pronoun for "God"

God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is traditionally confined to “he” (or in the forms “his,” “him,” and “himself” in many English Bible translations when referring to the persons of the Trinity with the capitalized “He,” “His,” “Him,” or “Himself”), “she” (and “her,” “hers,” and “herself”), and “it” (and “its” and “itself”).

Modern Chinese, however, offers another possibility (click or tap here to read more):

In modern Chinese, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (tā), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is “he,” 她 is “she,” and 它/牠 is “it” and their respective derivative forms). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.

In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande (王元德) coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: tā. But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that each person of the Trinity has no gender aside from being God.

While the most important Protestant and Catholic Chinese versions respectively have opted not to use 祂, many other Bible translations do and it is widely used in hymnals and other Christian materials. (Source: Zetzsche)

Early versions of Lü Zhenzhong’s (呂振中) version (New Testament: 1946, complete Bible: 1970) also used 祂 to refer to “God.” Kramers points out: “This new way of writing ‘He,’ however, has created a minor problem of its own: must this polite form be used whenever Jesus is referred to? Lü follows the rule that, wherever Jesus is referred to as a human being, the normal ta (他) is written; where he is referred to as divine, especially after the ascension, the reverential ta (祂) is used.”

Source: R. P. Kramers in The Bible Translator 1956, p. 152ff.

In Kouya, Godié, Northern Grebo, Eastern Krahn, Western Krahn, and Guiberoua Béte, all languages of the Kru family in Western Africa, a different kind of systems of pronouns is used (click or tap here to read more):

In that system one kind of pronoun is used for humans (male and female alike) and one for natural elements, non-liquid masses, and some spiritual entities (one other is used for large animals and another one for miscellaneous items). While in these languages the pronoun for spiritual entities used to be employed when referring to God, this has changed into the use of the human pronoun.

Lynell Zogbo (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 401ff) explains in the following way: “From informal discussions with young Christians especially, it would appear that, at least for some people, the experience and/or concepts of Christianity are affecting the choice of pronoun for God. Some people explain that God is no longer ‘far away,’ but is somehow tangible and personal. For these speakers God has shifted over into the human category.”

In Kouya, God (the Father) and Jesus are referred to with the human pronoun ɔ, whereas the Holy Spirit is referred to with a non-human pronoun. (Northern Grebo and Western Krahn make a similar distinction.)

Eddie Arthur, a former Kouya Bible translation consultant, says the following: “We tried to insist that this shouldn’t happen, but the Kouya team members were insistent that the human pronoun for the Spirit would not work.”

Translation: Chinese

在现代汉语中,第三人称单数代词的读音都是一样的(tā),但是写法并不一样,取决于性别以及是否有生命,即男性为“他”,女性为“她”,动物、植物和无生命事物为“它”(在香港和台湾的汉语使用,动物则为“牠”)。这些字的部首偏旁表明了性别(男人、女人、动物、无生命事物),而另一偏旁通常旁提示发音。

到1930年为止,基督教新教《圣经》经过整整一百年的翻译已经拥有了十几个译本,当时的一位圣经翻译者王元德新造了一个“神圣的”代词“祂”,偏旁“礻”表示神明。一般汉语读者会立即知道这字的发音是tā,而这个偏旁表示属灵的事物,因此他们明白这个字指出,三位一体的所有位格都没有性别之分,而单单是上帝。

然而,最重要的新教圣经译本(1919年的《和合本》)和天主教圣经译本(1968年的《思高圣经》)都没有采用“祂”;虽然如此,许多其他的圣经译本采用了这个字,另外还广泛出现在赞美诗和其他基督信仰的书刊中。(资料来源:Zetzsche)

《吕振中译本》的几个早期版本也使用“祂”来指称“上帝”;这个译本的《新约》于1946年译成,整部《圣经》于1970年完成。克拉默斯(Kramers)指出:“‘他’的这种新写法(即‘祂’)产生了一个小问题,就是在指称耶稣的时候,是否一律使用这个敬语代词?《吕振中译本》遵循的原则是,在称呼耶稣这个人的时候,用一般的‘他’,而在称呼耶稣神性的时候,特别是升天之后的耶稣,则用尊称‘祂’。”

Translator: Simon Wong

worship

(To view the different translations of this term in a simplified graphical form on a new page, click or tap here.)

The Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek terms that are often translated as “worship” (also, “kneel down” or “bow down”) are likewise translated in other languages in certain categories, including those based on physical activity, those which incorporate some element of “speaking” or “declaring,” and those which specify some type of mental activity.

