Prayer and pronouns

Several items relating to prayer have been mentioned around the bloggernacle recently.

  1. English-speaking members of the Church have repeatedly been taught to pray using the pronouns thou and thee, in General Conference and the Ensign, and other sources, such as the Religious Educator
  2. It is asserted that these are the respectful or honorific pronouns.
  3. Non-English speaking members whose language possesses them typically use intimate prounouns in prayer vs. formal or honorific pronouns. French, Spanish, and German are frequently cited.

#1 and #3 aren’t really in question. #2 has been questioned by many and raises other questions.

Are these indeed the respectful pronouns? Shouldn’t we be intimate in our prayers with our Father? Is it possible to be both intimate AND respectful? If the language of the scriptures (ie. Greek and Hebrew, not the language of translation) does not use special pronouns, why should we?

Here’s what the OED has to say on the subject, with my comments bracketed.

Thou and its cases thee, thine, thy, were in OE. used in ordinary speech; in ME. they were gradually superseded by the plural ye, you, your, yours, in addressing a superior [ie. respectful speech] and (later) an equal, but were long retained in addressing an inferior[!]. Long retained by Quakers in addressing a single person, though now less general; still in various dialects used by parents to children, and familiarly between equals, esp. intimates; in other cases considered as rude. In general English used in addressing God or Christ, also in homiletic language, and in poetry, apostrophe, and elevated prose.

From the venerable OED, it seems that these pronouns have been used variously for respectful speech (addressed to superiors), intimate speech (family members, friends, etc.), and inferior speech (addressed to those below you in age, class, status, etc.) This is more complex than I had previously understood.

It is frequently suggested (I have myself, at times) that the our leaders have simply gotten the prounouns mixed up or retain them out of tradition. Many of us, it seems, are uncomfortable with these pronouns. I have been. In fact, in the last few years, I’ve simply prayed with no second-person pronouns at all, which frees one from the burden of verbally committing to a choice and is really quite easy to do. For example, replace “the blessings thou has bless us with” by “the blessings we have received.”

Elder Oaks has an interesting General Conference talk in which he addresses nearly all of those questions.

Regarding foreign language, he says that

The special language of prayer follows different forms in different languages, but the principle is always the same. We should address prayers to our Heavenly Father in words which speakers of that language associate with love and respect and reverence and closeness. The application of this principle will, of course, vary according to the nature of a particular language, including the forms that were used when the scriptures were translated into that language. Some languages have intimate or familiar pronouns and verbs used only in addressing family and very close friends. Other languages have honorific forms of address that signify great respect, such as words used only when speaking to a king or other person of high rank. Both of these kinds of special words are appropriately used in offering prayers in other languages because they communicate the desired feelings of love, respect, reverence, or closeness.

Among other things, Elder Oaks suggests that we use these pronouns in English not because the pronouns themselves are respectful, but because doing so sets our language of prayer apart from our common speech, and that having a special language for only one person reflects both intimacy AND respect.

I’ll have to read it again.

Thoughts? Personal experiences and data on non-English language pronouns and prayer?

23 thoughts on “Prayer and pronouns

  1. In Spanish, the scriptures use the “tu” form. This is the familiar form.

    They also use “vosotros” which is not used at all outside of Spain. So for all of Latin America, there is a distinct foreign-sounding element in scripture. The Reyna Valera translation of the Bible uses vosotros, and so does the BOM.

    (There are some interesting differences, however, between the Reyna Valera, which the church uses in Latin America, and the BOM. The major difference that is readily apparent is the translation of the Lord’s name. The BOM uses “the Lord” which translates to “el Senor” in Spanish. The KJV translates the name to Lord as well, but the Reyna Valera translates it “Jehovah,” which of course is what it is (YHWH/YHVH) in the Hebrew).

    most people in Guatemala have no real familiarity with vosotros outside of scriptures. They do try to work it into talks or prayers sometimes, but the result is often pretty disastrous, linguistically.

  2. Mandarin Chinese has a respectful word “Nin” (sounds like teen with an n at the front).
    It just feels right to me using thee, thine, thou, etc. Whenever I throw in a “you”, it just seems weird. But if we are supposed to be talking to our Father, then shouldn’t we be able to talk in the way that we can best communicate, even if it is full of slang?

  3. Hmm, I was trying to avoid the whole vos/vosotros thing, but I don’t think that my original comment is entirely clear, so I guess I have to open this can of worms.

    There is a huge complicating factor for scriptural language in Latin America, and that is the existence of the vos form.

    Vos is an older Spanish, single person familiar form. It was in use in the Sixteenth Century, when much of Latin America was settled. The split was between vos (familiar) and tu (less familiar).

