My 15 year old sister always gets told off by my mother when she prays.  The reason for this is that instead of saying “Thee,” “Thou,” or “Thy” (referred to as TTT from now on) she uses “you” and “your.”  My mother likes to quote these words of Spencer W. Kimball:

“In all our prayers, it is well to use the pronouns thee, thou, thy, and thine instead of you, your,and yours inasmuch as they have come to indicate respect.” (Faith Precedes the Miracle, p.201)

This position on the sacred language of prayer has been reiterated by Elders Oaks and Nelson who both refer to the honorific pronouns as a reverent mark of respect.  KC Kern did a post over at Mormon Matters in which he looked at the use of TTT. He touched on some of the historical context in which TTT were used in the past. Noting the use by Shakespeare, he concludes that although they have been dropped from common use, we can endow them with new meanings appropriate for us. Another similiar post over at times and seasons did an in depth look at the role of TTT in relation to the Tu – Vous distinction found in some languages (such as French, Latin and Spanish) that differentiates between formal and informal manner of addressing people. The writer notes that this formality of prayer language collapses when converted into other languages as they don’t have the same connotation. Finally, at New Cool Thang there is a post that expresses a frustration with the use of TTT, as it is unwieldy and artificial.

I want to add a few points and further consider the implications and problems with TTT usage for prayer.

Redefining Words

In relation to KC’s point that we can re-appropriate outmoded words in new contexts, redefining a word does not magically destroy all previous meanings. Words still carry their original meanings, and those meanings crop up when we use them. For instance, the word nigga may have been reappropriated by black people amongst each other as a familiar term amongst each other as an ironic inversion of its use.  When white people dropped its use because of racist connotations, African Americans reclaimed and repurposed the term for themselves. Whilst it may be commonly used within their ethnic commnity as a familiar term between them, it will never erase the previous derogatory and deeply racist associations. The word is still loaded. It is for this reason that many still resist and speak out against its usage.

The fact that words never fully lose their old meanings is relevant when we consider the etymology of TTT. These words were used in both the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, as well as dramatic works such as Shakespeare.  The vernacular of TTT at the time of the King James Bible carries a meaning that is based on the social structures of the period, which are mostly lost to us today.

Thou Art A Whore.

A recent study looked at the use of Thou and You in Early Modern English to try and understand the reasons why Thou was used in preference to You. They compared two forms of readily available dialogue from the period to see how the words were used in common English:  the records of an ecclesiastical court and dramatic dialogues. The research demonstrated overwhelmingly that Thou was commonly used as an insulting term.  It was used especially often in sexually derogatory insults.  The word was especially associated with the word “whore.”  Thou was invoked to add weight to any claim of moral indecency, and in fact even just adding the term Thou to a sentence was enough to add insult and infer an unsavoury personal character.

Thou had such defamatory power because it was embedded in the power structure of society. Thou was a means of distinguishing an inferior social class. Amongst the nobles Thou was never used when one noble addressed another noble; the term used was always You. You was the standard form of address, and Thou was the marked form. Thou was used to let the other person know that you were in a socially higher class then them.  A noble would use TTT to his servants and to lower class merchants, but he would expect you to be used to address him in return. Rather than being a term of respect, Thou was in fact a particular term of disrespect.

However, this was not the only way in which TTT were used. Significantly, they were used in the King James Bible (KJV).  Why did they use TTT in the KJV?  The KJV was controversial, not least because of James’ insistence that kings should be made to look divine and to avoid associating kings with tyrany. The use of TTT was also controversial in the KJV because it was already old fashioned in the seventeenth century.  Earlier translations such as William Tyndale’s common language Bible democratized the word of God by using contemporary accessible language.  In response to this effort, disgruntled bishops published the Bishops Bible.  This Bible intentionally used an ecclesiastical high brow language, in order to make it inaccessible to the common man.  Only the educated clergy had the necessary vocabulary to understand its language, giving the Bishops theological control over the scriptures.  The KJV was basically an update on the Bishops Bible.  Translators were instructed to use the Bishops Bible as their blue print. The so-called sacred language of the KJV was merely an artifact of Bishops obfuscating the scriptures to regain control over the people. The use of thee, thou, and thy was a way of distinguishing and enforcing a gap between the learned and the unlearned.

On the other hand, perhaps the historical usage doesn’t matter as Dallin H. Oaks said in his talk The Language of Prayer:

“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.”

Of course, the reason we use them is because we inherited them from the KJV.  It’s not like the church stopped using TTT and then picked it up again. In fact, the structures of power and using language to alienate the humble and unlearned still exists in these words. Those who use Thee, Thou, and Thy are the faithful insiders who understand how to approach God correctly, and the heathen outsiders are the ones that use You.

How these words were used anciently highlights the difficulty in using them today. For those new to the church,they must exchange their humble familiar forms of prayer for something unnatural and artificial.  Being familiar with old English should not be required to communicate with our heavenly parents.  We should not have to work out obscure scriptural passages that are only obscure because they were intentionally written in a confusing language.  When so-called sacred language comes at the cost of alienation and limits our ability to understand the scriptures, is that a worthwhile price?

The church is heavily invested in the use of TTT. Joseph Smith invoked TTT in the Book of Mormon to give the text a Biblical feel. Likewise, the Doctrine & Covenants uses similar language.  Had Joseph used everyday language, it may not have carried so much weight or sound so impressive; it may have undermined his prophetic calling.  If there is nothing sacred about TTT, then why did Joseph Smith bother using those words?  Perhaps there is something sacred about these artificial language forms.

Thoughts

  • Do you think that we should use Thee, Thou and Thy when we address God?
  • Is there a sacred language of prayer that we should use?
  • Does it even matter how the words used to be used?
  • Should we start to use modern language versions of the scriptures?