Following is a list of (back-) translations (click or tap for details):

  • Javanese: “to prostrate oneself before”
  • Malay: “to kneel and bow the head”
  • Kaqchikel: “to kneel before”
  • Loma (Liberia): “to drop oneself beneath God’s foot”
  • Tepeuxila Cuicatec: “to wag the tail before God” (using a verb which with an animal subject means “to wag the tail,” but with a human subject)
  • Tzotzil: “to join to”
  • Kpelle: “to raise up a blessing to God”
  • Kekchí: “to praise as your God”
  • Cashibo-Cacataibo: “to say one is important”
  • San Blas Kuna: “to think of God with the heart”
  • Rincón Zapotec: “to have one’s heart go out to God”
  • Tabasco Chontal: “to holy-remember” (source of this and all above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Obolo: itọtọbọ ebum: “expressing reverence and devotion” (source: Enene Enene)
  • Ngäbere: “to cut oneself down before” (“This figure of speech comes from the picture of towering mahoganies in the forest which, under the woodman’s ax, quiver, waver, and then in solemn, thunderous crashing bury their lofty heads in the upstretched arms of the surrounding forest. This is the experience of every true worshiper who sees ‘the Lord, high and lifted up.’ Our own unworthiness brings us low. As the Valientes say, ‘we cut ourselves down before’ His presence. Our heads, which have been carried high in self-confidence, sink lower and lower in worship.)
  • Tzeltal: “ending oneself before God.” (“Only by coming to the end of oneself can one truly worship. The animist worships his deities in the hope of receiving corresponding benefits, and some pagans in Christendom think that church attendance is a guarantee of success in this life and good luck in the future. But God has never set a price on worship except the price that we must pay, namely, ‘coming to the end of ourselves.'”) (Source of this and the one above: Nida 1952, p. 163)
  • Folopa: “dying under God” (“an idiom that roughly back-translates “dying under God” which means lifting up his name and praising him and to acknowledge by everything one does and thanks that God is superior.”) (Source: Anderson / Moore, p. 202)
  • Chokwe: “kuivayila” — “to rub something on” (“When anyone goes into the presence of a king or other superior, according to native law and custom the inferior gets down on the ground, takes a little earth in the fingers of his right hand, rubs it on his own body, and then claps his hands in homage and the greeting of friendship. It is a token of veneration, of homage, of extreme gratitude for some favor received. It is also a recognition of kingship, lordship, and a prostrating of oneself in its presence. Yet it simply is the applicative form of ‘to rub something on oneself’, this form of the verb giving the value of ‘because of.’ Thus in God’s presence as king and Lord we metaphorically rub dirt on ourselves, thus acknowledging Him for what He really is and what He has done for us.”) (Source: D. B. Long in The Bible Translator 1952, p. 87ff.)

In Luang it is translated with different shades of meaning:

  • For Mark 15:19 and Matt. 2:8 and 2:11: “uh’idma-rrama llia’ara” — “to kiss the fingernail and lick the heel”
  • For Acts 16:14: “ra’uli-rawedi” — “to praise-talk about”
  • For Acts 14:15, 15:20, 17:16, 17:25: “hoi-tani” — “serve right hand – serve left”
  • For Acts 13:16 and 13:26: “una-umta’ata” — “respect-fear”
  • For 2 Thess. 2:4: “kola tieru awur nehla” — “hold waist – hug neck”

Source: Kathy Taber in Notes on Translation 1/1999, p. 9-16.

holy, sacred, taboo

The use of the word “tapu” (from which the English word “taboo” derives) in translations of various languages in the South Pacific is noteworthy. The English term “taboo” was first used by Captain Cook in 1785. It does not only mean “forbidden, prohibited, untouchable,” but also “sacred, holy.” This concept is attested in almost all South Pacific islands (see this listing for the use of forms of “tapu” in many of the languages — for a modern-day definition of tapu, according to Māori usage, see here).

While some Bible translators working in South Pacific languages did not use “tapu” for the Hebrew Old Testament term קֹדֶשׁ (“holy” in English translation), many did, including in Tongan (“tapuha”), Gilbertese (“tabu”), Tuvalu (“tapu”), Rarotongan (“tapu”), and Māori (“tapu”). (See: Joseph Hong, The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329.)

In some of those languages, for instance in the Kiribati (Gilbertese) New Version Bible of 2016, other Old (and New) Testament terms that don’t contain a “Holy” marker in the source language, use “tabu” as a modifier for terms that are rendered in English as “Bread of Presence (shewbread),” “Sabbath,” or “Temple.”

Some South Pacific languages also use forms of “tapu” in translation of the “Holy” (Ἅγιον) in “Holy Spirit.”

The Hebraist Franz Steiner gave a series of lectures on the topic of “taboo” and the Old Testament idea of “holy” or “sacred” that are now considered classic. Steiner died shortly after giving the lectures and they were published posthumously. While he never actually arrives at an actual definition of “taboo” in his lectures the following excerpts show something of the difficult relationship between “taboo” and “קֹדֶשׁ” (Click or tap here):

“The most common form of the word is tapu. That is the Maori, Tahitian, Marquesan, Rarotongan, Mangarevan and Paumotan pronunciation, which in some cases sounds more like tafu. The Hawaiian form is kapu, the Tongan tabu. Forms like tambu and tampu are not unknown, particularly in the mixed linguistic area or in the Polynesian periphery. The word is used extensively outside Polynesia proper. Thus in Fiji tabu means unlawful, sacred, and superlatively good; in Malagassy, tabaka, profaned, polluted. The New English Dictionary remarks: ‘The accentuation taboó, and the use of the word as substantive and verb, are English; in all the native languages the word is stressed on the first syllable, and is used only as an adjective, the substantive and verb being expressed by derivative words and phrases.’

