Preservething thy language

A debate that has flown under the radar compared to other hot-button worship issues is that of new v. old language. Even though it’s not as prevalent a topic, it’s an important one. As such, I found this Banner of Truth article arguing to retain old language in hymns to be interesting: “Thou Should Be Preserved In Hymns.” While I’m not convinced of each argument he makes, this is a topic that many church leaders should think through, especially those printing words in the bulletin or on a screen. The author’s seven main points are:

  1. Hymns are poetry.
  2. We do not address God in the same tone of voice as we do with others.
  3. Thou, thee, thy, and thine extend the range of rhyming and contrast with I, me, and mine. 
  4. Thou, thee, thy, and thine are sweet sounding words.
  5. The tradition of writing hymns with these words is still active.
  6. Using such words ties the current church with that of history.
  7. Changing hymn words is difficult for the sight-challenged, as they sing from memory.
What do you think? Should we ditch all archaic language, should it be retained, or is the answer somewhere in the middle?

16 thoughts on “Preservething thy language

  1. (First of all, I confess that I only skimmed the Banner of Truth article, so I may have missed something.) Although I may agree with many of his points, the language nerd in me found it troubling that he never points out that "thou," "thine," "thy," and "thee" are simply archaic English forms for 2nd person singular (i.e., "you" when speaking to one person). "Ye," "you," and "your(s)" were originally 2nd person plural. Thus in the phrase "Go ye into all the world" the speaker would be addressing a plural audience, while if speaking to only one person, he should say "Go thou into all the world." These singular pronouns are historically not holier, they are just…singular. When Jesus tells Satan, "Get thee behind me," the "thee" is not a term of respect, it is simply the correct pronoun to use. I don't know at which point in church history "thee" and "thou" became perceived as holy words, but it would be an interesting study (interesting to me and like 5 other people in the world).I agree with the author that yes, the modern English-speaking church is woefully ignorant of or antagonistic toward her history, but I would add that she is also regrettably ignorant of her own language!

  2. Count me as one of the five! I think he addresses the objection of "get thee behind me" in point two, though it's not the strongest point. I think when a lot of the doom and gloom rhetoric is peeled away from the arguments of retaining archaic language (namely the thees/thous, etc.), there are some valid points to at least consider.

  3. I am completely on board with retaining archaic language where it is used in our hymnody. I agree primarily with the point that such language ties the current church with the historical body of believers. It would not make sense for the church in 100 years to rewrite songs from our generation to fit the current times; doing so demonstrates great ignorance and disrespect for the richness of faith that comes from believers of each era. It has less to do with "thee" and "thou" being perceived as holy, and more to do with it being the way the historical church chose to write because it was their language. I say that we should allow hymns of the past to speak for themselves and leave it at that.

  4. Like Natali, I haven't read the paper. However, Elizabeth, I am in complete agreement with you. I see three arguments for keeping language the way it is (in no particular order):1. Keeping language ties us to the Church Universal through time (Elizabeth makes the point very well).2. Hymnody is poetry, and unless the language has so changed that we simply don't understand what is being said, leave the poetry alone.3. Changing words shows a marked arrogance on our part, an arrogance is pervasive through our culture about anything older than yesterday.I don't buy the argument that these special words are holy words. They are 17th Century words that come out of the marvelous King James translation, still my favorite because of the flow of language and poetry. But that's for another discussion…

  5. Natali, my first thought when reading this post was you teaching me about that very subject and then I read your comment. Very cool. One of my favorite classes in college was the history of English language and there was a series called the Story of English that I love. Anyway, I think language should continue to be used creatively and continue to be adapted to fit different situations and communicate ideas. I'm not offended by folks choosing to take thee and thou out of hymns for singability purposes nor folks putting them in for the sake of reverence. Those terms have taken on that persona and we can choose to maintain thee in a song for reverence, beauty, nostalgia, etc. But some folks feel more sincere singing to God how we actually speak. We have options in English, which is cool. All that to say I prefer to leave hymns the way they are, but I don't enjoy reading King James Bibles.

  6. Brent, you must have posted right before me. My comment was completely unrelated to your comment. I respect the translation, I've just never gotten to the point where I can enjoy reading it and studying from it. And in that way I can relate to others who are tempted to take the archaic words out of hymns. Although I prefer to sing them the way they were written.

  7. Thanks for the lively discussion, former New Covenant friends. I agree that the respect argument is the weakest. After all, nobody prays in old English anymore, right? I do think, however, that the poetry/language argument is the strongest – even more than the historical argument. While there are old words that make poetry wooden and more difficult to sing, thee/thou language is sweeter than the harsh you/your, easier to rhyme, and feels better coming off the tongue. I think an argument that is missing is also the author's intent. While taking out thee/thou doesn't change the intent as much, since it's just updated words, changing other antiquated words can change the author's original meaning.

  8. All – was there a culture club meeting that I didn't hear about? Since I agree with all of the comments above… I will just say this.First, in the article the author says: "Great words in the Bible are ignored and others are devalued. The congregations are not taught their meaning and encouraged to use them correctly." From what I could tell in the article, the author himself doesn't understand the definition and usage of the "thee, thou, ye" words as per Natali's comment. If he does, then it seems that his thesis would have been significantly different. The problem is not that the "holiness" of the words is unknown to moderns, the problem is that we have imported a false holiness into those words, one which was not originally there. Also, as to point 2: "We do not address God in the same tone of voice as we do with others." The point here is that at the time the King James version of the bible was written, they used these words for everyone, both God and man. Therefore, although it is true that our language when spoken to God should be language fit for speaking to our King (and Creator and Redeemer), the old King James language is not magic. And the 2nd person words of the 17th century are definitely no more holy that the 2nd person words of the 21st century. Those are just my thoughts…

