Thou Art a Whore

By: Jake
March 1, 2012

My 15 year old sister always gets told off by my mother when she prays.  The reason for this is that instead of saying “Thee,” “Thou,” or “Thy” (referred to as TTT from now on) she uses “you” and “your.”  My mother likes to quote these words of Spencer W. Kimball:

“In all our prayers, it is well to use the pronouns thee, thou, thy, and thine instead of you, your,and yours inasmuch as they have come to indicate respect.” (Faith Precedes the Miracle, p.201)

This position on the sacred language of prayer has been reiterated by Elders Oaks and Nelson who both refer to the honorific pronouns as a reverent mark of respect.  KC Kern did a post over at Mormon Matters in which he looked at the use of TTT. He touched on some of the historical context in which TTT were used in the past. Noting the use by Shakespeare, he concludes that although they have been dropped from common use, we can endow them with new meanings appropriate for us. Another similiar post over at times and seasons did an in depth look at the role of TTT in relation to the Tu – Vous distinction found in some languages (such as French, Latin and Spanish) that differentiates between formal and informal manner of addressing people. The writer notes that this formality of prayer language collapses when converted into other languages as they don’t have the same connotation. Finally, at New Cool Thang there is a post that expresses a frustration with the use of TTT, as it is unwieldy and artificial.

I want to add a few points and further consider the implications and problems with TTT usage for prayer.

Redefining Words

In relation to KC’s point that we can re-appropriate outmoded words in new contexts, redefining a word does not magically destroy all previous meanings. Words still carry their original meanings, and those meanings crop up when we use them. For instance, the word nigga may have been reappropriated by black people amongst each other as a familiar term amongst each other as an ironic inversion of its use.  When white people dropped its use because of racist connotations, African Americans reclaimed and repurposed the term for themselves. Whilst it may be commonly used within their ethnic commnity as a familiar term between them, it will never erase the previous derogatory and deeply racist associations. The word is still loaded. It is for this reason that many still resist and speak out against its usage.

The fact that words never fully lose their old meanings is relevant when we consider the etymology of TTT. These words were used in both the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, as well as dramatic works such as Shakespeare.  The vernacular of TTT at the time of the King James Bible carries a meaning that is based on the social structures of the period, which are mostly lost to us today.

Thou Art A Whore.

A recent study looked at the use of Thou and You in Early Modern English to try and understand the reasons why Thou was used in preference to You. They compared two forms of readily available dialogue from the period to see how the words were used in common English:  the records of an ecclesiastical court and dramatic dialogues. The research demonstrated overwhelmingly that Thou was commonly used as an insulting term.  It was used especially often in sexually derogatory insults.  The word was especially associated with the word “whore.”  Thou was invoked to add weight to any claim of moral indecency, and in fact even just adding the term Thou to a sentence was enough to add insult and infer an unsavoury personal character.

Thou had such defamatory power because it was embedded in the power structure of society. Thou was a means of distinguishing an inferior social class. Amongst the nobles Thou was never used when one noble addressed another noble; the term used was always You. You was the standard form of address, and Thou was the marked form. Thou was used to let the other person know that you were in a socially higher class then them.  A noble would use TTT to his servants and to lower class merchants, but he would expect you to be used to address him in return. Rather than being a term of respect, Thou was in fact a particular term of disrespect.

However, this was not the only way in which TTT were used. Significantly, they were used in the King James Bible (KJV).  Why did they use TTT in the KJV?  The KJV was controversial, not least because of James’ insistence that kings should be made to look divine and to avoid associating kings with tyrany. The use of TTT was also controversial in the KJV because it was already old fashioned in the seventeenth century.  Earlier translations such as William Tyndale’s common language Bible democratized the word of God by using contemporary accessible language.  In response to this effort, disgruntled bishops published the Bishops Bible.  This Bible intentionally used an ecclesiastical high brow language, in order to make it inaccessible to the common man.  Only the educated clergy had the necessary vocabulary to understand its language, giving the Bishops theological control over the scriptures.  The KJV was basically an update on the Bishops Bible.  Translators were instructed to use the Bishops Bible as their blue print. The so-called sacred language of the KJV was merely an artifact of Bishops obfuscating the scriptures to regain control over the people. The use of thee, thou, and thy was a way of distinguishing and enforcing a gap between the learned and the unlearned.

