December 03, 2006

art, arts, arting, arted

Greetings from the desert terrace at LL Plaza! (The Plaza looks something like the Getty Center in LA, although the Pennsylvania landscaping has more azaleas and fewer palms.) I just arrived from Tucson and am hanging out here among the cacti to ease the transition.

For my first contribution, just to show I've been paying attention, here's another example of the 'X is a verb' snowtrope that I saw on a display panel at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art a week or two ago:

They mean to convey something like, 'Art is an activity we, the curators, and you, the museum goers, and they, the artists, all actively engage in,' as in the other uses of the 'X is a verb' formula discussed in these august pixels. Just another misguided linguistic metaphor. However, it reminded me of something else about 'art' as a verb that I'd been thinking of posting about.

When I was a kid in Newfoundland, we said the Lord's Prayer every morning at school. (It was a secular public school, but derived from the Protestant half of a historically denominationally organized school system; old habits die hard.) I knew 'art' was a verb, in "Our Father, who art in heaven", but I understood it as some verbal counterpart of the noun 'art', as in skill, work, magic, the opposite of the 'dark arts' -- you know, arcane, mysterious art. 'To art' in this sense would mean something like, 'to work (magic)'. So I thought we were intended to be addressing "Our Father, who works (magic) in heaven..." It wasn't until much later that it occurred to me that this was in fact just an arcane, mysterious form of the verb 'to be'.

But recalling my childhood confusion as I stood in the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, another puzzle about this use of art occurred to me. It is true that art is a former member of the present tense conjugation of the English copula be--but it's the wrong one. The relevant entry in the OED, for art, says this:

2nd sing. pres. ind. of BE. One of the remaining parts of the orig. substantive vb.; cf. AM.

That is, as a form of be, art is unambiguously second person singular. Consequently, its use in "Our Father, who art in heaven" is mighty peculiar. Relative pronouns like who or which inherit the person of the NP they modify,* and the modified NP, our father, is third person. Consequently, the verb should be a third-person (singular) form, that is, is: "who is in heaven". (The logic of my childhood misparse was similarly flawed; my verb should have been arts rather than art, unless I imagined it was irregular, of course, which I guess I must have).

So then I started wondering where the art came from.1 In fact, in the New Testament Greek "original" version, there is no copula present; the line in Greek went like this (transliteration and interlinear gloss taken from the relevant page at the Center for Indo-European Language and Culture at the University of Texas Austin):

Pater hêmôn ho en tois ouranois;
O-father of-us he in the heavens
'Our Father which art in heaven,'

In the 'Standard Latin' translation of this, the second-person form of the copula, es, appears:

Pater noster, qui es in caelis

because, I suppose, the head of the relative clause is vocative, the case form used to address someone. (This is kind of interesting in itself! I didn't know that a vocative NP could trigger second person agreement within a relative clause modifying it.)

The first Old English translations were made from the Latin translation, rather than from the Greek, and an actual second person pronoun appears (OE and gloss taken from Cathy Ball's Old English web pages at the University of Georgetown):

Fæder ure Þu Þe eart on heofonum
Father our thou that art in heaven
"Our Father, you who are in heaven"

And of course, here the use of the second person form makes all kinds of sense, since the head being modfied by the relative clause is itself the second person pronoun, in apposition to the inital NP Fæder ure, 'our father'.

What's interesting is that the art form of the verb persisted in official English versions of the prayer long after the "thou" had been dropped and regular rules of English agreement would have predicted a switch to the third-person form is. (NB: English does not have a vocative case form.) You can track the persistence of art at Cathy Ball's online collection of English forms of the prayer, here. Modern English translations based directly on the Greek almost never include any copula at all; translations into other Germanic languages which include a copula either use the 3rd sg form or, if they use the 2nd sg. form, include a pronoun. (For a complete description of the process employed in the creation one modern English translation and side-by-side comparisons of ten different translations, both modern and older, check out this pdf.)

With the loss of the 'thou', the art became an anachronism, and its persistence illustrates an interesting point about ritual speech. Ritual speech is one place where archaic words linger on, long after they have fallen out of common use. Indeed over time, they often become unintelligible to youger generations uttering them (a situation which is conducive to misparses and eggcorns like mine). In ritual speech it's important to get the form of words exactly "right"--words that are just a paraphrase of the meaning won't do. By the time the 'thou' was dropped from the official version, the use of 'art' must have been completely formulaic, retained because it was the "right" form to use in this prayer, like the predicate-first subjunctive in the next line, 'Hallowed be thy name'.

The 'thou', although present in neither the Anglican nor the Catholic official versions, isn't completely gone. There are 12,900 Google hits out there for "Thou art in heaven" vs. 252,000 for "who art in heaven" and 94,500 for "which art in heaven". A search for "who is in heaven" turns up 247,000 hits, but only two of the first 10 hits have anything directly to do with the prayer, so I assume most of those aren't relevant. "Our Father, who is in heaven" has a measly 21,600. A lot of the modern translations just use 'in heaven', no copula or relative clause at all, and "Our Father in heaven" weighs in at 284,000 hits.

Cautionary Postscript: This discussion is not about the Lord's Prayer itself, but rather about subject-verb agreement in free relative clauses, the English copula, problems of translation, formulaic speech and the genesis of misparses. The prayer is just an extremely well-documented source of data about these issues.

*Thanks to Mark Reed and Simon Cauchi for helping me to be clear about this point!

1Be warned: I am not a scholar of any classical language, or of Old English; the information that follows is what I can deduce by looking at some paradigms, reading some websites I trust, and making a few educated guesses. I might easily be wrong about something. I expect someone will let me know if I am.

Update: Several readers have written with interesting remarks and replies, and I have directed them to the 'comments' section of the crosspost at my own little linguistics blog, Heideas. If you're interested in following up any of the grammatical points above, you might find that discussion interesting.

Posted by Heidi Harley at December 3, 2006 11:26 PM