    Then the Usted for was developed out of the very formal salutation “vuestra merced.” While that was happening, two additional developments occurred — first, vos fell out of favor; second, vosotros began developing as a plural of tu. However, most of these changes didn’t make it across to the colonies. Usted did make it across; however, in much of Latin America, vos remained in use. Also, no one but Spain picked up vosotros.

    The end result is that the Spanish of Spain is very different from much of Latin America.

    Spain: tu (singular familiar), vosotros (plural familiar)
    Latin America: vos (singular familiar) (used in some parts), tu (singular familiar), Uds (plural familiar, identical to plural formal).

    Colonies that maintained more contact with Spain, such as Mexico and Peru, dropped vos. It’s still very much in use in Central America, Chile, and (I think) Northern South America.

    Since there are two familiar forms, each region has developed its own particular nuances of the difference between tu and vos. In Guatemala vos is (broadly speaking) a crude familiar and tu is an intimate familiar. Vos is used between buddies, and on inferiors. Tu is used between family members, or boyfriend and girlfriend. Also, many educated Guatemalans consider vos to be a coarser form of greeting. Every once in a while, the missionaries would be told not to use vos. (This was universally ignored. Usted is very formal, and no elder is going to call his comp “tu” — that’s asking to be hazed about sexual orientation).

    Also, vos and vosotros are formed in very similar ways.

    So the strange situation is that scriptural language contains the vosotros form, which is very unusual for Guatemalans. However, it sounds very similar to the vos form, which is the coarser way to talk.

    Also, vosotros is plural, while vos is singular. So often when people try to fancy up their prayer, they try to add vosotros verbs. This is utterly bizarre. (Setting the doctrinal questions aside — given our theology, perhaps it _is_ appropriate to address God in prayer as “you guys,” but that’s not what’s going on here, it’s linguistic mistake people are making). They also often end up praying in vos which ends up sounding disrespectful.

  4. Kaimi:

    Tú is used throughout Latin America. Only a few places in Central America, Argentina, and Uruguay use vos as a matter of course. There are places in Colombia as well, but they use tú more than vos. Chile uses vos but more of a goof than anything else. The older University of Chicago Spanish-English dictionaries have a map that shows area of vos usage as compared to those using tú.

    Formal vs informal pronouns is very country dependent. As an example, Colombians use Ud with everyone, Argentines use Ud with very few people.

  5. In Lao and Thai, there are familiar forms and honorific forms.

    And if you tried praying using the familiar forms, you would be speaking gibberish. In fact, there is a whole set of pronouns, nouns and verbs to be used exclusively in relation to divine beings.

    A lot of this is cultural. “Thee” and “thy” weren’t honorific back in the day, but they function as such now. To say that any one language “does it right” and the others should follow suit (for example, that in English we should start using “you” because Apanish uses more familiar forms) seems to be a stance lacking in theological humility.

  6. It is interesting to note that Elder Oaks related the language of prayer to the language of the scriptures. I have found that when I pray by the spirit and am feeling the spirit, it tends to be more like scripture. If we read the scriptures and really own that scriptural language then it only makes sense that when we pray we speak in that holy language.

    As far as use of slang etc. I don’t think that is proper at all. Yes, we should have a close and intimate relationship with the lord, but if you met President Hinkly would you say “Dude, it’s totally rad to meet you, I mean, Gordy B.! Rock On!”? You can have a close relationship but still maintain respect and reverence.

  7. Pronouns are not the end of the story. Who among us can consistently conjugate verbs with “thou” correctly? I can’t. Hooking -st on everything doesn’t work: modal verbs conjugate differently (for example, ‘thou shalt’). There are no guarantees that -st will work in the past tense, or on strong verbs, either, and I haven’t spent enough time looking at the KJV or grammars of early modern English to figure it out on my own. What about the subjunctive? I wonder if there’s a Renaissance scholar with her reference books handy…

    Showing love and respect is good. Being alienated from the means of linguistic production of prayer less so.

    Also, even the hymnbook is inconsistent:

    I’ll go where You want me to go, dear Lord,
    O’er mountain, or plain, or sea;
    I’ll say what You want me to say, dear Lord,
    I’ll be what You want me to be.

  8. There might not be this dichotomy if we analogize to the German pronoun chart, which, I believe, is the original way that these “honorific” pronouns were used in English:

    Ich = I
    du = thou; dich = thee
    er, sie, es = he, she, it
    wir = we
    ihr = ye
    sie = they
    Sie = you (which is now used in English for both the familiar “du” and the formal “you”)

    This might not account for all nuances of the development from OE to ME to modern usage, but it proved extraordinarily helpful to the missionaries I taught in the MTC. It also reinforces in my own mind that our use of thee and thou in English prayer conveys the same idea as the other European languages that use familiar pronouns for this purpose, i.e. familiarity rather than distance.