On the other hand, perhaps the historical usage doesn’t matter as Dallin H. Oaks said in his talk The Language of Prayer:

“In our day the English 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.”

Of course, the reason we use them is because we inherited them from the KJV.  It’s not like the church stopped using TTT and then picked it up again. In fact, the structures of power and using language to alienate the humble and unlearned still exists in these words. Those who use Thee, Thou, and Thy are the faithful insiders who understand how to approach God correctly, and the heathen outsiders are the ones that use You.

How these words were used anciently highlights the difficulty in using them today. For those new to the church,they must exchange their humble familiar forms of prayer for something unnatural and artificial.  Being familiar with old English should not be required to communicate with our heavenly parents.  We should not have to work out obscure scriptural passages that are only obscure because they were intentionally written in a confusing language.  When so-called sacred language comes at the cost of alienation and limits our ability to understand the scriptures, is that a worthwhile price?

The church is heavily invested in the use of TTT. Joseph Smith invoked TTT in the Book of Mormon to give the text a Biblical feel. Likewise, the Doctrine & Covenants uses similar language.  Had Joseph used everyday language, it may not have carried so much weight or sound so impressive; it may have undermined his prophetic calling.  If there is nothing sacred about TTT, then why did Joseph Smith bother using those words?  Perhaps there is something sacred about these artificial language forms.

Thoughts

  • Do you think that we should use Thee, Thou and Thy when we address God?
  • Is there a sacred language of prayer that we should use?
  • Does it even matter how the words used to be used?
  • Should we start to use modern language versions of the scriptures?

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29 Responses to Thou Art a Whore

  1. Heber13 on March 1, 2012 at 3:48 PM

    Since I have been taught since my youth that these are words for respect and honoring deity (I never use them for respect and honoring adults or other people that I truly respect), then I like to use them to keep my mindset right during prayer.

    I don’t correct others, and I don’t make my kids use it…I let them use what they are comfortable with.

    But for me, there has been meaning in using those in prayer since I was young, and I like the meaning, so I want to continue using them. Even if I learn linguistic problems with these in the English language. To me, they mean something.

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  2. Kullervo on March 1, 2012 at 4:05 PM

    Look, this is actually really simple.

    “Thou” is the second-person singular familiar pronoun in English. Its grammar and usage (at least before it became archaic) is the exact equivalent in English of “du” in German and “tu” in French and Spanish.

    At no point in the history of the English language has it been widely used to indicate respect, humility, or reverence (including now, because its use in prayer among some Mormons doesn’t count as anything but a subcultural quirk).

    When it was in common use, you would never have used it to refer to a king, to your boss at work, or to a peer with whom you were not on familiar terms. You would have used it when addressing close friends, family members, children, animals, and people who you considered below you. Exactly how “du” is used in German now and how “tu” is used now in French and Spanish. “Thou” was (and is!) intimate and/or informal. Anyone you would now call “sir” or “ma’am,” you would not have called “thou.” This is why Quakers who still use “plain speech” use “thou” with everybody: they do not believe in respecting or regarding titles or positions.

    You also use it to address God, because your relationship with God is supposed to be intimate, informal and familiar, not distant and formal. This is why Germans pray with “du” and the Spanish and French pray with “tu.” And this is why early modern English speakers (i.e. speakers at the time of Shakespeare and the KJV) used “thou” to address God.

    In the last couple of centuries, “thou” and all of its forms (along with “ye” and its forms, which are the plural second-person informal pronoun) have fallen out of common usage and become archaic. “You,” which is the English grammatical equivalent is the German formal “Sie” and the French formal “vous,” stepped in and began to be used in all second-person situations (formal, informal, singular and plural, except in the South where they developed “y’all” to replace “ye”).

