THE CASE FOR PLAIN PARLANCE
- We have frequently heard people urge Church members to use “thee” and “thou” when praying and sometimes General Authorities are quoted as saying that such language is more respectful to deity, because such language is “holy language.”
I am well aware that General Authorities have occasionally encouraged us to use such language, and I understand the reasoning and purpose behind such admonitions. But in a day when the Church and Gospel have become global – with members speaking dozens of languages that do not have such “sacred language,” it might be worthwhile to distinguish between the principle and the vehicle.
The principle involved is undoubtedly the importance of reverence toward deity. But how did we arrive at the use of archaic pronouns as the proper vehicle with which to effect that principle? The answer is the King James Version of the Bible (dating from 1611). For early Americans, that was the only book associated with their religious activities. You've heard of “guilt by association?” Well, this was a case of “sanctification by association.” In other words, the only time that Americans heard or read a type of English which contained the pronouns “thee” or “thou” was in church or in their scripture reading at home. 1 Therefore it was natural that these people would begin to think that “thee/thou” might have some special connection to sacred things, and the next step would be for them to assume that such language itself must therefore be sacred, and that using it would also elevate them to higher spiritual realms.
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Unfortunately, many problems arise when we force people to use an archaic language. The main problem being that no one today speaks Elizabethan English!!! The leads to all sorts of embarrassing situations and, worse yet, misunderstandings of doctrine.
I will begin with an example known to all: the inappropriate use of “thy.” How many times have we heard someone bear their testimony or give a sacrament talk (directed, of course, to the folks sitting out in the pews) and end it with the words “I say this in the name of THY son . . .” There can be no more striking example of how poorly our Church members understand Elizabethan English than this display of ignorance of the fact that “thy” means “your.” I once asked a fellow what he thought “thy” meant. He replied “holy.” I explained that this is a second person singular possessive pronoun meaning “your,” but all I got in reply was a rather glazed look.
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Another time I was supervising a baptismal service and a young missionary was confirming a new member. He gave the new sister the Holy Ghost and then gave her the blessing, closing “in the name of thy son, Jesus Christ.” I explained to the missionary that in giving a blessing he is speaking directly to the person sitting in the chair, and that this person did not have a son by that name. So I had him do it again, and again he closed the same way. So we did it again, and then again. Finally, the fourth time, he got it right.
Other problems occur because of the changes in word content over the past four hundred years. During the Elizabethan period the word suffer often meant “to bear,” to endure,” “to allow,” “to permit” etc. It did not necessarily have anything to do with pain and agony. Thus, when Christ says, “suffer the little children to come unto me,” we guess what that means, but in other contexts it becomes more confusing, e.g. when Paul tells us that we are joint heirs with Christ, “. . . if it so be that we suffer with him . . .” (Romans 8:17), does he mean feel pain, or does he mean that we have to endure with him?
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As mentioned above, Elizabethan English became associated with sacred things in the minds of early (and perhaps contemporary) Americans, but is this association justified when we look at the matter from a historical perspective? This brings up the fact that we end up assuming that the Elizabethan pronouns (thee/thou) are somehow inherently sacred – that they were used by the King James translators for that very reason, i.e. because they were always used only for sacred things, and that the King James translators therefore used them in preference to other pronouns which were presumably in use on the streets of London and Oxford. This is an argument from ignorance, but it is part and parcel of the misinformed thinking which leads people to state that the Bible was originally written in King James English! Sadly, I heard that again recently when a well-meaning person clenched his argument by saying that the proof that thee and thou are the language of prayer is to be found in John 17 where Christ, praying to the Father, addresses him with thou and thee! So I guess that the Bible really was written in Elizabethan English? Well, what shall we then do with all those old Aramaic and Greek manuscripts? Hmmm. . . . .
But back to the real history of the translation. . . . When Englishmen such as William Tyndale (1494-1536) or even John Wycliffe (1320-1384) made their translations into English, it was precisely because they wanted to GET AWAY from “sacred language.” The “sacred language” of the time was Latin, and the common folks could not read Latin. Wycliffe and his successors therefore wanted to give the common man access to the scriptures, so they translated the scriptures INTO THE LANGUAGE OF THE COMMON MAN! The pronoun thou (the subjective case of the second person singular) was NOT something reserved for deity. On the contrary, that was the pronoun that was used for friends, family members, and even the dog! It was simply the way one said “you!” So there is nothing inherently sacred about that language. In fact, William Tyndale showed his intention of using the language of the common man when he reportedly said to an educated man: "I defy the Pope and all his laws: and if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost."
