Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Grammatical Question for God Himself

Having attended Catholic school for my entire childhood, I find myself thinking about my religious upbringing fairly often. I’m not an atheist, but I’ve since distanced myself from Catholicism and organized religion in general. But I’m also aware that being raised Catholic has shaped my worldview to the point that no matter what my relationship may be to this particular branch of Christianity, I’ll probably always think about everything like a Catholic. It makes things interesting, to say the least.

This weekend, for no reason in particular, I found myself thinking about the Lord’s Prayer — the example that Jesus is recorded as giving for how to talk to God. Jesus literally says, “Hey, pray like this, everybody,” and then rattles off what is probably the best-known prayer in all of Catholicism if not Christianity in general. (An admission: Though I know what its proper name is, I have referred to it as the “Our Father” for as long as I can remember. Most Catholics do, I think. But it’s funny, because calling the prayer just by the first two words that appear in it is kind of like calling the American national anthem the “Oh Say Can You See.”) As far as prayers go, it’s a good one in that it covers most of the bases a good Christian should aim for when giving a ring to the man upstairs. However, there’s a line in it that bothers me, I just realized, because I can’t figure it out grammatically.

The line that trips me up — which appears as either one sentence or two, depending on whether you’re reading Matthew or Luke in the King James version — seems to be grammatically elliptical. I can add in words to make it make sense, at least according to how I speak, but I’m honestly not sure what the correct interpretation is. The line is this in Luke’s version:

“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.”

And this in Matthew’s version:

“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.”

It seems pretty straightforward, but I’m not sure it is. What, exactly, does “Thy kingdom come” mean? Doesn’t it seem like it’s missing words? The confusion is especially troubling because I know what the lines means — or at least what the younger version of me was taught that it means: The person giving the prayer is talking directly to God and saying “May your kingdom come here, to the material word, and may your (Your) will be enforced here as it is in the place where you’re already in charge.” I’m sure it’s either a grammatical construction I’m just unfamiliar with, probably because it is its less in fashion now than it was when the King James version was published, but doesn’t the construction “Thy kingdom come” seem like an especially clipped way to express that wish, especially when it’s supposed to be said to God? Shouldn’t it be something like “When your kingdom comes here” or “May your kingdom come”? And wouldn’t that be a little informal for such a speech?

It’s not, I’m pretty sure. Figuring that something got lost in translation between the original and the English, I decided to look up exactly how the Latin version of the prayer would translate. (Another admission: I had to learn the Latin version, the “Pater Noster,” at one point. See, I told you I was raised really Catholic.) In Latin, it’s “Adveniat regnum tuum.” The first two words, regnum tuum, translate to “your kingdom.” The first one is the third person present active subjunctive of advenio, “I arrive.”

The mood being subjunctive is key, I think. Unless I’m mistaken, this chunk of text is actually an example of the jussive subjunctive, which is used when wishes are being expressed and when deities and supernatural entities are being invoked — “God save the queen” and “Heaven forbid” and such. Appropriate here. And funny, since the one other time I’ve ever had reason to talk about this grammatical tidbit on this blog was in the post that theorized that it’s also an explanation for the odd syntax involved in the phrase “Bless you” and a certain other commonly used though less polite two-word phrase. (A third admission: Yes, I’m declining to say it in this context. See, I told you I was raised really Catholic.) So anytime you hear anyone say that the subjunctive is absent or disappearing from contemporary American English, you now have one more example of how some old-fashioned bit of syntax has persisted through today, keeping this verbal mood alive just by virtue of the fact that people are and always will be used to it even if they don’t think about its grammar.

That, I think, is the answer, though I admit I could be wrong and I’d welcome corrections or clarifications from any grammarians Googling their way here. And, of course, if divine powers spell out the answer for me, all the better.

Grammar, previously:

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