    So “thou” is now archaic, which does not mean it develops new meanings–in fact that generally means the opposite. Words change their meanings over time by actual use, and archaic words are not commonly used anymore, so nothing happens to change them.

    If “thou” was widely used as a formal/reverantial form of address, then yes, the original meanings of “you” and “thou” could certainly switch places. But “thou” is not used at all, so that hasn;t happened. “You” is the correct modern English second-person pronoun for all situations, formal and informal. If you are addressing a King or the Pope, you would properly use “you” in modern English. At no time, past or present, would you ever use “thou.”

    All that being said, and this is the important part: even though it is archaic, “thou” is still an absolutely appropriate term of address for God. But it is not because “thou” is formal or reverential; it is because “thou” is personal, informal, and intimate. In every Indo-European language where there is a modern formal/informal pronoun divide, the informal pronoun is used to address God, because it is appropriate to address God informally. Not informality in the sense of carelessness or casualness, but informality in the sense of closeness and intimacy. you should address God like you would address your spouse or your closest friend, and at the time the KJV was written, that was with “thou.”

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  3. Justin on March 1, 2012 at 4:27 PM

    TIL “thou” = “you f@&$ing”

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  4. Heber13 on March 1, 2012 at 4:57 PM

    Kullervo, I find that all interesting about the history of the words and can’t disagree.

    But it does nothing for me, since my culture has taught me to use it for respect and honor for God (as I said, I’d never use it for King, President, or any mortal in any position). Its a prayer thing, not a language thing.

    It is kind of like the idea that I call my Home Teacher Brother Jones. He is not my brother by definition of the word. I’m not aware of any historically accurate reason why such word would be a socially acceptable title like it is used in the church. Its just the way we address each other in church, and I am used to saying that…and I don’t call my best friends or fond neighbors or work associates or children’s teachers with “Brother/Sister So and So”. It only works within the church by church members, regardless of the linguistic correctness of it.

    It is the same as TTT and prayer. Its a cultural thing taught to us, and it works for me.

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  5. hawkgrrrl on March 1, 2012 at 5:30 PM

    When this talk was given in GC, it was a huge disappointment to me. As someone familiar with both French and Spanish, I had long understood that “tu” was equivalent to the earlier English “thou” and that it would be the familiar form. To hear someone who is an apostle completely misunderstand the linguistics and speak as if he knew what he was talking about, when clearly he did not, was an eye-opener (not in a good way). I’m just being honest. As a word nerd, this one hurt his credibility for me.

    Using the familiar form with heavenly parents was such an appealing notion, so consistent with actual doctrine, that hearing the opposite stated with no actual foundation was jarring.

    While it’s true that the familiar form is also the form used to speak to children and dogs and social inferiors, I was intrigued by the idea that it was outmoded by the time the KJV was written. It does seem quite clear that by JS’s day KJV language was associated with “sounding Biblical” and so he used it based on his own familiarity with the Bible. I have to think he just assumed that was how God talks. (Nevermind that God didn’t write the Bible).

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  6. Kullervo on March 1, 2012 at 6:19 PM

    Heber, if TTT is used in a special formal sense in 20th-century Mormonism, then why doesn’t Church leadership counsel the members who speak Spanish to address Heavenly Father with “usted?”

    I reiterate: I think it is appropriate to use “thou” with God because it is a special form of address, but you should understand when you are doing it that in the English language one addresses God with “thou” out of special intimacy and special familiarity, not special formality.

    Even if you hold that position that your intent to be formal overrides the linguistic reality of the language you are using and the entire history of interaction between human and divine since there was such a thing as an English language, the aberrant notion that you should be formal to God is one held really only by modern English-speaking Mormons.

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  7. prometheus on March 1, 2012 at 6:58 PM

    Do you think that we should use Thee, Thou and Thy when we address God?

    I don’t myself, but I certainly don’t think there is any moral imperative about the matter.

    Is there a sacred language of prayer that we should use?

    Again, not a morally imperative one. All our language is feeble, limited, and stunted when it comes to interacting with our Heavenly Parents.

    Does it even matter how the words used to be used?

