Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Thee, thou, thine in contemporary American English?

I've just started reading a remarkable and disturbing book on Mormon Fundamentalists, called Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. (These are not the LDS people many of us know, but rather hard-core polygamists you've heard about in the news, like Warren Jeffs.) I read it on the recommendation of one of our contributors, who's just finished wolfing it down.

There are some striking patterns in the language of the fundamentalists quoted and paraphrased in the book. This is most readily apparent in the language of 'revelations from God', which seem to be mostly rough and ready efforts to do King James English. But on p. 14, we get a hypothetical conversation with a sect leader:
I'm sorry I've done this to displease thee. What would thou have me do?
That's odd, I thought ... is it like the famous Quaker pattern of pronominal use? I knew about — have even heard scholarly papers on — Utah English, including ample attention to Mormon usage, like for heck as a near-curse. So, I google 'Mormon language' and get lots of stuff about the original plates that Joseph Smith found in upstate New York from which he translated the Book of Mormon. (There's quite a literature on this, it turns out; and sorry if I'm lacking on details of the history here — that's why I'm reading the book.)

In poking around a little longer, I found arguments from (mainstream) LDS leaders for a kind of hagiodialectal style difference (this one from here):
In our day the 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. Being unused in everyday communications, they are now available as a distinctive form of address in English, appropriate to symbolize respect, closeness, and reverence for the one being addressed.
Look at this passage from the book, in the same register (from p. 164 in a revelation):
And the thing that ye have thought concerning the One Mighty and Strong is correct. … For was not Moses the One Might and Strong … and art thou not One Mighty and Strong …?
We've got ye, adjectives after a noun (in a fixed phrase, granted), for in an archaic use, and art thou. When these people are quoted as speaking freely, they speak clear western English with lots of non-standard features, then various switches to this.

That you'd get this with fundamentalists is unsurprising: As Karen Armstrong says in The Battle for God (quoted in the book), fundamentalist movements are about "a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices from the past." In fact, the quote above about prayer suggests that it's not just fundamentalists, and only slightest milder views can be found among (what I take to be) protestants defending the language of the King James Bible, like here.

But in looking around on this issue, I see basically no mention of this pattern in Mormon English … the Quakers are constantly mentioned, as are British dialects that retain some of the older pronouns, etc. Wikipedia's thou entry even has a section of 'religious uses' but nothing there either.

Update: Definitely read the comments below, and also this additional post.

Why this gap?


jangari said...

It's a bit of a trip reading this. After learning about it on Language Log, I have greasemonkey working, and I recently wrote a script that replaces religious terms with Beatles references, just for fun. I forgot I had it on.
So I was reading this post thinking 'why are the Mormons so concerned about John Lennon and Abbey Road?'

Mr. Verb said...

Now, that's brilliant (even in the American sense). I never thought about just setting up greasemonkey and keeping it on … could change life for the better.

Alma said...

Neither Mormons nor fundamentalists speak today with thees and thous --except Mormons do continue to use the archaic terms in prayer (while fundamentalists do not.) However, at the time that Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon, it seems people expected scripture to sound like the KJV. Even Lancelot Breton's 1850 translation of the Septuagint retained thee and thou usage. Additionally, Joseph Smith's numerous revelations retained this archaic style. Consequently, seceders from Mormonism often write their own revelations mimicking Joseph Smith's usage. I have one from a recent claimant who used a novel mixture of this style: "Behold, they [the Supreme Court] are full of ****."

I'm very familiar with many branches of fundamentalism and except for some very oddball loners (see below), they speak like other Utahans.

When police officers initially encountered Elizabeth Smart, they asked her if she were Elizabeth Smart and she replied, "Thou sayest."

While Krakauer's book is a very interesting read, it's pretty haphazard in presenting factual information about Mormonism.

jangari said...

It appears that religious texts generally preserves forms well after they've become 'archaic' (in the Oxford sense).
Things like subjunctives if I be judged, subject inversion judge not, lest ye be judged, and of course, verb inflection paradigms thou shalt.

Then again, that's very unremarkable; people generally don't change the language of religious texts any more than they change the language of Shakespeare, for instance (unless it gets translated).

I suppose what is interesting is that Mormonism adopted these forms well after they'd been dropped - unless my timeline is way off. Perhaps the archaism becomes a prototypical feature of religious texts, it would then unsurprisingly find its way into the Book of Mormon.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks much, Alma, for the background here. Yes, the Elizabeth Smart example is the kind of thing I was picking up on. I'm not quite sure whether to be relieved or disappointed that Krakauer isn't that accurate, but it's probably a mixture of both. (I was hoping for accurate information, obviously.)

And yes, Jangari, it's not the archaicism per se, but the reintroduction of it (or so it seemed until I read Alma's comment). I didn't do a close study of the quotes -- and it now looks like it wouldn't be worthwhile -- but my impression was that you were getting a handful of salient features (these pronouns/verbal inflections, unto, some word order stuff, etc.) but not the full package. For instance, I don't recall offhand the to be/to have aux variation of King James (like German haben vs sein with past participle), though it may well be in there: is come, is risen and so on.

The Ridger, FCD said...

A Mormon bishop I know had this to say:

The writer makes an astute point, but it's a pity he's using Krakauer's book as background. It gets very, very confused as to the relationship between its subject and the Mormons. (The suicide-murderer in question was a fundamentalist who broke away not from the Mormons, but from what is now known as the Community of Christ, a Latter-day Saint group that splintered in the 1840s and has never had any connection with the Utah church. They were started by Joseph Smith's widow as a rejection of polygamy, with her son Joseph Smith III as its first -- I guess they'd say second -- leader and set up headquarters in Independence, Missouri. They went from being more conservative than Mormons to being, today, the Latter-day Saint Episcopals to our Catholics.) "Under the Banner of Heaven" is disappointing in one respect: Krakauer has a poor grasp of his subject, possibly because his thesis can basically be summed up "Mormonism contains a virus that makes people kill, even if it takes 150 years to gestate." Too bad for a guy who wrote such a great Everest book. So it's not surprising that the writer is confusing Mormon polygamist fundamentalists (who broke away from the Church) with Krakauer's subject (who never had any connection to it).

But I digress. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as the Community of Christ was called until recently - and bless them for it; we should shorten our name, too) continued the tradition of active revelation longer than we did. Their church presidents would record what they considered revelations from God regarding church government, questions of doctrine, etc., as Joseph Smith did, but his Utah-based successors didn't. By tradition, these were couched in King James-type language. So the use of archaic pronouns would have been familiar to someone raised in the RLDS tradition.

Something similar for us, because not only do we use the King James Version (plus the semi-KJV style of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants), we still use archaic pronouns in prayer. Sometimes, especially in public prayers, people get nervous and make errors (as in the quote below: "would" where "wouldst" should be), but it's generally familiar.

Neither LDS nor RLDS have ever used this kind of language amongst each other. Mormons use it in prayer; I suspect the Community no longer does. But we both do have a tradition of special religious language that someone seeking a radical fundamentalism would be naturally tempted to dust off and use. It's familiar verbiage that sounds pious.

So... "why the gap" is because the writer is kinda barking up the wrong tree. But he's in the right woods.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks so much, Ridger, and to the bishop as well, for being generous with his time. In working through the book, I can see the 'virus' angle in Krakauer's book, but the historical and factual issues were just beyond my ken. It's just a bad choice for a introduction to a complex subject. Recommendations for better reading would be welcome, obviously.

In the meantime, I'm plodding through the implications of my not questioning the book as potential linguistic data. More on that in due course.