued insistence that it is expected that ordinary English speaking LDS must use the T-form or else they are somehow not respectful.

    Of course, it is not my place to criticize the Brethren and, as Wilfried points out, Elder Nelson just reiterated that strong counsel and the handbook contains a couple of paragraphs on the subject making a similar point. Therefore, you may ignore my comment in the preceding paragraph.

    I do think, and hope, that this is a generational, culturally bound issue (i.e., another form of LDS distinctivenss, like avoiding the cross). I hope it fades away.

    In practice, I think it is. I hear prayers using the T-form, and using the V-form (especially among youth), and using both forms in the same prayer (“we thank thee for the many blessings you have given us”).

    Regarding Kaimi’s comment on vosotros–the endowment translation uses the vosotros form for the plural you. I am not positive, but I think when I attended Spanish endowment sessions 30 years ago, “ustedes” was used for the plural you. I wonder if a regular attender of many years of the Spanish endowment could comment on that.

  32. Wilfried on May 21, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Thank you, Katie (29)! We like to read comments that stress tolerance!

    Interesting points, DavidH (31). Yes, I also think that our prayer language will evolve inexorably. Linguists know one thing for sure: it is impossible to stop language from changing.

    “Thou” will probably be the first to fade because people try to avoid (often unconsciously) the changes in the verbal form that come with it. “Thee” is easier to maintain as object because there are no other implications. Your example shows it perfectly: “We thank thee for the many blessings you have given us”. The more people hear such sentences, the more the usage spreads. But more important than form is the tone of respect and the faith that speaks from the intonation.

  33. Hanna on May 21, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    Since the day I ordered a German Bible from the LDS Catalog (strangely, a version published by the Katholische Bibelanstalt, with several of the Apocryphal books included) and found references to God as “du,” etc., I’ve been intrigued by the differences in international Mormon references to deity.

    And the various translations of Elder Nelson’s recent talk (as posted on lds.org) are just as interesting, particularly when it comes to his specific instruction that “In our prayers we use the respectful pronouns Thee, Thou, Thy, and Thine instead of You, Your, and Yours.”

    For example, both the Dutch and the Spanish translations provide appropriate substitutes (Dutch: “In onze gebeden gebruiken we de respectvolle voornaamwoorden Gij, U en uw in plaats van jij en jouw.” and Spanish: “En nuestras oraciones conjugamos los verbos apropiadamente para los pronombres Tú, Tuyo, Te y Ti en lugar de Usted, Su y Suyo.”)

    The German translation, on the other hand, just explains the English usage without providing any guidance on the German forms (“Im Englischen benutzen wir die respektvollen Fürwörter „thee“, „thou“, „thy“ und „thine“ statt des üblichen „you“, „your“ und „yours“.”)

    And the French translation just side-steps the issue entirely, by omitting the English examples with an NdT/Note du Traducteur (“Dans les prières, il faut utiliser des pronoms personnels particuliers pour la Divinité [en anglais, NdT].”)

    I’d love to know how Elder Nelson’s talk was translated into other languages, but sadly I don’t know any of the other languages listed on lds.org.

  34. jjackson on May 21, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    I’ve grown up using the formal terms, but when in deepest, most sincere prayer, I often find myself with a desire to use the less formal terms. I think it is simply a desire for greater intimacy or closeness. Respect and reverence comes from inside. I think the formal terms are used more for the other people listening than for God.

  35. Matt A on May 21, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    That was very interesting, Wilfried. Thank you for taking the time to make such an informative post.

    Although I find myself far from the prescriptive side of the language debate, I do tend to theethou in my own prayers, having been brought up to do so. I do sometimes use more informal language in my private prayers, however, especially the quick, on-the-run ones during the day, where there is not a huge amount of contemplation involved.

    I think a lot of it boils down to cultural definitions of reverence and respect, which are, as with all things cultural, subject to change over time. One has to strike the right balance between being true to one’s personal feelings, and respectful of other people’s feelings.