    Linguistic change – it happens and there is precious little we can do about it. :D

    Should we start to use modern language versions of the scriptures?

    This, absolutely. Or at least a modern translation that keeps some of the phraseology of the KJV.

    Corrupt sources and archaic language do not make the word of God accessible to everyone – no different than keeping it in Latin so that ‘regular folks’ couldn’t get to it.

    All you have to do is read a modern translation and suddenly so many things become clear, especially in NT epistles.

    My 2 cents, for what they are worth. :D

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  8. Jake on March 1, 2012 at 7:06 PM

    Kullervo,

    I am familiar with the idea that thou = tu and du, and the familiarity argument. That it was an informal way of greeting friends and family.

    The main problem with this, is that if you actually spend some time around sixteenth century and seventeenth century texts then it shows that its NOT at all like this. In fact it is clear that you wouldn’t address your family in such terms, unless you wanted to infer your family were sexually promiscuous or whores. Yes, there are a few cases in which lovers have used thou to each other but for the most part thou as used by the common people is a term of disrespect to infer unsavory sexual habits.

    Of course, you don’t have to believe me. You can continue to believe that its a term of familiarity. But work by Laura Gowing in her book “Domestic Dangers:Women, Words and Sex”, and Johnathan Hope’s “The use of thou and you in Early Modern spoken English: evidence from depositions in the Durham ecclesiastical courts” Both of which refute the common misconception that you put forward about thou being a familiar term.

    THe familiarity argument falls apart on three levels.

    1. It was used in the scriptures intentionally to make the scriptures unfamiliar to the common people. NOT to help them become familiar with them.

    2. In the vernacular, which we can see from Court records, it is used to convey disrespect, and is associated closely with being a whore, clearly not a familiar term.

    3. We find very few cases of people using it as a term for people they are familiar with. Its almost always to establish a lower class from an upper class. It is used to enforce social difference NOT to convey social similarity. Again, not really compatible with the familiarity argument.

    Of course, I could be mistaken, I have only read a few hundred seventeenth century documents,and perhaps the other thousands are the ones in which its a term of familiarity.

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  9. Jake on March 1, 2012 at 7:17 PM

    That said, of course if we want Thou to mean intimate and close, then if we use it in that way then that is what the word means. You have every right to make thou mean that to you, and if you convince enough people that it means that then it will stick. But it seems to appear that it is not historically how its been used, nor does it seem to me to be a familiar personal form of communication for me personally, nor many people I speak to.

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  10. Senile Old Fart on March 1, 2012 at 7:25 PM

    One niggle: y’all is second person singular; all y’all is second person plural.

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  11. Douglas on March 1, 2012 at 8:32 PM

    “When Electricity came to Arkansas … It all came from ya’ll!!” (Jim “Dandy” Mangrum fronting Black Oak Arkansas, 1973)

    Just pray to the Lord as thou feelest agreeable… Just keep prayin’

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  12. SilverRain on March 1, 2012 at 8:49 PM

    I like it. As a German speaker, it relates to the intimate Du-sprache for me.

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  13. allquieton on March 1, 2012 at 9:57 PM

    Sometimes words still carry their original meaning, but in this case they don’t. There is no baggage with TTT. Whores just don’t come to mind when these words are used. (Well, maybe now they will.)

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  14. Jon on March 1, 2012 at 10:33 PM

    Do you think that we should use Thee, Thou and Thy when we address God?

    Out of habit I do. But I’ve been trying to change it because the scriptures indicate that we are to be friends with God and if He is my friend then I would speak to Him in normal language. But others can do whatever they feel like.

    Is there a sacred language of prayer that we should use?

    I don’t think so, I think if we use familiar language that we use everyday God will become more alive to us and not feel like an abstract notion that is far away and unreachable.

    Does it even matter how the words used to be used?

    It’s nice to keep context of all our language but can be difficult with an ever changing world. But I believe it is good to teach Latin to our kids (something I didn’t learn) just so they can understand language in general better.

    Should we start to use modern language versions of the scriptures?

