Several items relating to prayer have been mentioned around the bloggernacle recently.
- 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
- It is asserted that these are the respectful or honorific pronouns.
- 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 they were gradually superseded by the plural ye, you, your, yours, in addressing a superior [ie.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?