Friday 23 April 2010

Thou and You

Here's some lovely poetry courtesy of Andrew Marvell. Notice the words in bold.

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
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.

To return for a second to Andrew Marvell, he was MP for Hull (hence the reference to the "Tide of Humber") and wrote beautiful poetry. William Wilberforce was also MP for Hull and was instrumental in stopping the slave trade. So who, dear reader, who could fill this great post now? What poetic, liberating hero could don so holy a mantle?

John Prescott


  1. I love thee like pudding - if thou wert pie, I'd eat thee (John Ray, 1667)

  2. There is a version of the New Testament in Cockney. "This is my current bun, who I am well chuffed with" or similar. Tyndale would ave gone Radio Rental.

  3. "Upside down"- the monster 1979 hit...

    "Respectfully I say to thee, I'm aware that you're cheating, when no one makes me feel like you do..."

  4. "Upside down"- the monster 1979 hit...

    "Respectfully I say to thee, I'm aware that you're cheating, when no one makes me feel like you do..."

  5. Thank you, thank you thank you! At last I have an answer for all those French people who ask me why English doesn't have a 'tu' and a 'vous'.

  6. I've never quite understood this and have often been asked. Thanks!

  7. I've just spent the weekend in Yorkshire. I agree.

  8. I remember getting confused about which was familiar and formal in high school, because I couldn't figure out why the familiar would be in the bible. I guess I just needed to go back farther than Shakespeare. Thank you!

  9. One of the Antipodeans, the one that likes cricket and Shakespeare and men with lovely manners and dressing gowns, she wondered how many words she could get in here after all, and then30 June 2010 at 17:26

    Darn it, my obstinate adhesion to "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee" has just lost its justification. Although it is singular, n'est-ce pas? Maybe I'll go with that.

    I am relieved to hear that English is not so much like French, after all.

  10. Antipodean,
    You are Mrs Malaprop and I claim my £200.

  11. The Antipodean, or she thinks she is, anyway, and was already having a minor identity crisis, so this isn't helping, what she1 July 2010 at 05:07

    "At a word, I am not!" Except that, unlike Antonio, I really amn't. If I were, I might have some idea what you are talking about - either Mrs M is sneaking around pretending to be from Australia (odd) or there is some kind of identity Monopoly game happening that I wasn't invited to.

    I am simultaneously flattered (happy to sound like Mrs M, I enjoy her writing and comments) and a little despairing at my lack of unique voice. You're right, I'll have to adopt a word.

    I'm also puzzled about how I could prove I'm really not, but since it would appear that you interact with Mrs M in the real world, I'll have to leave it up to her. If you get £200 Mrs M, can I get a cut? The exchange rate isn't great, but pounds are still better than $A.

  12. Dogberry seems to be conflating Monopoly with a scene from Brighton Rock (“You are Kolley Kibber and I claim my” however much it was), although apparently this is quite a common phrase –

    Other than that, I think he ought to explain. It may be to do with DWJ, Oxford or the Hail Mary, or indeed all three. I once made him accompany me to a lecture she (DWJ, not the Virgin Mary, obviously) and Philip Pullman were giving to a group of postgraduates in North Oxford. Not having heard of her before, he was slightly baffled both by my giddy excitement in the hours before the lecture, and by my disappointment when the lecture turned out to be a critical discussion of CS Lewis rather than a celebration/analysis of DWJ or Pullman’s own work.

    As for Hail Mary, I went to a convent school where the school song was a strangely catchy version of the The Magnificat, written by a former pupil. My friends all professed to hate it at the time, but now need very little encouragement to start singing it. Dogberry finds the fact that I went to convent school obscurely amusing.

  13. The Antipodean, who is getting a bit sick of writing long names, but enjoying playing with the sentence ending, since it has to finish with something that will run onto the word1 July 2010 at 10:34

    Heh... the Virgin Mary and Philip Pullman speaking together would be great! I am jealous that you've heard DWJ speak, even about CS Lewis - which would still've be interesting. But I agree that those two reflecting on their own / each other's work would've been more exciting.

    I'm relieved to hear that I don't have to come up with £200 and that my 'identity Monopoly game' crack was close to the mark. Mind you, I am clearly getting an F in Graham Greene and Usenet slang. Dogberry obviously gets around more than I do.

    I also went to a Catholic school - we don't call them convent schools coz they mostly weren't, and they're a dime a dozen. Our catchy anthem was written by the then-Deputy Principal and gets similar treatment by the alumni. Mary gets a mention in one of the verses, now I think of it.