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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Language of Prayer

by Tanner:

Disclaimer: I am a believer that people do and should pray in more than formal prayers. Let people pray how and where they may. I do.

I am a devout individual and have often found myself trying to make reason of some doctrine, principle, or event from the scriptures. Everyone has what I call "objects of consideration,"or some idea that they fixate on as a root or contingency point for making sense of other ideas or simply fixate on for some other reason. For some it may be following the prophet, the creation, the Abrahamic covenant, the eternal nature of the atonement, etc. It could also be the separation of roles in the gospel and church, e.g. priesthood and motherhood. One of my "objects of consideration" has long been the language of prayer.

I am a linguist and polyglot. In other words, I speak a few languages, study language, and language is the object of my professional career. For a long time I have been bothered that English speaking members of the church are encouraged to pray using the archaic pronoun "thou" instead of the normal "you." "Thou" survives today for formal and solemn settings and purposes. However, "thou" is actually the informal, singular, second person pronoun.

A lesson about the history of the English language.

The pronoun "you" is the descendant of the plural and formal "Ye." Actually, "You" is the direct object form of "Ye," as in "Ye love me, I love you." After the Norman French speaking William the Conquerer took over England in 1066, French quickly became the ruling language. French was forced on the English people. Have you ever wondered why the English, a germanic language, has so many latin roots and alternative? The Norman conquest of England is a large part of it.

At the time, French was not the highly organized and officially maintained language it is today (Viz, l'École Francaise). The dialect of middle French that became the language of the elite was Norman French, which was spoken in northern France. This dialect had many idiosyncrasies, including the colloquial habit of only using the plural or respective pronoun "vous" and neglecting the informal, singular pronoun "tu." Over time this habit was adopted by the native English speakers, especially as marriage between native English speakers and French immigrants became more common.

That is the primary reason the "thou" form of English has died out over time. There are other factors, but by the 20th century the form died out almost completely in common use.

I want to say "You" when I pray.

I speak four languages fluently, an additional three to four conversationally, and I get by in others. I am familiar with a lot more. In all the languages that I am familiar with, except Afrikaans (fill me in if anyone knows of an exception here), people pray using the singular, informal pronoun.

I like using the "you" pronoun when I pray. I often pray in other languages because I want to use what I feel is a more intimate pronoun and I want follow the teachings of the prophets and apostles who have explicitly taught that we should use "Thee," "Thou," "Thy," etc. I have often wondered, don't the apostles know that "thee" is not a formal pronoun? Why would they instruct English speakers to use "Thee" and call it the "respectful" way to pray? "You" is both natural to English speakers and is actually the formal, respectful way to address someone. Perhaps they know that it is actually the more intimate pronoun and it is appropriate to address God our Father in the intimate pronoun of our native language. But, "thee" is also the pronoun used for individuals of lower and inferior rank. It just hasn't made sense to me.

So, why do we pray using "Thou," "Thee," "Thy," "Thine"?

I was bothered for a long time and felt flustered when I simply obliged and prayed in the manner that was instructed. Why use "Thee" other than some spiritual and religious leader that I follow said I should? Well, there is at least one other reason.

When William Tyndale, and subsequent translators, translated the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek, he chose to keep the distinction between "Thee" and "You" to reflect the singular and plural pronouns from the source languages. Indeed, the Bible uses the pronoun "Thee" for Jesus and God for the sake of indicating that they are single individuals. This creates a unique doctrinal congruency that I previously did not understand or appreciate. God is our father. Jesus is the son of God and is our savior and advocate. The Holy Ghost is a spirit that communes with us as a spiritual mediator. I appreciate the perspective that when I pray to God using the "Thee" form, I inherently confirm that He is my God and true Father.

Because I do not believe in the concept of the trinity, the distinction between "Thee" and "You" has become special to me. I pray often and most of my prayers are informal and are often more of a form of meditation and spiritual reflection than a shared or public dialogue with deity. The language of prayer has simply been a bit of a stumbling block for me. It is not an essential aspect of the gospel, but it has been one of my "objects of consideration" for a while. Prayer is an essential aspect of the gospel, and this has helped me reason the clear teachings of church leaders, my personal feelings, and understanding.

Here are great wikipedia entries on the some of the topics discussed in this article. 
• Thou
• The Norman Conquest 
• Tyndale Bible

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Tanner was born and raised in Georgia, with a few years in Alabama. He has a delightful wife, Sarah, two spirited sons, and a newborn daughter. He currently works in research and development creating phonetic software and programs. He served a mission in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Tanner played football and rugby through high school and college and was a male cheerleader his last year at BYU. His time is mostly split between family, studying, and work. You can read Tanner's other posts here.
 photo Line-625_zpse3e49f32.gifImage credit: Jill (used with permission).

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