    Thinking about this, now, I am not sure that I can define where I stand, exactly, on public prayer. I would never suggest that theethouing be frowned upon, but neither do I feel that non-anglophones should feel pressured to adopt archaic terminology. As long as the address involves respectful, meaningful communication with Deity, I am content.

  36. Left Field on May 21, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    I was very curious about the issue raised by Kaimi and Hanna, namely how do the translators of Elder Nelson’s talk translate the sense of his message?

    The problem is that in English, Elder Nelson recommends the nominally familiar but functionally formal T forms–because of their formality. But in many other languages, the same T forms are used in LDS prayer, but carry no formal connotation.

    I don’t read Spanish very well, but it sounds like the Spanish translators just had him recommending tu as appropriate without giving any reason. Obviously it would make no sense to recommend the use of tu in prayer because of its formality. And to recommend it because of its familiarity would go 180 degrees from Elder Nelson’s message. It’s a conundrum. If “formal” prayer language is important as Elder Nelson says, why are Spanish-speaking saints (according to the Spanish translation of the speech) advised to use the unquestionably familiar form?

  37. Wilfried on May 22, 2009 at 12:24 am

    Thank you, , jjackson (34) and Matt A (35). Your remarks confirm the importance of the personal connotations we attach to words, from upbringing and from culture. That realization indeed implies tolerance for others with different backgrounds.

    Hanna (33), that was a very interesting look into other languages! And Left Field (36) is right in his comments. It’s obvious General Conference translators had to find appropriate ways to convey Elder Nelson’s message and these ways differ from language to language.

    In Dutch gij, u, uw are not special pronouns. Moreover, gij is colloquial and regional-Flemish to address someone in a familiar way, and u and uw are just the normal polite words used every day.

    Peculiar is the Spanish transposition, as this is also tied to various Bible versions and various usages across regions. What is the official Spanish LDS Bible? One with T-forms? Then we understand, from the historical context, why the daily T-forms are recommended over the deferential V-forms — “En nuestras oraciones conjugamos los verbos apropiadamente para los pronombres Tú, Tuyo, Te y Ti en lugar de Usted, Su y Suyo” (though members unaware of the history may wonder). Of course, in writing, the capitalization on Tú, Tuyo, Te and Ti adds reverence, but makes no difference in oral use.

    However, Kaimi (20) had mentioned “The issue comes up in Latin America because the Bible (at least, the Reina-Valera version) and the LDS scriptures all use vosotros, which is not otherwise used in Latin America.” We need some Spanish clarification here.

    The French translation of Elder Nelson’s talk circumvented the prayer-counsel cleverly (though the situation is basically the same as in Spanish). Of course, the French trick to not translate the counsel is understandable because the way Elder Nelson put it, would only draw undue attention to the exactly reverse situation in French: the use of the familiar tu, te, toi to address God in French is striking because of the social norm to use those pronouns only with very close acquaintances, children, and pets. Of course, when one knows the origin of the use (as I explained in my post), it makes sense. But few people are aware of this history.

    This makes for a fascinating walk across languages! None is a “problem” as such, because, within one’s own cultural-semantic realm, convention makes the since-ages-used-pronouns-to-address-Deity per definition respectful. It’s only when one starts talking about it and comparing, that more explanations are needed…

  38. Nathan Coffey on May 22, 2009 at 3:25 am

    Because I grew up active in the church, with good parents who instilled these habits in me early, it has never been a problem to use the proper pronouns in my prayers.

    However, one thing irks me in relation to members of the church is when they close out their TESTIMONIES OR TALKS by saying: “…in the name of thy son…Amen.” They are looking directly at me and the rest of the audience, addressing us and say that? It really bugs me, and I notice very active members of the church doing it often. I wish the church would come out and make a statement about that. I find it quite sacrilegious. I know they aren’t trying to be, and perhaps it just has slipped into a habit due to ending prayers that way, but I wish it didn’t happen.

    Just my two cents.

  39. Wilfried on May 22, 2009 at 6:06 am

    Indeed, Nathan, lingual habits are formed by listening and repeating. It also shows how the meaning of “thy” is not understood in this new formulaic development.

