I am an avid Latin III student studying in high school, and I often think about the effect that Latin has had on English, not just through etymology and morphology, but in semantics and pragmatics.

In church today, I noticed again that the pastor says "The Word Of the Lord" and that the congregation replies "Thanks be to God" to this. "Thanks be to God" at first sounds very awkward until I actually thought about what the phrase might be trying to convey.

I began to think about the Dative of Possession in Latin where "Nomen mihi est..." literally means "The name to/for me is..." and is used to show possession of the subject of the sentence by the dative. The way the phrase in question sounds is similar (with the dative and the copula); if it is styled so, it is "The Thanks is to/for God".

  1. Is this what the phrase is trying to get across to the congregation, or is it some remnant from an older, more complicated English?
  2. If so, is it really proper to use the Latin Dative of Possession like that?
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    Doesn't "thanks be to God" sound awkward because of the archaic use of the subjunctive? And, again because of the subjunctive, isn't it closer in meaning to "let God receive thanks" than to "the thanks is for God"? – Peter Shor Jun 1 '14 at 21:31
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    The Latin is Deo Gratias, and it's definitely Dative. But I don't think it's dative of possession, just ordinary receiver dative. The full phrase is Gratias Deo ago, and the verb makes it clear that God is the receiver of the thanks. – John Lawler Jun 1 '14 at 22:33

I'm not sure that "thanks be to God" is actually a translation of a dative of possession given that "gratias agere" is more an idiomatic verb meaning "to thank" which simply takes a dative object. The 'literal' translation of the phrase "gratias deo ago" would probably be more like "I direct my thanks to you" in which case the dative just plays its normal role of answering "to/for whom?". The phrase "thanks be to God" is probably just an example of archaic English sounding archaic, nothing in the Latin necessitates that translation. The phrase "gratias deo ago" would probably best be translated simply as "I thank God."

I don't think there are many clean cut examples of the dative of possession really bubbling up into English. I'm no linguistic historian by any means but I think one plausible place where it still echoes in English might be in phrasal verbs like "belong to" or "send for." I think any true use of the dative of possession in English is largely impossible because we rarely consider nouns to have any relationship with their verbs and instead rely on helpful prepositions and the like to describe the concepts included in many Latin cases.

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