    Next time I read the bible I’ll take Grant Hardy’s wife (I don’t remember her name) advice and use a modern language bible written in paragraph and poetic form. Reading the BoM that Hardy worked on really makes the scriptures approachable. So others can do what they will but as for me, I’ll be picking up modern translations.

    With scriptures it is ill advised to approach them as 100% correct anyways so it becomes necessary to approach them as more of a guide and let the HG and our own intuition guide us to truth.

    BTW, when I read the BoM I’ll replace the archaic language with newer language, like replacing “hath” with “has.” So, I guess, in a way I already have a modern transalation of the BoM, maybe not complete but partial.

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  15. Mike S on March 1, 2012 at 10:54 PM

    Prior to my mission, I used TTT, basically because that is what I was taught. I served in a country where there are both familiar and formal forms of “you”. As people mentioned above, the “familiar” form was used in prayer as well.

    My praying changed since that time. I really like the idea of a personal and accessible God. I like the idea that Christ is my brother and friend. I therefore have continued the use of a “familiar” you in my prayers since that time.

    Although it seems “opposite” from its prior use, in modern US English, “you” is more informal than “Thou”. So, when I pray, I use “you”. I do this in personal prayers. I do this in public prayers. I even do this in prayers in sacrament meeting. No one has ever said a word, and it helps me feel closer to the Divine.

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  16. kamschron on March 1, 2012 at 11:11 PM

    My LDS grandfather always would start blessings on the food with, “Our Father which art in heaven.” As a young child, I heard “which art in” as “wihgarden,” a mysterious, special, long word that seemed to say something about the relationship between my grandfather and God, but I had no idea what it meant.

    My other grandfather sometimes would pray, “Thou gives them their food in due season.” By the time I was old enough to notice the subject-verb disagreement, my impression was that it seemed to have been built into the prayer as a sign of humility.

    Having been instructed since childhood to use “thee” and “thou,” I would feel that I was behaving rebelliously if I addressed God as “you” in an LDS public prayer, but I hope that the opposition to praying in modern English will fade away over time.

    So far, the church clearly encourages using the existing LDS editions of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Although I sometimes prefer to read other translations because, as the Handbook mentions, “they may be easier to read,” I probably have more to gain from learning to be more consistent in including scripture study in my personal routine than from trying to be an advocate for a change in the current policy.

    If the time ever comes for the church to choose a newer translation as an alternative to the King James Version, one of the challenges will be to find a suitable translation that is widely accepted and is free of copyright restrictions. For the recently released LDS edition of the Bible in Spanish, the text was revised from a translation old enough to be in the public domain.

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  17. John Mansfield on March 2, 2012 at 6:52 AM

    Last week I was reading the section on English in Nicolas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Ostler writes that the King James bible played an overwhelming unifying and codifying role for three centuries for the English language as a whole, not just religious vernacular. He sets Shakespeare at a distant second in such influence, and says the Luther’s bible translation did the same thing for the German language.

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  18. DB on March 2, 2012 at 7:00 AM

    “One niggle: y’all is second person singular; all y’all is second person plural.”

    No, it’s not. You is second person singular. You can also be second person plural but you all is more correct. Y’all (a contraction of you all) is second person plural. Y’all is never used to refer to a single person. All y’all is used to emphasize that the speaker is referring to every single member of the second person plural group. You guys, however, is never proper English grammar.

    Should I also explain the correct usage of there, their, and they’re? Perhaps your and you’re as well?

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  19. Anselma on March 2, 2012 at 7:21 AM

    I use TTT because it’s how I was taught to pray; it just ‘sounds right’ to me. That said, as a French and German speaker, I hold to the use of tu, du, and thou as the more intimate forms of ‘you’. That I only use TTT when addressing God means, for me, that I am (or strive to be) closer with God than anybody else.

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  20. Jon on March 2, 2012 at 7:45 AM

    This topic brings up the question of titles in the church and esteeming one flesh above another.

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  21. Jake on March 2, 2012 at 10:25 AM

    Jon, I agree with you that it seems to bring up the question of esteeming one person or being above another. I think the problem I have is that it is an artificial way of conveying respect or familiarity.

