Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

What Shall We Do with Thou? Modern Mormonism's Unruly Usage of Archaic English Pronouns

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

What Shall We Do with Thou? Modern Mormonism's Unruly Usage of Archaic English Pronouns

Article excerpt

What shall we do with thou? If this question grates on your ear, it may be because you recognize that thou is a nominative pronoun (a subject) and therefore never follows a preposition. If it doesn't grate, then you are living, breathing evidence of the difficulties presented by archaic second-person pronouns in twenty-first- century Mormonism.

English-speaking Latter-day Saints have an uneasy relation- ship with archaic pronouns. Although we do not use thou, thee, thy, thine, thyself, and ye in everyday speech, we encounter them frequently in three very different contexts in our religious com- munication. First, we read them in scripture, both ancient and modern. Second, we encounter them somewhat randomly, in other religious texts-hymns, histories, and patriarchal blessings, for instance. Third, we employ them in prayer. In the second of these three contexts, we expect to see inconsistency. But if we look at the first and third carefully, we may be surprised to find that our usage of these archaic terms is not just uneven; it is problematic on multiple levels-enough to give a professional editor like me serious syntactic dyspepsia.

Given the lay of this particular linguistic land, let me offer a quick disclaimer. The purpose of the ensuing analysis is not to offer suggestions on how we should solve these usage inconsisten- cies. In some ways, we have quite effectively painted ourselves into a perplexing grammatical corner. Rather, my intent is to begin an exploration of certain trouble spots, so that Latter-day Saints become more aware of how the English language is used in the Church, and so that those whose responsibility it is to make far-reaching decisions regarding language issues have more infor- mation to work with.

For readers who wish for more detail regarding the early evolution of English second-person pronouns, I have included a brief appendix. At this point, however, suffice it to say that Old English morphed into Middle English by about Ad 1100, Middle English gave way to Early Modern English in about Ad 1500, and by this time second-person pronouns had settled into the pattern we see in the King James Bible-the singular forms thou and thee, and the plural forms ye and you. A few centuries earlier, however, second-person pronouns in many languages, including English, began a rather odd semantic shift that would complicate their usage and that would, in time, set English apart in this regard from the family of Indo-European languages and lead to the difficulties that Latter-day Saints experience today.

In about the thirteenth century, the singular second-person pronouns became a familiar form of address, used with chil- dren or persons of inferior rank, while the plural forms began to signify respect in addressing superiors."1 However, "by the sixteenth century the singular forms [thou, thee, thy, thine, thyself] had all but disappeared from polite speech."2 It is important for us to understand how this development came about, because it leaves English in a unique and awkward relationship with other languages, explains why LDS usage of archaic pronouns is so problematic (particularly in prayer), and raises significant policy questions for an expanding multilingual church.

The T-V Distinction

In their 1960 paper "The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity," Roger Brown and Albert Gilman identified a distinction between second- person pronouns signifying either familiarity or formality. Although they focused on this distinction in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German, it occurs in many other Indo-European languages as well. "The European development of two singular pronouns of address begins with the Latin tu and vos. . . . In the Latin of antiquity there was only tu in the singular. The plural vos as a form of address to one person was first directed to the emperor and there are several theories about how this may have come about."3

"Eventually the Latin plural was extended from the emperor to other power figures. …

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