    To ease the irritation, we can imagine that the closing of the testimony or talk includes an ellipsis: “And I say these things, [Father in heaven], in the name of thy Son… “. And if we in the audience close our eyes right then, it’s OK!

    But, of course, you’re right as to the principle…

  40. Geoff B on May 22, 2009 at 8:44 am

    Wilfried, one interesting factoid about Spanish in Latin America. There are two famiilar ways of addressing people, Tu and Vos. I have seen older Spanish language Bibles (especially from Spain, where Vos is not used in common speech) that use Vos as an equivalent for “Thou.”

    However, for whatever reason Vos is increasingly used instead of Tu in Latin America. I have been traveling in Latam for 25 years, and Vos used to be confined to Central America and the southern cone. Now, I am hearing it in Colombia and Chile, among other places.

    Here is an interesting Wikipedia article on the voseo, or use of Vos in Spanish:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voseo

  41. Geoff B on May 22, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Regarding Vosotros, it is not used in Latin America regularly but is understood as the “Spanish (from Spain) way of saying Ustedes.” True, it is used in the Bible, but is not necessarily seen by educated Latin Americans as an archaic word (the way we see “Thine”) but instead is just a word used today elsewhere. Most Latin Americans see novelas from Spain, where “Vosotros” is used all the time. Spanish businesspeople are all over Latin America, and you can’t talk to them for more than five minutes before hearing them say, “vosotros.” So, there is a difference between American English understanding of “Thine” and Latin American understanding of “Vosotros.”

  42. Ardis E. Parshall on May 22, 2009 at 8:52 am

    While worldly manners of daily dress and speech are becoming more casual, we have been asked …

    It’s interesting that Elder Nelson pairs speech with dress in this context. Because he does so, I think his use of “formal, proper” to describe prayer language has very-little-to-nothing to do with the grammatical concept of formality. Rather, he seems to be calling for us to be less careless in speech, less casual in sacred matters, just as we’ve been repeatedly urged to be thoughtful in regard to what we wear to church. It’s a matter of more respect to the sacredness of the occasion, not a claim that the language/dress itself is sacred.

    If we look at it that way, then an examination of the historical development of T-words and V-words is interesting, but as irrelevant as an examination of the historical development of flip-flops. Maybe flip-flops could be shown to be the direct descendants of the type of sandals Christ wore, but to use that relationship as rationalization for wearing flip-flops to Sacrament meeting wlould not only run counter to the request that we not do so, but would also introduce an element of rebellion and self-justification that is wrong in itself.

    If we look at it that way, then a convert’s or a new English-speaker’s “errors” with T-words are no more serious and should be no more remarked upon than a shabby but clean wardrobe.

    If we look at it that way, then the language used in public worship may well have a different purpose than that used in private worship. Pajamas may be entirely suitable for your personal nightly prayers, but they’re worse than out of place for an invocation from the ward pulpit.

    If we look at it that way, then there’s nothing remarkable about the matter affecting one part of the church and not all parts. The cultural differences between Samoa and Chicago justify different considerations of flip-flops and whether men are expected to wear trousers to Sacrament meeting. The linguistic development of English has been different from that of French or German, and it would be odd to expect the same directives under those circumstances.

    I apologize for the length of this comment.

  43. Adam Greenwood on May 22, 2009 at 9:05 am

    To paraphrase Ardis P., symbols don’t have to have intrinsic content to still matter as symbols.

  44. Geoff B on May 22, 2009 at 9:09 am

    OK, now onto Portuguese. “Voce” is the primary way of saying “you” in Brazil and is used as both familiar and formal. “Tu” is used in southern Brazil and in Portugal as the familiar (in Portugal, Voce is the equivalent of Usted in Spanish). “Vos” is used in older Bibles and is the equivalent of “Thou.”

    So, if you are traveling to Argentina, and you use Vos, they will think you are young and hep and with it, but if you then go to Brazil and use Vos they will think you are archaic and probably a Quaker.