“Up to this point my report is straightforward, and I only wish I could continue, as so many have done, with the following words: ‘A brief glance at any compilation of the forms and meanings of this word in the various Polynesian languages shows that in all of them the word has two main meanings from which the others derive, and these meanings are: prohibited and sacred.’ The comparison of these data, however, suggests something rather different to me; namely, (i) that the same kind of people have compiled all these dictionaries, assessing the meaning of words in European terms, and (a) that, with few exceptions, there are no Polynesian words meaning approximately what the word ‘holy’ means in contemporary usage without concomitantly meaning ‘forbidden’. The distinction between prohibition and sacredness cannot be expressed in Polynesian terms. Modern European languages on the other hand lack a word with the Polynesian range of meaning; hence Europeans discovered that taboo means both prohibition and sacredness. Once this distinction has been discovered, it can be conveyed within the Polynesian cultural idiom by the citation of examples in which only one of the two European translations would be appropriate. I have no wish to labour this point, but I do want to stress a difficulty all too seldom realized. It is for this reason that it is so hard to accept uncritically the vocabulary-list classifications of meanings on which so much of the interpretation of taboo has been based. Tregear’s (Tregear Edward: “The Maoris of New Zealand,” 1890) definition of the Maori tapu is an example: ‘Under restriction, prohibited. Used in two senses: (i) sacred, holy, hedged with religious sanctity; (2) to be defiled, as a common person who touches some chief or tapued property; entering a prohibited dwelling; handling a corpse or human bones . . .’ and so forth.

“This sort of classification almost suggests that there was in Polynesian life a time in which, or a group of objects and situations in relation to which, the notion of prohibition was employed while the society did not yet know, or related to a different group of objects and situations, the notion of sacredness. This is not so. Taboo is a single, not an ‘undifferentiated’, concept. The distinction between prohibition and sacredness is artificially introduced by us and has no bearing on the concept we are discussing. (…)

“Before we go on to the meaning of impurity in taboo, I should like to mention the exceptions I alluded to before: when, according to dictionary evidence, taboo means only ‘sacred’ and not ‘prohibited’. As translations of tapu Tregear gives for the island of Fotuna ‘sacred’, and for the island of Aniwan, ‘sacred, hallowed’. There they are, but I think one is entitled to be suspicious of such cases, since they are not accompanied by any examples of non-Christian, non-translatory use, for the word taboo was widely used by missionaries in the translation of the Bible: in the Lord’s Prayer for ‘hallowed’, ‘sacred’, and as an adjective for words like Sabbath. On the other hand, Tregear’s second point is plausible: that the notion of impurity is derived from that of prohibition (or, as one should rather say, prohibition and sacredness). A mere glance into Polynesian dictionaries reaffirms this statement, for while there is no use of a word — with, as I said, a few exceptions — which connotes sacredness without implying prohibition, there are many words meaning dirty, filthy, not nice, putrid, impure, defiled, etc. Thus it was possible to convey a notion of an object’s unfitness for consumption, or unsatisfactory surface or state of preservation, without any reference to sacredness and prohibition. Only some of the notions of impurity were connected with taboo notions. (p. 33-34)

(…)

“Qodesh [קדש] is, for the man of the Pentateuch, unthinkable without manifestation. Furthermore, it is a relation, and what is related to God becomes separated from other things, and separation implies taboo behaviour. According to taboo concepts, man must behave in a certain way once the relationship has been established, whether or not he is part of the qodesh relationship. For it does not follow from either the behavioural or the doctrinal element of qodesh that (1) in the establishment of the relationship the incipient part must be God, or that (2) man must be the other part.

“The full relationship, including the ritual behaviour which it to some extent explains, is basically a triangular one, but two corners of the tri¬angle may coincide. Thus the Pentateuch tells us of qodesh, holiness: (1) when God manifests Himself, then the spot is qodesh for it has been related to Him. Here the notion of contagion operates. (2) When some thing, animal, or human being has been dedicated to Him, then it is qodesh and hence taboo. Contagion, however, is in no way involved in this case. (3) The baruch relationship, the so-called blessing, also establishes holiness. God himself — this comes as a shock to most superficial Bible readers — is never called holy, qodesh, unless and in so far as He is related to something else. He is holy in His capacity as Lord of Hosts, though He is not here related to man. Very often the Bible says. The Holy One, blessed be He, or blessed be His name. The name is, in the framework of the doctrinal logic of the Pentateuch, always qodesh because it establishes a relationship: it has, so we primitives think, to be pronounced in order to exist.” (p. 85-86)

See also consecrate / consecration.