Where art thou? Why we’re so chummy with God

Posted on 22 February 2011


Nowadays it's more "holier-than-you" than "holier-than-thou"

I was at my granddad’s funeral the other day. (Don’t worry, this post will get chirpier.) It was terribly sad, of course, but as the ceremony went on, the atmosphere brightened as we remembered his life.

At the end of the service came the unbiquitous Lord’s Prayer, and uh-oh… it’s the new-fangled one that just doesn’t sound quite right.

Rightly or wrongly, for the sake of this post we’ll put aside the debate about where there is a god or not.

As a child in a Kentish school, I was made to chant in unison with the other anklebiters:

Our father who art in Heaven, hallow’d be Thy name

But now it seems we’re left with:

Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name

Now, far from wanting to sound “holier than thou” – ho ho ho – I think the original sounds better, purely from the language standpoint. Not sure why. Maybe it has something to do with the rhythm, the mixture of sounds, the slightly medieval sound to it.

Whatever the reason, the actual difference is that the first one uses ‘thou’ forms:  [thou] art, thy, thine

Now cast your minds back to those language lessons at school: no doubt you started with French if you’re in the UK.

The concept of learning the difference between tu and vous isn’t particularly tricky. And when you went onto your second foreign language, you probably found something similar.

One for informal, one for polite – perhaps some more forms for singular/plural.

Spanish has , vosotros, usted and ustedes; German has du and Sie; Italian has tu, voi, Lei and Loro; Russian has ты (ty) and вы (vy); Polish has quite a few... ty, wy, pan, pana, panie, państwo .

Some languages have lost the distinction. English is one of them (ok, the I’ll-see-thee-later cast of The Last of the Summer Wine  aside). As with most other languages that lost this distinction – it has gone with the formal version.

Even tasteful jewellery like this can be improved further with a 'thy'

Now English has only ‘you’ – consigning ‘thou’ to the history books. Brazilian Portuguese is going down this path now: having largely lost all forms except the formal você(s).

Incidentally, thou was the informal, singular ‘you’ form, and was written — a ‘thorn’, þ, with a little ‘u’ over the top. Pretty, no?

You can still find ‘thorn’ representing /θ/, for example, in Icelandic.

Anyway, it all made me realise that – historically – people talk to God in all these languages using informal forms.

Thou beholdest, O my God, Thy servant!

And God talks back the same way! (Small ‘t’ for ‘thou’ this time, though.)

Dost thou believe on the Son of God?

And why? After all, supposedly he created us! Surely that’s worth the respect that the formal forms denote.

Most of languages with the distinction require the ‘you’ form when talking to someone older! And who could be older than God (with the possible exception of Joan Rivers)?

Perhaps it gives the ultimate intimate connection, or maybe a feeling of love?

Maybe the informal form shows a sign of solidarity, cooperation, collaboration.

But shouldn’t the ideas of respect, power and seniority preclude its use?

Even languages where you might talk to your parents or older relatives in the formal ‘you form make the exception with God – and revert to the ‘tu’ form (cf. the Portuguese spoke in Brazil).

Whatever the reasons are, plenty of languages seem to ‘agree’ on it.

Specially for fans of Slavonic languages, I’ll leave you with the Lord’s Prayer in Bulgarian, highlighting the informal grammar with which to be at one with the Almighty:

Отче наш, Който си на небесата! Да се свети Твоето име; да дойде Твоето царство; да бъде Твоята воля, както на небето, тъй и на Земята; насъщния ни хляб дай ни днес и прости нам дълговете ни, както и ние прощаваме на длъжниците си; и не въведи нас в изкушение, но избави ни от лукавия; защото Твое е царството, и силата, и славата вовеки. Амин!



Posted in: Just for fun