  45. Left Field on May 22, 2009 at 10:31 am

    #41 I thought that in Spain, “vosotros” is the familiar plural, while “ustedes” is the formal plural. I’m pretty sure I got that from my (Spanish) Spanish teacher when I audited her class a million years ago at BYU.

  46. Wilfried on May 22, 2009 at 10:37 am

    In view of the complexity of Spanish pronouns, multiplied by historical developments, by regional differences, by social levels, by Bible versions … it looks like we will need extra linguistic expertise to sort this out.

    To focus on our topic: is there a Mormon scriptural standard for “divine pronouns” for the Spanish-speaking church, worldwide?

  47. hcl on May 22, 2009 at 10:51 am

    I agree with #34. I was raised mormon and can thee-thou with the best of them, but it makes me feel far removed when I pray.

    Like some have mentioned as well, I switched after the MTC (Spanish-speaking mission). We were taught that the formal way to address people who we respect and who are our elders with the Uds. form, friends were casually addressed with “tu.” But, our prayers were using “tu.” It struck me as odd at the time, and I remember giving the instructor a hard time about it…

    Over time, i just feel more personal using “you.” I can make my prayers more sacred and special in other ways than sticking to a prescribed list of personal pronouns…

  48. Ardis E. Parshall on May 22, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Did my 42 not “focus on our topic”? I specifically addressed points 1-3 of “the four questions raised from other angles.”

  49. Wilfried on May 22, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Thanks, Ardis, for your precious contributions!

    In # 46 I meant, since we were dealing in that comment with Spanish pronouns: To focus on our topic [of Spanish pronouns in our prayers and scriptural language]. And hence the question: is there a Mormon scriptural standard for “divine pronouns” for the Spanish-speaking church, worldwide?

  50. John H. Jenkins (???) on May 22, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    Chinese doesn’t inherently have multiple ways of addressing other people. There is a “polite” form of “you,” but it only sounds distinct in Mandarin and not in Cantonese. As a Cantonese-speaker, I don’t know the extent to which it’s used in practice when praying. It also seems to be relatively modern, as it’s unattested in the 18th century KangXi dictionary.

    Towards the beginning of the 20th century (if memory serves), a two new characters were created to use when referring to the Christian God in the second or third person. They are pronounced exactly the same as the normal characters in all dialects, so it’s a distinction possible only in writing and used only inconsistently then.

    That rara avis, written Cantonese, has a different third person pronoun from standard written Chinese, and it does not seem to have a modified form coined to use when referring to God.

    Of course, given the nature of Chinese characters, some idiot out there could yet make one up, but I doubt it will happen. Written Cantonese tends to be very informal. If you’re a Cantonese speaker and want to write something that sounds formal, you’d use standard written Chinese or even in extreme cases something classical Chinese-oid.

    In theory, a Cantonese speaker could switch to standard written Chinese when praying in an effort to sound more formal, but that would just sound really, really weird.

  51. Adam Greenwood on May 22, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Correct, in Spain vosotros is the familiar plural while ustedes is the respectful plural. The formal tenses are barely used in Spain; when used they strike one as antique. We missionaries and also South Americans (they use ‘usted’ forms very frequently) had an old-fashioned, courtly air about us because of it, like someone wearing a fedora and tipping it to the ladies.

    Prayers are in ‘tu,’ not just among the members, but in scripture, translated materials, general conference translations and, of course, in the little prayer flip chart we had to show people how to pray

    “1. Nuestro Padre Celestial,
    2. te damos gracias por . . .
    3. te pedimos . . .
    4. en el nombre de Jesucristo, amen.

  52. Adam Greenwood on May 22, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    I understand that others have a different experience–see some of the comments above–but for me using the antique forms of thee and thou make praying sweeter. It creates verbal seclusion from the outside world just like praying in a bedroom or a closet or a grove creates spatial seclusion.

  53. DavidH on May 22, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    The first time I remember hearing official discouragement of the v-form (“you”) in prayer was in the late 1960s early 1970s. This was at the time of Vietnam, the new morality, rock n roll, drugs, hippies, Vatican II, the institution of a dress code at BYU and the like. My perception was that the Brethren thought that shifting to the v-form in prayer was part of an erosion of traditional values manifest in other areas, and therefore to be resisted.

