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:


  1. As another recovering Catholic (heck, I even taught CCD when in high school to younger kids), I hope you realize that when you write, "A third admission: Yes, I’m declining to say it in this context. See, I told you I was raised really Catholic," just by thinking it you've committed the sin. So might as well live a little.

  2. I always took the line to take a conditional mode. "[When] (if?) thy kingdom [is] come, thy will [will] be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven."

    But I was raised Methodist -- what do I know?

  3. You have that right. My Latin is rusty, but "Adveniat" is definitely a subjective form and in the context of a prayer would definitely be a jussive subjective.

    If you look at the text Matt 6:10 (.pdf from here), it also appears to be Subjunctive Active 3rd person Aorist (you can see the parsing shorthand guide here) which, if my very rusty Greek is serving me well, would function similarly to the Latin translation.

  4. Incidentally, I read this blog for the gaming posts and I'm just tickled pink to use my seminary knowledge here (Heaven knows, I don't use it elsewhere).

  5. George: Good point. Well, fuck.

    Joseph: Maybe you're right, but I feel like the conditional mode is rarely used without those indicator words like "when" and "if." The jussive, however, often omits the "may" and such --- "may God bless you" vs. just "God bless you."

    Andrew: Thanks for the compliment. I'm always happy to unite the gamers and word nerds.

  6. Yes it is subjunctive. Back in the 17th century I'm sure this sort of construction was a lot more common. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage calls subjunctives like this "frozen subjunctives", because they are preserved as fixed phrases.

  7. Goofy: Ah yes. That's right. I learned them as "fossilized subjunctives." Thanks for the clarficiation.

  8. Says the Latin teacher who was bound to find this at some point:

    adveniat tuum regnum does indeed mean "May (or let) your kingdom come" and it is jussive subjunctive, indicating a strong wish just shy of a command.

    In Greek as an aorist subjunctive it would take on the added aspect of "May your kingdom come once and for all, boom."

    Speaking of prayers that people pray just because they are comfortable with them, the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has a new version of the Pater Noster, still with the "kingdom come" part, however. I think the iambic meter of the line--

    Your KING dom COME
    Your WILL be DONE

    and the rhyme ensure it will continue to be prayed this way by everyone who continues to pray traditional prayers such as these.

    Episcopal version:

    Our Father in Heaven
    Hallowed be your name
    Your kingdom come
    Your will be done
    On earth as in heaven
    Give us today our daily bread
    Forgive us our sins
    As we forgive those who sin against us
    Save us from the time of trial
    And deliver us from evil
    For the kingdom, and the power, and the glory
    are yours
    forever and ever

  9. Anonymous8:42 PM

    It's the present subjunctive. In wishes, hopes, and prayers, even in contemporary English, the subjunctive is supposed to be used, although I shall admit that most people ignore the rule in both speech and writing because it's so exiguous and rarely affects the semantics:


    I pray that thy kingdom come.
    I hope that thy will be done.
    I wish that thy name be hallowed.

    You may not see the above constructions too often, but, low and behold, they are actually correct. Go figure.


    I pray that he be all right. (May he be all right.)
    I can only hope that he do well. (May he do well or let him do well.)

    My only wish is that he find true love.

  10. Anonymous1:40 PM

    Anonymous: right on, but I think it may be even more accurate to think of it as an imperative construction.
    "Let/May Thy kingdom come." The sense of "Let this be the case."
    Remember Yul Brynner's orders, "Let it be written, let it be done" from The King and I?