Wednesday, 17 April 2013
Thou and You
Here's some lovely poetry courtesy of Andrew Marvell. Notice the words in bold.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
Once upon a time English was nice and simple. There was the second person singular thou and the second person plural you. Then in 1066 everything went wrong. The Normans arrived bringing with them the royal plural. "We are not amused," said Queen Victoria. "We are Henry the Eighth, we are," said Henry the Eighth. This pluralisation of royals was not simply I becoming we, they also had to be addressed as though they were plural. So the top of society started to demand that they were addressed plurally as you.
This spread. You became a simple reverential form. Through the sixteenth century it got more and more complicated. People would call others you in the way that junk mail tends to add an esquire to my name. You was everywhere. Thou was familar or condescending. You used it to your servants.
So what do you call the girl you love? What do you say when you are trying to be familiar with the queen of your heart. Do you wish for worship or intimacy? Can you be intimate with your deity? Does it depend whether, like Marvell, you're in Hull or London?
None of these questions bothered William Tyndale as he sat down in the early sixteenth century to translate the Bible. Not for him the shallow flirtations and flattery of society, nor the intricacies of adoration: he wanted accuracy.
Now, Greek (in which the Gospels are written) has a second person singular and a second person plural. So he translated the singular as thou and the plural as you. That is why God is thou: not because He is your friend (He isn't, He thinks you're bad), but because God is singular. Jesus thous (it can be a verb like tutoyer) individuals and yous crowds.
And here is an oddity, here is a bit of the screenplay for scene 57 of that delicate, lyrical work The Return of the Jedi:
Darth Vader, standing with other members of the Imperial council, cautiously approaches his master. The ruler's back is to Vader. After several tense moments, the Emperor's chair rotates around to face him.
VADER What is thy bidding, my Master?
Thou was the singular, then it was the familiar, then it was the condescending, then it was left only in the Bible often used to address God, and thus thou became reverential again.
Well I say that thou has survived only in the Bible. I believe that there are still a couple of people in Yorkshire who thou each other (I'll believe anything about Yorkshire). A popular beat combo from Leeds called (slightly tautologically) the Kaiser Chiefs recorded a song alarmingly titled I Predict A Riot with the lines:
Watching the people get lairy
It's not very pretty I tell thee
Walking through town is quite scary
It's not very sensible either
Which is thou's proof of life, or at least life Yorkshire.