    Illustrative tangent. With respect to the dress code, I recall BYU president Dallin Oaks’ giving a speech explaining that some parts of the new dress code–e.g., the ban on beards–were culturally driven, not part of a divine standard, and that those aspects might change. I.e., at that time, in U.S. culture, male long hair and beards were associated with hippies, rebellion and drugs.

    Beard are no longer associated with rebellion in U.S. or world culture generally. Even some prominent conservative evangelical republicans wear beards. However, within core LDS culture, beards still are not acceptable. It is as if, for LDS, what is appropriate and not appropriate is frozen from a generation or two ago. Or perhaps, what was initially a culturally and temporally bound cultural marker has become an apparently permanent boundary marker of LDS distinctiveness.

    I think the same is true of the t-form and v-form in prayer. Whether or not the v-form was inconsistent with the traditional values supported by the Church in the 1960s and 1970s, that is no longer true. In the 1960s and 1970s, it might have been predominantly hippies and “liberal” Christians who used the v-form. But today, even the Pope (no left wing radical and not an anti-traditionalist) and the most conservative protestant Christians use the v-form.

    Thus, use of the t-form versus the v-form, in U.S. culture, is no longer a marker of traditionalism versus nontraditionalism, but is gradually becoming a distinctive marker of LDS English speaking culture versus almost everyone else in English speaking culture (I think Quakers still use the t-form). What may have originally been perceived as a temporal, linguistic usage bound marker is becoming a unique, peculiar marker of LDS English speakers.

    Ardis is correct. Ultimately the history does not matter, nor do the historic or current reasons or explanations offered by our leaders. For better or for worse, the Brethren have clearly directed English speaking LDS to do their best to use the t-form in prayer.

    Thus, if some one asks me why English speaking Mormons use the t-form in prayer, my answer is that it is because our leaders have directed us to do so. If some one asks why our leaders have asked us to do so, my answer is that 1. it might be ineffable and inexplicable revelation, 2. it might be our leaders think the t-form is more reverent, because that is the way they were raised, or 3. it might be because the core, long-term membership of the Church is accustomed to praying that way

  54. Adam Greenwood on May 22, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Here’s the spanish version of Elder Nelson’s talk:

    “En nuestras oraciones conjugamos los verbos apropiadamente para los pronombres Tú, Tuyo, Te y Ti en lugar de Usted, Su y Suyo “, i.e, use ‘tu’ forms instead of ‘usted’ forms. Oddly there is no reference to the usted direct object form, ‘le’, which is the equivalent of ‘te’.

    Here’s the link:
    http://lds.org/conference/talk/display/0,5232,89-3-1038-16,00.html

  55. John H. Jenkins (???) on May 22, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    In re Hannah (#33): The Chinese translation says that we should be using the polite second person pronoun, ?, instead of the regular one, ?. If I were truly ambitious I’d dig out the audio of the Cantonese translation.

    (Mini-rant: I’m not going to apologize for using Chinese characters or their failure to show up properly at the other end. It’s 2009, people. Any software which doesn’t use Unicode for text is obsolete. Heck, I should be able to post in the Deseret Alphabet if I wanted.)

  56. John H. Jenkins (???) on May 22, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    OK, I haven’t had this good a laugh in ages. I just listened to the Cantonese translation of Elder Nelson’s talk to see what happened to the “thee, thy, thine”, inasmuch as Cantonese has only one way of saying “you”.

    It happens that Cantonese is undergoing a sound shift, and words starting with /n/ are starting to be pronounced with /l/, particularly by younger speakers. Even as long ago as my MTC days, we had one native instructor who would tell us that such-and-such a word was a “loun” instead of a “noun.”

    It happens that the word for “you” starts with an /n/. Most younger speakers would pronounce it with an /l/, including the translator of Elder Nelson’s talk. For a “formal” way of doing it, he used an initial /n/. Evidently, that’s his way of making the word sound formal, or, at least, old-fashioned.

