Modernizing Liturgical English

By Maeve Maddox

A reader writes:

In church, our liturgy has traditionally used a phrase such as “Thou Who sittest at the right hand of God the Father” to refer to Jesus, singular. As we have changed over from using the King James Bible translation, we have also gradually changed from use of “thee” and “thou” and the “est” forms of the verbs in the liturgy. I believe, then, that we should be singing “You Who sit at . . .” but those in charge have written “You Who sits at . . .” It disturbs me (only slightly–I know the intended meaning regardless of the word used) every time I sing it. Am I correct or just being picky?

I don’t think the reader is being “picky.” It makes sense that if editors are going to “modernize” a 16th century idiom, the changes ought to reflect standard modern usage. In the year 2009, “you sits” is not standard usage, neither spoken nor written.

The confusion with the passage quoted lies with the word who, which may be either singular or plural:

The man who is sitting on the wall can see the lighthouse.
The men who are sitting in the tree can also see it.

In the liturgical quotation above, who refers to singular thou.

Thou who sittest at the right hand of the Father translates as You who sit at the right hand of God the Father.

Personally I object to changing the old verb forms in liturgical use. When a student wants the most up-to-date translation, obviously the King James Version is not the one to rely on. If encouraging religious feeling is the goal, however, I can’t think of anything more beautiful and stirring than a reading from the KJV. Most of the tongue-twisters can be avoided by substituting the sound /s/ for the -eths. That’s very likely what many of the original readers of the KJV did anyway.

A.C. Baugh points out (A History of the English Language), that Shakespeare used both the –eth and -s forms for third-person verbs, as in this passage from A Merchant of Venice (c. 1597):

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:…

Baugh quotes Richard Hodges’s A Special Help to Orthographie (1643) in which the writer notes the disconnect between how verbs are written and how they are pronounced in ordinary speech:

Howsoever wee use to Write thus, leadeth it, maketh it, noteth it, raketh it, per-fumeth it, etc. Yet in our ordinary speech (which is best to bee understood) wee say, leads it, makes it, notes it, rakes it, per-fumes it.

It’s refreshing to see–in the 17th century, as in the 21st–the standard written dialect at odds with the standard spoken dialect.

An Unexpected Question About “You”
O Second Person Singular, Where Art Thou?

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3 Responses to “Modernizing Liturgical English”

  • Al Galbraith

    I disagree. The subject of the parenthetical expression containing “sits” is a singular “who,” not “you.” The complete sentence minus the parenthetical expression is, “You . . . have mercy upon us.” “You who sit” would refer to more than one person sitting.

    This reminds me of the confusion over the use of the Southern American “y’all,” which is used to address two or more people, never one person – confusion which exists only in the minds of people trying to fake a Southern accent.

    I do agree that the KJV should be retained for its poetry, which is sorely missing from modern English.

  • Peter

    This reminds me of the confusion over the use of the Southern American “y’all,” which is used to address two or more people, never one person

    Well, that’s obvious – does anyone really get that wrong? But then again, Americans keep popping up telling us that in their dialect “y’all” is singular and “all y’all” is plural. I can see people getting that wrong.

  • John Denton

    We are dealing here with a relative clause post modifying a vocative, the best known case being ‘Our Father who (or which) art in heaven’. This structure was evidently available to Thomas Cranmer in the 16th century but is no longer possible in contemporary English. In the case of the Lord’s Prayer the version in traditional language is still the most widely used but the same structure cannot be used elsewhere (it is very common in collects). It is often replaced by a statement about God i.e. ‘Almighty God, you are… It has certainly been a thorny problem for the modernization of the language of prayer.

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