Saturday, 19 March 2016

You and you (and God)

One of the 'fun' things about learning another language is dealing with the peculiarities of our own. Like how a simple subject-verb expression like "je danse" (French) or "[yo] bailo" (Spanish) or "[ego] ballo" (Latin) has three, yep, three English translations: I dance, I am dancing, I do dance. Native English speakers know intuitively which form to use, and that the ones with the auxiliary verbs (am, do) are more often used with negative expressions (I'm not dancing, I don't dance), and the differences between them.

One of the few places where the English language has a marked deficiency of equivalences is in the second person pronoun "you". One constantly has to write "you (s.)" or "you (pl.)" or worse still "y'all" or the more Australian (if less grammatically correct) "youse". It wasn't always like this.



Like most other languages, English used to have distinct singular and plural forms of the second person pronoun. As in French, the singular form (thou, cf tu) was used for familiars and subordinates, and the plural form (you, cf vous) was used for your elders and betters. Sometimes, it was very difficult to know whether someone was of a higher social rank than you, so to be safe, people took to using the polite version all the time. From the below flowchart, you can kinda understand why.

All over the net, I'd love to credit the author
Consider the Lord's Prayer: even unschooled heathens like me know it:
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed by thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven...*

To our modern ears, "thee" and "thy" sound formal, starched, proper. In fact, it was quite the opposite: like tu, "thee" was the form used for children, lovers, and close friends. And it was the form that you used to speak to God, the theory being that you have a close, personal, familiar relationship with Him, and therefore you are on tu/thee terms with one another.

The doors of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, with the Lord's Prayer in Catalan in relief, and inscribed with 49 other languages. Photo by me, taken 1 Oct 2011.

Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that I wish we'd kept "thee", because constantly writing (s.) or (pl.) next to "you" is getting tedious.

* The next line is a little more variable: the version I learned was about forgiving trespasses, rather than debts or sins, but the gist is the same

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