  57. Wilfried on May 23, 2009 at 8:04 am

    Muchas gracias for all the info on Spanish and Chinese – both Mandarine and Cantonese. Indeed, John (56), that’s a peculiar way to make the same word sound formal or informal. I guess that can be done in more languages, with a little shift in pronunciation. Actually, it used to be done with thy in English, according to Walker (see my reference in 18).

    DavidH (53), that was a thoughtful and limpid analysis. It seems, since we’re all human, and human and cultural traits play their role on all levels of leadership, that your assessment is right. Next to the KJV-language of latter-day revelation, your reasons 2 and 3 are probably part of the well-meant counsel given. Which counsel we accept, let that be clear.

  58. Francisco Guzman on May 23, 2009 at 10:51 am

    As a native Spanish speaker I can say that Usted is more formal than Tu. Kids talk to adults or school teachers using ‘usted’ and they use ‘tu’ when talking to their peers and also missionaries are encouraged to use ‘usted’ when talking to investigators and companions.

    But on the other hand we are encouraged to do the opositive while praying, we are encouraged to use “Tú, Tuyo, Te y Ti” instead of “Usted, Su y Suyo” because it’s less formal and presents a closer relationship with Our Heavenly Father.

    I guess this kind of things happen once in a while with Church related translations. Don’t want to get away from the topic but just as an example 28 years later we haven’t got the change in the text that Elder McConkie’s committee did in Abraham 1:4 for the 1981 English edition in the Spanish one (we still have ‘our first father’ (‘nuestro primer padre’) instead of ‘or first father’ (‘o primer padre’).

    In the worldwide Church we have today, translations are a giant task in which we still have a lot of work to do to get things right, especially if we consider Alma 29:8, the problem is that, as we move on, the languages do too.

  59. Alison Moore Smith on May 23, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    What a great post. I’ve been interested in this since it was brought back up in conference in the 90′s.

    What I notice (I apologize if I’m redundant, haven’t read all the comments) is that lots of people simply avoid pronoun use altogether in prayers. It’s not that they use the “improper” form, they use none at all. I particular notice this with younger adults and teens.

    Instead of “We thank thee for this Sabbath” they say “We are grateful for this Sabbath,” etc.

    Although I was raised with the “proper” prayer language, I honestly think it’s often a barrier in prayer for many. It’s hard to “talk” to someone in a way you don’t talk. I wish we’d just let it fade.

  60. Alison Moore Smith on May 23, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    It is as if, for LDS, what is appropriate and not appropriate is frozen from a generation or two ago.

    DavidH, loved your comments.

    This is so true. Today’s General RS presidency dress would have been utterly scandalous to Brigham Young and his Retrenchment Society. It seems that the standard for us is often just “old-fashioned” or “conservative in the current culture.” And it’s very fluid.

    Which reminds me that I really wish they’d publicly counter the prohibition on 2-piece swimsuits, because the tankini trend has really made so many 2-piece options much more modest than any 1-piece.

    There is an element of this in the evangelical community as well. The Duggar family is a pretty good example. Their dress–particularly the girls–isn’t modern. It’s 1980′s. Denim jumpers, big collars, claw bangs, etc. I understand why particular styles would be unacceptable (too revealing, etc.) but not why a particular decade is acceptable, but updating isn’t. The same applied to the Amish. Why are wheels and ties OK, but engines and zippers not?

  61. Robert Poort on May 23, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    Within the Mormon faith tradition we usually do not pray “O Lord” but rather “Dear Heavenly Father” (and perhaps in time “Heavenly Mother”). T-words are associated with “Lord” (think of the movies), but when it comes to expressing ourselves to Heavenly Father, one would assume that as his children most of us would prefer more affectionate language.

    Primary children sing “I am a child of God” – and seem perfectly happy with that – only adults sing “Nearer to Thee”, typically complicating things.

