Friday, December 31, 2010

The Language of Prayer

If we are going to make a choice in prayer language between “you” and “your” as some advocate and “thee” and “thou” as some instruct, perhaps we should be aware of some background. From my analysis, both the advocates and the instructors are, too often, in error when promoting their position, and thus I resurrect, in part, an old letter to an editor.
Dear Editors:

After reading “The Grammar of Inequity” by [LFA] and now two letters in response, I feel compelled at last to comment.

In considering the language of prayer, LFA acknowledges that the singular pronouns “thou” and “thee” were the intimate pronouns of seventeenth-century England; that “ye” and “you” were the formal, polite, proper, courteous plurals; and that “the attachment of any special reverence of respect to ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ is based on historical ignorance, a reading backward into perfectly ordinary grammatical construction of a magical meaning.” But then, despite this “historical ignorance,” LFA persists in ascribing the word formal to “thee” and “thou.”

Granted, many define these old, singular pronouns as formal, exalted, and special, because they are now used almost exclusively in addressing Deity, but they are, in reality, intimate forms that have become uncommon in modern English—abandoned in favor of the formal, polite “you.”

In LFA’s own quoted reference (in footnote), we read, “A grammatical innovation, of somewhat questionable value … is the polite substitution of the plural for the singular in the second person. … Our language has thus lost whatever advantage it had gained by having a polite as well as a familiar form of address, and unfortunately the form that has survived is ambiguous. … The English language is, in respect of clearness, decidedly the worse for the change …”

So, the surviving, ambiguous form is “you”—ambiguous, because, in assuming the several functions of singular/intimate and plural/polite, “you” has become incapable of referencing any of them—intimacy, formality, politeness, or number.

Thus, modern English is truly lacking. Our intimate form is unfamiliar to us and our common form is ambiguous. Yet, it is this ambiguous form that LFA recommends for seeking intimacy. LFA write, “I suggest that we start praying privately in our own normal speech, using ‘you’ and ‘your.’ It will make these prayers more intimate, more natural, and more loving.”

If there is logic in this conclusion, I do not follow it. How can a pronoun of ambiguous usage be more intimate or loving? It would seem rather that in ambiguity and universality, “you” has lost all value save as a verbal pointer, while “thee” and “thou” yet retain strong underpinnings of original intimacy. It is still possible (though unusual) to use “thee” in speaking to a friend, but to use thee with a stranger or foe would be unthinkable.

If we are to achieve a true understanding of modern pronoun usage, we have to be consistent and accurate when discussing origins, meanings, and ascriptions. Intimate words do not become formal words by confining them to a narrower range of original, intimate usage; nor does a formal, polite word become intimate by expanding its usage beyond formal, polite reference.

I do not deny that the narrowed application of words can make their use less natural and comfortable. It was partly for this that I continued to pray in my mission language (Italian) for a long time, because it offered me what English did not. When I address God, it is with strivings toward intimacy—often in the agony of not understanding the course and pain of things. Thee and thou were the most intimate pronouns I had until the Italian ti and tu introduced me to a deeper intimacy. I soon realized that “ti ringrazio,” “ti prego,” “t’amo” had no adequate English rendition. The English translations: “I thank thee,” “I ask thee,” “I love thee” do not convey for me the intimacy of the Italian forms: first, because “ti” has a contemporary usage which “thee” has lost; and second, because the English pronoun “I” precedes and interferes. In Italian (and some other languages), the verb indentifies me in its conjugation placing the one I address foremost. With another’s attention immediately called upon, communication is most personal and compelling.

English, however, is the mother tongue of many and if some, like LFA, cannot find intimacy in the narrowed usage of thee and thou, perhaps alternate usage is a matter left to them and God, though let us not confuse matters further by accusing the Church of inconsistency when the intimate thee and thou and possessives thy and thine are the preferred, counseled forms, whatever (erroneous) attributions some make of formal or special prayer language. Thee and thou were never formal pronouns and should we review Church translation work, we would find the corresponding, intimate, second person singular in place of thee and thou every time.

LFA is not alone in confusing thee and thou as formal and you as intimate. So did those who wrote letters in response. Such erroneous re-definings cannot achieve a trusted conclusion because the problem is not that you has become intimate (which by its history and present universality it cannot become), but that we have removed from common usage the only intimate pronouns we ever had.

It may not be easy to learn uncommon forms, but millions do it—mastering their own and new languages and seemingly endless verbal conjugations. Communication takes effort. It is to use words and meanings that the one addressed understands—not the ones we insist they understand. And though God understands all language, perhaps there is preference for the intimate forms, despite their lack of modern use.