    I can see the idea of using TTT expressing intimacy and closeness, I just don’t think thou, and thee really does that naturally. If we use it in that way then it is a personal meaning that we have given it. I could be mistaken but most people don’t think of TTT as being an intimate form of address. Unless, everyone else speaks to there lovers with thee and thou, but I certainly don’t. It wasn’t a familiar form then, and its not one now.

    The reason I think it is problematic is that we are meant to pray from our heart, can it really be from the heart when we have to translate our feelings into a different language? I think it is a complication that is unnecessary.

    A challenge to the church ever changing from the KJV would be that there are theological implications attached to certain words. Changing to a more accurate translation is problematic because it results in subtle changes that have larger impacts. For instance, the Jehovah Witnesses are actually right when they say that servant should be translated as slave in the OT. One of my colleagues published a fascinating study on why the KJV uses the word servant instead of slave, and it came down to the fact that servant was a word the translators were more familiar and comfortable with as they didn’t understand the Israelite culture of slavery and that seemed offensive to call someone God’s slave to them (servants implied a degree of freedom and liberty). So, we have built a theology around Prophets being servants of God, based on a mistranslation by KJV translators, when the literal translation should be slaves of God. A choice in word in the scriptures can have big theological ramifications.

    So to find a modern translation that fits into LDS theology would be difficult. The only way they could get around this is if they got Mormon scholars to translate it, but we don’t have enough biblical scholars to do this.

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  22. Last Lemming on March 2, 2012 at 10:46 AM

    Y’all is never used to refer to a single person.

    That’s what I thought until I visited a client site in Alabama. Once I realized that they were using y’all as second person singular, things started to make a lot more sense.

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  23. Jon on March 2, 2012 at 11:28 AM

    Jake,

    Interesting, I didn’t know that about slaves. I really think that we definitely need a looser reading when we read the scriptures just because there are so many little things like that. But even in the English language slave implies something different from what the Hebrews saw as a slave. I thought their slaves were more like indentured servants where they would make contracts to be an indentured servant for 7 years and then they could go free if they wanted to, where, slave as we think it today, would never have a choice like that. I guess it is even more nuanced, if I’m correct.

    Grant Hardy’s wife uses the Standard Bible-NRSV. I don’t recall why she chose that one, maybe because it is in paragraph form, granted, I’m sure there are more like that. I don’t recall from the interview why that that was her favorite bible to read from. I was just going to go off her recommendation when I read the bible again.

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  24. [...] of faith, being a leader (in Mormonism), terminology: the label “Anti-Mormon” and the real history/meaning of Thee/Thou/Thy, humility, LDS doctrine on emigration, and Satan’s [...]

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  25. Danielle on March 5, 2012 at 7:40 AM

    ‘unnatural and artificial’- yep totally.

    I feel like when I talk in “prayerspeak” my sincere thoughts and words are being filtered.
    Why would our creator need us to sound like we’re quoting scripture when we’re pouring out our hearts.

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  26. Sarah Familia on March 5, 2012 at 10:04 AM

    I think English-speaking Mormons get a pretty raw deal when it comes to addressing deity. Not only do we lack an especially intimate grammatical person to address God, but we are even supposed to use an especially formal one.

    This is why sometimes I pray in Italian or Spanish, even though English is my first language. There is an infinite distance between “tu” and “thou.”

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  27. Lailah on March 6, 2012 at 2:31 PM

    DB (#18) – Y’all didn’t grow up in the South, did you? South of the Ohio, east of the Mississippi, y’all is second person singular, and all y’all is second person plural. Although y’all can be used as a second person plural.

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  28. Chad on March 8, 2012 at 8:42 AM

    I was always taught to use these words out of respect but the Lord hears our prayers no matter what. Lets not get so caught up in the administering part of prayer but be more concerned about the ministering part of prayer.

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  29. 2012 Brodies: Vote Here!! » Main Street Plaza on January 20, 2013 at 3:39 AM

    [...] Thou Art a Whore [...]

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