    Perhaps we use T-words deliberately as another, alternative language, addressing a Deity from another, eternal dimension. We are (still) unfamiliar with that dimension and perhaps are looking for similar unfamiliar words to address God. In some faith traditions people pray in tongues in order to express what in known languages cannot be adequately expressed.

    And talking about alternative language: the International Language Esperanto as the most logic and simplified language, exclusively uses “vi” in both singular and plural forms, but however later did add a formal “ci” for those who absolutely feel the need to differentiate. Folks speaking English as a second language generally feel no need to complicate things even further. I can only imagine how people that just learned Dutch as a second language would feel about having to learn old Dutch expressions because of sentimental feelings among native Dutch speakers. And mind you: Dutch is probably the next closest thing to English, so imagine how torturous it would be for speakers of non- Indo European languages.

    Let’s be mutually inclusive and allow each other to offer sincere prayers the way we prefer: Nearer to Thee or closer to you!

    Thank you Wilfried for helping us understand the issue better.

  62. Wilfried on May 24, 2009 at 2:05 am

    Thanks, Robert. You raise some interesting aspects.

    One is the nuance between feeling God as a distant “O Lord” or as a closer “dear Father”. The “Lord’s prayer” itself seems to teach us closeness and simplicity, as the relation father-child would imply. At the same time, some cultures have differing concepts on this relation and, also, in each family children can have quite different relations with their dad. We should not forget that the basic reason for the thou-thee-thy counsel has to do with humility and reverence. These are concepts not necessarily in conflict with closeness and simplicity. A problem, however, arises when one ties these concepts to specific words, because the relation word-concept differs from language to language, and from person to person according to age, upbringing, environment, and fluency with the language. Hence the fluctuations in reactions in the comments we’ve read.

    Another issue that you touched upon, by referring to the Primary song “I am a child of God”, deserves some further study: how and how well do English-speaking Mormon children internalize thoutheeing through their various “interlanguage” phases? (great topic for a dissertation on language acquisition!) It might become different than in the past. The tendency to avoid thou and use you for the subject pronoun, while still keeping thee for the object pronoun (see comment 32), may continue to expand in order to avoid the “weird” verb forms. In fact, well exemplified in this popular Children’s song by Janice Kapp Perry — and also beautifully expressing the very idea of growing closeness:

    Heavenly Father, are you really there?
    And do you hear and answer ev’ry child’s prayer?
    Some say that heaven is far away,
    But I feel it close around me as I pray.
    Heavenly Father, I remember now
    Something that Jesus told disciples long ago:
    “Suffer the children to come to me.”
    Father, in prayer I’m coming now to thee.

  63. eremite on May 24, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Awesome post, Wilfried! Posts like this are why I still read Times and Seasons religiously. A few thoughts:

    I remember in middle school my classmates found it well nigh impossible to read Shakespeare aloud, let alone understand the meaning, while it came much easier to me (the only Mormon) because I’d been theethouing scriptures and prayers my whole life. Perhaps by continuing to use archaic language religiously, we are subtly encouraging the importance of education?

    And yes, I theethou even my most inimate prayers. But, because it isn’t that hard for me, I’m probably not getting the intended “humility and reverence” out of it that I should be. Thanks for reminding me that “more important than form is the tone of respect and the faith that speaks from the intonation” (32). Even using correct pronouns, I probably get that wrong all the time.

  64. James Oldham on May 24, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    Thank you Wilfried for the very thorough and thoughtful discussion and insights. After living in Germany as a foreign exchange student, in France as a missionary, and in Mexico on business…. I had completely abandoned the KJV prayer language of my pioneer ancestors.

    However, Elder Nelson’s recent talk brought this back for consideration. Sometimes I suppose there are blessings in rote obedience, such as conforming to the selected priesthood uniform of white shirt. I can’t grow a real beard anyway, so that has never been a challenge. Brass instruments are banned from services, yet the organ has a trumpet stop. From revelation we know there is a pecking order in intelligence, and it must be likewise applied to musical instruments.

    Being somewhat of a conformist wannabe….my current solution is to thou/thee/thy for English where applicable and expected, and pray in a foreign language if I want to get “personal”.