  9. Jimmy, I know you didn't write your first post as a response to mine, but wanted to clarify that I have little problem changing words for readability, though changing words in poetry needs to be handled quite carefully, and rarely do we need to change words for singability purposes (imao). Example: RUF music written for hymns that nobody sings anymore is resurrecting those hymns, and very rarely (if ever) do the words change. As a matter of fact, one of the appeals of the RUF hymns to me is the juxtaposition of modern melodies and ancient words.Jimmy (comment two), if you were raised for 25 years on the King James, you would be able to read it well (and read Shakespeare pretty good too)!Jess, completely agree, especially your point that "we have imported a false holiness into those words". NASB first version fell into that trap: used the th pronouns for God in prayer and poetry (e.g., Psalms). I never understood that.And, Jess, no you didn't miss a Culture Club, though I certainly do miss Culture Club!

  10. OK, so I spend a lot of time on the couch these days feeding & burping the baby. I've read your comments & re-read the article, so I'm ready to weigh in again!Now, I agree with Thomas in general on preserving the poetry & reverence of older hymns–I can which wert & art with the best of them. And I love the King James translation. However, I don't agree with many of his arguments–some seem to be merely reactionary & over-simplistic. Here are specific examples: First paragraph: "Not for a fleeting second does a single rugby supporter have any difficulty understanding that he is singing to God. Of course, he will not be aware that by using the 'Thou' he is also being theologically correct in addressing the Lord as the one God." Um, since when is "thou" the theologically correct word for the Triune God? Read a Shakespeare play.Point #3 (rhyming): I couldn't let this one go. For one thing, his point only applies to hymns where the pronoun falls at the END of the line, not in the middle. I'd be curious to know statistically how many of these hymns actually have 2nd person pronouns at the end, where changing a "Thine" to "Yours" would necessitate a revision of the whole line. Also, I don't agree with his wooden approach to the rhyming dictionary. For one thing, the dictionary he cites treats "your" as more of a 2-syllable word ONLY (pronounced like "ewer" & thus rhyming with a word like "doer"). However, I (and probably lots of other Americans) usually pronounce "your" as a monosyllabic word (like "yore"), and thus it could rhyme with a bunch of words, like "sure," "endure," "pure," etc. Besides, what hymn-writer or poet ALWAYS uses EXACT rhymes? At least 85% of pop songs (ok, this is not an exact number) depend on "feminine rhyme" or assonance for their existence (e.g., rhyming "please" with "me").

  11. Point #4: In the study of phonetics, "Y" is not a gutteral consonant. Actually, it is technically a semivowel also known as a glide. Please see that paragon of truth, Wikipedia: #6 (The Past): Again, I agree with him that the modern church should not run to jettison the past. But his argument here seems to boil down to the simplistic, "Old=good; new=bad." There are loads of issues with this. For one thing, all of the now old hymns were once cutting edge and brand new. Perhaps there were curmudgeons back in 1803 who rejected current hymnody because it wasn't from their favorite 17th century hymnal. Also, if we are to reverence the past as Thomas would have us, why the heck are we singing some of these hymns in English? Psalms are Hebrew. The early church hymns were written in Latin (Ambrose is known as the father of hymnody). To make a fun sweeping generalization, Latin hymns/liturgy ruled the church until the Reformation came along & reformers argued that the Bible, etc. should be available in the worshipper's own language. I would bet that the vast majority of the "archaic" hymns defended by Thomas only date back to the 1500s–because even if the text is older, the translation that we sing isn't.In addition, not ALL of the old hymns are good. Of course I can't think of any specific examples at the moment, except to point out that there are probably some Fanny Crosbys out there that should be retired.Finally, I can think of at least one situation where it would be a good plan to modernize the old hymns–think of a church in, say, New York City, where most of the congregants speak English as their 2nd language. Or perhaps a backwoods church where there is little formal education. Should these Christians get educated on their church history (specifically, I suppose, the history of the English-speaking church since the time of the Reformation, since that's where these hymns are from….)? Absolutely. But their worship of God should not be hindered by floundering through language they don't understand or that distracts them from the meaning of the words. The sheep should be fed first.Whew. I think that's it for now.

  12. Natali – thanks a bunch for your comments. They are quite helpful as I'm thinking through this issue, and you raise some great points – even if it took you two comments to make them. Though I apologize if, in posting this article, I got you fired up more than you wanted to be. Couple comments that coincide with yours:1) Agreed. Silly argument.3) I agree to a point, but I have been greatly surprised how many hymns and psalms have thee/thine/thou/whatever at the end of lines. It's probably more than you think. Additionally, what about ones that aren't in the middle of lines, but are still ingrained into our hymnic consciousness? You Be My Vision or Glorious Things of You Are Spoken just doesn't have the same ring (which I'm sure you would agree with, arguing to retain that wording for its poetic nature, eh?). But that could also be my bias showing through.4) Thanks for the phonics lesson, seriously.6) There is a balance that Thomas doesn't take with old v. new. Just because it's old doesn't mean it's better (and vice versa, of course). There are plenty of old stinker hymns.F) Sheep being fed first is an excellent point. For example, there are plenty of Psalms in our hymnbook that employ terrible, wooden, mysterious language that I can't figure out. I don't pick them for worship because they would get in the way of understanding. To worship in spirit and truth, we need to understand the language we're using.Thanks again! Maybe you could write a piece that trumps Thomas' as to why we should retain old language in some instances and not others. I know a blogger that would love to publish it.

  13. Oh, Natali, reading your posts makes me really miss our Culture Club discussions! Your clarity, knowledge, and wit are severely missed.So are yours Jess, Joel, and Elizabeth.I think it is time for a reunion!


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