  9. Setting aside for the moment the issue of respect, in my own experiences, I feel my prayers are more intimate/personal when I use the language of thou/thee/thy/etc. As a general rule, the closer a writer identifies with the character or thoughts being expressed in her work, the more likely she is to use the third person singular (and vice versa, with the first person singular.) In other words, the closer a writer emotionally feels to her subject, the more likely linguistically/poetically/narratively she is to write as if she is emotionally distant.

    In my own prayers, the closer I feel to Heavenly Father, or the more intensely I feel the need for Him in my life, the more likely I am to speak in thou/thee/thy because it sets up a distance – even though I know I am speaking to my Heavenly Father, who knows and loves me more than anyone, it is still hard to lay myself open in the spirit of true prayer and this type of respectful language helps me.

    Does anyone else feel this way, or do I just have some weird latent fear of being blackmailed by God?

  10. I mentioned this once in a Relief Society class I was teaching. We often hear the we should use thee and thou because it is more formal. But we have simply lost our familiar forms of pronouns. I did the same as others here have mentioned, pointing out that in French, tu is familiar, and vous the more formal and polite general form of you. Many of the sisters were Spanish speaking, and so recognized the truth of what I was saying immediately. I do not think that the Lord wants us to be formal with Him, but to be familiar, with the intimacy that should be accorded to our Father.
    Excellent post, it is rare I see anyone else bringing this up. It is important, I think, because the other view might cause someone to think that our Heavenly Father is cold or arrogant, when He is neither!!!

  11. While I agree with Peggy to an extent, sometimes I think that in English-speaking LDS culture we have overemphasized the “Loving Father” part of our relationship with God and forget that while he is our loving father who would put his arms around us, he is also the Almighty Creator of the Universe. Like Moses we constantly struggle between the knowledge that we are his own beloved children and at the same time that we are nothing, even less than the dust of the earth.

    We should feel the kind of deep reverence and awe requisite to approaching the Almighty Creator, while still maintaining the understanding that, nevertheless, we may approach him because he is also our Father.

    Perhaps different conventions of approaching the Father in one language or another are interrelated with how cultures emphasize one aspect of God over the others? Having language that is reserved primarily for prayer may offset cultural trends that overemphasize a particular aspect of God’s nature.

  12. Jonathon Max Wilson,
    I agree. It seems we might have wanted to follow evangelicals here in playing up the Loving Heavenly Father and the Older Brother Jesus. Evangelicals sometimes take this to the extreme with “This Blood’s For You” t-shirts and the like. But I think some of us (me included) often try to make deity too familiar and emphasive the similarities over the differences. While a balanced approach is important, as we have significant similarities with deity, I think it is important to use our own sort of KJV-style neo-formalism when praying (meaning the thees and thous). But this should also be tempered with some heart-felt prayers in times of need that simply do not come out in a formal way. I know when I am pouring my heart out to the Lord impropmtu in a time of great need I will drop the thee and thou without thinking about it, while in my daily prayers I try to keep the thee and thous (even though my conjugation is atrocious.)

  13. There is an English dialect which uses the thee/thou pronoun to address inferiors: A Clockwork Orange-speak.

  14. What is really disconcerting and has bothered me in the past is the inconsistent usage of thou and you in the D&C, sometimes switching within the same verse when the object of the pronoun remains the same.

    As for conjugations, I think it is kind of cool to try to figure out irregular past tense forms of verbs conjugated for “thou.” The modals aren’t too much of a problem, since they can be memorized by habit as a finite list. The irregular preterites are the killer. Knowing German helps a lot in this regard.

    By the way, check out this cool old-school KJV past perfect of “to help.”

  15. I managed to use holpen in a Scrabble game once, and here I am still bragging about it all these years later.

  16. Ben wrote:

    For example, replace “the blessings thou has bless us with” by “the blessings we have received.”

    Actually, Ben, your first example would be correctly conjugated “the blessings thou hast blessed us with.”

    I’ve noticed in the last few years more and more “you” creeping into public Latter-day Saint prayers. Part of this is from converts, but long-time members are doing it to. I suspect the “thee-thou-thine” crowd is fighting a losing battle.

  17. Oops, # 16 refers to the present perfect of “to help” and not the past perfect, of course.

  18. Kaimi, your link was actually correct! The form “holpen” is a past participle but it is used in a present perfect construction in the scripture I linked. Sorry!!!

  19. In French and biligual wards in Quebec and Ontario, the familiar ‘tu’ is used to address Heavenly Father in prayer. Culturally, Quebecois are considered ‘warmer’ than English-speaking Canadians … which may partly explain their choice of pronoun. (Just a thought.)
    Does anyone know if the same practice is common in France?

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