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One might observe that this concept of OLD=SACRED is found in other cultures. Among the Jews, Biblical Hebrew is considered the sacred language, and among Muslims, the Arabic of the Qur'an is considered sacred language (differing considerably from modern Arabic dialects). But we have to be aware (which they are not) that it is not really the language which is holy, it is the message!
Having said that, we need to focus on how best we can get the message across. Is it by using archaic language which we hopelessly butcher? Well, in some cases that is indeed necessary. For example, during Joseph Smith's day, if he had translated the Book of Mormon into modern English, no one would have read it, because it would not have seemed at all like anything sacred, and that precisely because – as noted above – all Americans at that time assumed that if God had anything to say, he would say it in Elizabethan English (i.e. King James English)! So it was important for the Book of Mormon to use language that sounded as much like the Bible as possible. Having said that, however, we must recognize that even Joseph Smith had a terrible time trying to imitate the KJV and the confusion caused by the Elizabethan pronouns (resulting in singular subjects with plural verbs and vice versa, or singular and plural pronouns used interchangeably in the same pericope) produced ubiquitous mistakes. To give but one example, in Ether 8:10 the daughter of King Jared is trying to help him regain his kingdom by a stratagem and she says to him, “. . . wherefore if he shall desire of thee (2nd person singular objective case) that ye (2nd person plural, subjective case) shall give unto him me to wife . . .” Many such examples may be found, but I will also point out that such mistakes of grammar in no way detract from the sacredness of the text. In fact, this is the very point, viz. that it is the message which is sacred, not the wording. For the Lord allows us to write in our own language the best we can.
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Today we are faced with different conditions than Joseph Smith faced. For example, when we try to translate the Book of Mormon into other languages, it is pretty much impossible to translate it into the archaic versions of French, Spanish, German etc. Sometimes this results in the very same reaction that I said Joseph Smith would have gotten from the early Americans, i.e. a feeling that somehow the Book of Mormon must not be sacred, because the language is not archaic enough. Once, while I was in Israel, an Arab told me that the Arabic version of the Book of Mormon “doesn't seem holy” because it is not the same Arabic as the Qur'an. That illustrates the problem.
Nevertheless, the exigencies are such that we can no longer maintain the practice of archaizing scriptures globally. And this may be a good thing, because there is a very different scriptural principle which we should perhaps start implementing with more vigor, and that is one articulated by Nephi: the principle of PLAINNESS!
Nephi is well aware of the importance of plainness. He states:In this citation, Nephi teaches us that we must use the plainest language we possibly can in order to get the message across. That means that we have to speak in the language, and using even the same vocabulary, if possible, of our target audience.
“. . . But I give unto you a prophecy, according to the spirit which is in me; wherefore I shall prophesy according to the plainness which hath been with me from the time that I came out from Jerusalem with my father; for behold, my soul delighteth in plainness unto my people, that they may learn.” (II Nephi 25:4b, Italics mine)
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This reminds me of a General Conference talk that was given in the 1970's. I no longer remember who gave it or exactly what year (I spent a lot of time listening to old General Conference tapes when I first joined the Church), but the speaker said, “It's not enough to speak so plainly that people will understand you. You have to speak so plainly that they can't MISUNDERSTAND you!” This should be our guiding mantra, not only when teaching out of the scriptures, but also when translating the scriptures. We might even want to rethink the practice of forcing members to use language which they don't even understand (not even in their prayers), but rather, we should, perhaps, encourage them to speak their hearts in the plainest way possible. There are already enough stumbling blocks to understanding doctrine. Let us not set up more! Moreover, like William Tyndale, we should go to great lengths to use the language of the common man when translating scriptures from one language to another. Again, this is a scriptural principle taught by Nephi:
“For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.” (II Nephi 31:3, Italics mine)In General Conference we hear the words of our living prophet, and they are NOT in Elizabethan English. They are in the vernacular of our times, so that we can comprehend the principles he is teaching. This must also be applied to scripture translation, as I have tried to do in this volume.
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I am making this point, because I have a bit of experience translating scriptures (not only this work on the Old Testament prophets, but also the earliest Aramaic versions of the four Gospels, which ended up being roughly 900 pages and in two volumes) and I am aware of the difficulties and pitfalls. And I have been involved in discussions over the past 20 years concerning the approach which should be taken in making important translations into languages such as Arabic and certain other languages. But more importantly, I recognize that a generalized tendency in the Church to favor archaizing speech can spill over into wanting archaization in translating (which affects me directly), and I fear such an effort is not only impossible to do (because no one really speaks Elizabethan English properly today), but also presents stumbling blocks to understanding the Lord's message.