Thee and Thou and Little Lambs Eat Ivy

Thee and Thou and Little Lambs Eat Ivy April 17, 2015
Thee Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly

Anyone—Mormon or otherwise—who has sat through any LDS Mormon church services conducted in English has had to endure the sound of LDS Mormons wrestling, mostly unsuccessfully, with archaic English pronouns.  Wandering into the array of obsolete pronouns including theethouthy, and thine, most English-speaking LDS Mormons are unable to distinguish between possessive, plural, nominative, and objective cases, but feel an obligation to try, anyway.*  The consequence is a mish-mash of pseudo-Elizabethan colloquialisms that only makes one wonder why LDS Mormons don’t throw ye into the mix, as long as they’re at it.

The obligation to jumble up thees and thous in Mormo-prayer comes from the institution, which has decided to arbitrate, centrally, the vocabulary its members use to interact with divinity.—the officialness of which varies according to the degree to which it affirms a person’s interests—urges English-speaking LDS Mormons to “use the pronouns of the scriptures when we address God—Thee, Thou, Thy, and Thine, rather than the more common pronouns you, your, and yours.”

Setting aside the obvious problems that this counsel is null for non-English speakers, who now dominate the global LDS population, and that this counsel is confused for English-speakers who have the temerity to prefer a Bible translation that is not the KJV, there’s some considerable irony in the injunction to employ these obsolete pronouns as honorifics.

The counsel asserts that the archaic pronouns comprise language that “shows love, respect, reverence, and closeness”.  Dallin Oaks, speaking in an LDS general conference in 1993, affirms the premise that thees and thous are obligatory honorifics: “[W]hen we address our Heavenly Father, we should put aside our working words and clothe our prayers in special language of reverence and respect.”  So, it seems, LDS Mormons are to mix up thee and thine in order to affirm god’s supernal status, relative to mortals.

But, back when they were in use, theethine, and the rest didn’t affirm the superiority of their antecedents.  Quite the contrary.

Roger Terry, who writes the astute “mormonomics” blog, notes in a Dialogue article from last year that at the time of the KJV’s publication, such pronouns as thee and thou were familiar pronouns, not respectful, at all.  A study of Shakespeare’s use of these pronouns indicates that in the Elizabethan period that produced the KJV, “you had become the accepted pronoun of compliment and honor, thou had persisted as the accepted pronoun of intimacy and ease” (47.2 [2014]: 6).  Indeed, even a couple centuries prior to the KJV’s advent, “the singular forms (thouthythee) were used among familiars and in addressing children or persons of inferior rank, while the plural forms (yeyouryou) began to be used as a mark of respect in addressing a superior” (28).

Oaks is not unaware of expert opinion.  Acknowledging that “careful scholarship shows that the words we now use in the language of prayer were once commonly used by persons of rank in addressing persons of inferiorposition,” he nevertheless insists that scholarship “cannot rescind divine commands or inspired counsel”.  Whatever the history of these tongue-twisting terms, says Oaks, “In our day the English words thee, thou, 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.”  Their obsolescence, Oaks avers, makes these pronouns “available as a distinctive form of address in English, appropriate to symbolize respect, closeness, and reverence for the one being addressed.”

This is the “because I said so” argument, with which LDS Mormons are very familiar and comfortable.

As a matter of fact, I’m not opposed to the use of theethou, etc., though I will admit that I would prefer at least that LDS Mormons make the effort to figure out the difference between nominative and genitive uses.  Although, I suppose that grotesque morphological gaffs could enhance the appearance of abjectivity in the presence of divinity.  “Look upon my, Thee humble servant,” we might be saying, “whom art so mean and insignificant as to be unable to decline properly in Thine presence.”

Hindi works in a few levels of the superior-familiar continuum.  Regionally, the pronouns aaptum, and tu are used in different ways, but the general idea is that aap expresses respect for superiors and tum expresses familiarity.  Tu is the most-familiar possibility.  I understand that in cosmopolises like Mumbai, tu is coming into common use, but traditionally, tu is reserved for the most intimate relationships, and misapplying it in a relationship in which it is unwarranted can be terrifically disrespectful.

Also, in much of traditional Hinduism, tu is used to address god.

That’s kinda nice.  The special language one adopts to address god, here, is the language of enhanced informality, rather than of strangeness and servitude.  Hindu prayers that employ tu affirm a familiarity between mortal and divine that rises even to intimacy.  This is why god shows up as the baby Krishna, for instance: so the devotee need not experience any fear in god’s presence.

Let there be thou, I sayest.  But let’s allow the archaic pronouns to do what they developed to do: close the gap between the divine and the not divine.  At least insofar as LDS Mormons construct the divine as a parent, it seems that familiarity ought to permeate a relationship with it.  Unless the LDS Mormon concept of the perfect parent is the Victorian patriarch who lives largely apart from the family and, when present, expects formal obeisance of the spouse and children whose names he can barely remember without prompting from the butler.


*I willst not bothereth with the worser problem of tryingst to conjugate verbs.

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