  65. Wilfried on May 25, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Comments much appreciated, eremite and James. Nice comments too, to confirm this post had no intention to undermine thoutheeing in English. The counsel has been given and we follow it. Period. What we tried to do through this post and discussion is broaden the horizon: looking at thoutheeing from other angles. Sometimes the Anglo-perspective as such does not clarify the implications outside its sphere. Hopefully the discussion has been helpful to do to this. No real resolution, which was not intended, but perhaps some things to consider in the future.

  66. Jessie T. on May 26, 2009 at 5:44 am

    Interesting topic.

    My family heritage is Quaker and when my mother joined the LDS church in her twenties she had a very difficult time giving up the traditional “plain language” speech that she used with her family. The words “thee, thy, and thine (no thou)” were used in place of “you, your, and yours” in her daily communication with her immediate relatives. She decided to continue using it and I grew up using the T-words with my family. Others who were not in our immediate family were addressed with “you”, even including my father’s family.

    I have continued this tradition with my husband and our children. We love the closeness that it promotes and the ease with which my children pray. It makes the Lord seem like a part of our family. I have no idea if my kids will continue using this form of speech with their families, but I know how much I love it.

  67. Adam Greenwood on May 26, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Remarkable, Jessie T. Since you didn’t use ‘thou,’ I take it verb forms were never a problem for you? I sometimes wonder if using ‘thou’ but leaving the verbs unchanged would be the easiest solution for many English speakers.

  68. Wilfried on May 26, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Thanks for asking this interesting question, Adam. Since Jessie T. did not respond yet, let me pass on some information that may help. There are variants in Quaker-talk and these have also evolved over the years. But, basically, no thou any more, and thee as subject requires the verb in the third person: Thee is looking good today.

    Various sources discuss these variants and developments. I limit to some easily found on the web: Cheratra Yaswen from the U of Toronto offers a good historical overview here.

    Robert Bley-Vroman from the University of Hawaii also offers some good insights here.

    A discussion summary from the Linguist here shows how a number of myths need to be rectified.

  69. Adam Greenwood on May 27, 2009 at 10:26 am

    Thee has given me a helpful response, WD. Thank thee.

  70. Chelsea on June 1, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    It was interesting to me on my mission (France) that the only person I was supposed to “tutoie” was God. Even my dearest companions were supposed to be addressed as “vous.” I liked the idea that my closest, most intimate relationship was with Heavenly Father.

  71. Wilfried on June 2, 2009 at 8:39 am

    Thank you, Chelsea. Interesting how you sensed the value of “tu” as intimate, since that is the value you were taught to perceive. However, for Francophones born into this language use, the pronoun would usually be sensed as a “tu de majesté” because perceived as belonging to a separate sacred sphere. It just shows how much personal experience determines perception, and how rules are determined by those who feel, with good intention, that their perception should be the tradition. Nothing in language has intrinsic value, it’s all a matter of convention.

  72. John Buffington on June 2, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Wilfried

    Love this discussion.

    I went to Belgium on my mission. After 25 years of marriage to a french-speaking native I have learned some rules:

    I can use the “tu” form with

    God
    my wife
    children
    animals
    her siblings
    anyone in Québec
    close friends

    I can use the “vous” form with

    my mother-in-law
    people I meet on the street
    groups of people
    no individual in Québec

    There are rules and context, and I have reached the conclusion that I will never understand all the nuances. I use thee-thou-thy language in english prayer out of convention. I am not sure it gives me the same sense of intimacy as when I pray in french, but as you note, maybe this is because I don’t see the french form as a “tu de majesté” when I pray, but rather as a form of familiarity.

    I do find it amusing, that I cannot use this familiar form with my mother-in-law, even after 25 years since, “cela ne se fait pas!” I just tell her that I feel closer to God than to her, and she laughs.

  73. Wilfried on June 2, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Hilarious, John, and to the point. Your inventory shows: language is, indeed, illogical convention. With your mother-in-law’s irrefutable argument: Cela ne se fait pas. [One does not do that].

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