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January 7, 2010
In The Village
Learn to use the language of respect
by Orson Scott Card

I remember once hearing about a member of another Christian church who took it amiss that he came to a Mormon sacrament meeting and hardly heard the name of Jesus spoken aloud. "How can you call yourselves Christians?"

Yet I have the opposite problem. When I chance to watch a Christian television show (or hear a politician being interviewed by a minister) I hear them repeat the name of the Savior so often that I wince. How can they use his sacred name so casually, as if it were a matter of no consequence to utter it?

We Mormons speak of the Savior constantly, but instead of the name he bore during his mortal ministry, we use titles: the Savior, the Lord, the Master, Christ, the Son of God, the Redeemer.

Since "Jesus" (Yeshua) means "deliverer," we can even say that "Savior" and "Redeemer" are translations of his name.

It is not that we forbid the use of his name, as Jews forbid uttering the Tetragrammaton -- far from it. Every prayer, every talk, every testimony is uttered in the name of Jesus Christ.

But over time, without any official declaration on the matter (as far as I know), our discourse within the Church has become so respectful of the name of Christ that we do not utter it lightly.

I think this is a good thing, and if members of other faiths question it, it becomes an excellent opportunity to explain that for us, reverence includes referring to the Savior as "Jesus" primarily when we are talking about things he did and said during his mortal ministry.

And when we English-speakers address the Lord in prayer, we are expected to dip back into a form of English no one uses anymore -- to the point that computer spell checkers consistently mark the verbs of this form as errors.

I speak of "Thou," "Thee," "Thy," and "Thine," and the verbs that go with them (or, for grammarians, the declensions and conjugations in the second person singular, or SPS).

We do have a lot of returned missionaries and others who speak European languages who know perfectly well how to conjugate in the SPS -- just not in English!

Why? Because we get no practice. When would we hear it, except in prayer? It is never correct to speak to a group in the singular, so it doesn't come up in talks. (Except when people end a talk "in the name of Thy Son," which is merely absurd, since the Savior is not the son of any individual in the congregation).

When I was young and not yet married, I fancied the idea of raising my children with the use of the SPS within the intimacy of our home. But once married, I discovered that it sounded quite absurd to say, "Wilt thou give me the remote, dear?" or "Pass thou the chips, please, if thou art through with them."

When you don't get what you're asking for till the other person stops laughing, you quickly lose your enthusiasm for using the SPS.

Many times I've heard members -- new converts and lifers alike -- get themselves into sentences from which they have no means of escape. The dangerous word for them is "that," because it introduces a clause which must contain a verb.

For example, few are threatened by saying, "We thank thee for thy many blessings." Why? No verb after "thee."

We aren't even bothered by tucking in a participle: "We thank thee for giving us these great blessings."

But when you happen to start the sentence, "We are grateful that thou ...", ah, there the fun -- or panic -- begins.

A lot of people are so unsure of the SPS that they don't know whether to use "thee," "thou," or "thy" in that context -- I have heard all three, many times. And the verb that follows is anyone's guess.

Many simply despair, and pray using the second person plural -- "you" and "your." They have no problem then: "We are grateful that you have blessed us" or "we are grateful that you gave us the scriptures." Perfectly good modern English -- but not the language of respect that we try to use in our prayers.

The secret is to use helper verbs -- and memorize the list.

Instead of the (perfectly correct) sentences, "We are grateful that thou gavest us the gospel" or "We thank thee for all that thou blessest us with," use a helper verb: "We are grateful that thou hast given us the gospel" or "We thank thee for all that thou dost bless us with."

(And please, no letters about ending sentences with a preposition -- the teacher who taught you that "rule" was misinformed. One of the glories of English is that we can attach prepositions to verbs and end sentences with them.)

Here is a list of the useful auxiliary verbs that can get you out of those troublesome "that" clauses: hast, dost, didst, canst, couldst, shouldst, wouldst, mightest, shalt, wilt, and art -- for has/have, does, did, can, could, should, would, might, shall, will, and are.

Much more troublesome to use properly are the past tense conjugations of "to be." You'll see both "wast" and "wert," but in the SPS "wast" is the simple past and "wert" is the subjunctive; and if you have no idea what I'm talking about, best not to use "wert" at all. (Romans 11:24 is subjunctive, for instance, being in a counterfactual "if" clause.)

The negatives are never contracted, as in "don't," "won't," "hasn't." Instead, you'd say "thou dost not," "thou shalt not," "thou hast not."

If this sounds daunting, that's no surprise. The SPS is no longer part of English. It's like learning a bit of a foreign language in order to talk to God!

But it used to be English, and if you read the King James Version of the Bible with particular attention to the uses of ye/you/your/yours versus thou/thee/thy/thine, you'll find it begins to sound more and more natural.

Here are some chapters of the Bible thick with examples of the SPS: Ezekiel 16; Psalm 89:6-19; Ether 12:23-37; Revelation 2:2-20; and the very best is Jesus' prayer in John 17.

Read those verses aloud, and it will be a great learning exercise preparing you to pray reverently in public.

Don't be distracted by the verbs that end in "-eth" or "-th." These have nothing to do with grammar or correctness or reverence -- they're merely the London dialect of the early 1600s, when the King James Version was translated. Not long afterward, the th endings were all dropped in favor of the northern dialect's "-s" ending.

So "saith" became "says," "hath" became "has," "overcometh" became "overcomes," and so on (Rev. 2:17). There is absolutely no change in meaning or grammar in shifting from the "-th" to the "-s," and it shows no disrespect to the Lord to use the modern English verb endings in "-s."

However, it is much easier to hear and understand scriptures read aloud if you use the modern pronunciation. Read Rev. 2:17 aloud, and then read it this way: "He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches; To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knows saving him that receives it." This is not a new translation, just a present-day English pronunciation of the identical words with the identical meanings.

All the other pronunciation changes since the early 1600s we apply to the scriptures without a qualm. For instance, "boil" and "oil" used to rhyme with "bile" and "aisle." But if you read them aloud that way, nobody would understand you! There is no reason I can think of to keep our pronunciation in line with Elizabethan and Jacobian English.

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