Better Bibles Blog has moved. Read our last post, below, and then
click here if you are not redirected to our new location within 60 seconds.
Please Bookmark our new location and update blogrolls.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Is you holier than thou?

UPDATE: There is a pretty good description of the changes which occurred with the second person pronouns at this webpage. Unfortunately, as that webpage points out, the semantics of the various changes with these pronouns is difficult to nail down. An even better description may be the Wikipedia entry. As the Wikipedia entry points out, etymologically, "thou" derives from the familiar second person singular pronoun, tu (Spanish tu, German du, Russian ty; in the Russian-speaking village in which I grew up, we only used ty in conversation with each other). I may have been wrong in suggesting that people eventually treated "thee" and "thou" as the more formal pronouns, after "you" displaced them. But I think in my church background "thee" and "thou" indicated greater respect or honor toward God. I think I have heard some people say that "you" was too common or familiar to use in prayer. I may be remembering wrongly, however. It looks like this is a topic which deserves a fair amount of discussion. I would very much welcome comments from any of you who grew up in environments where "thee" and "thou" were still used in prayer. Do you have a sense of what the meaning difference was between praying using "thee" or "thou" versus "you"? I do know that I have been taught a number of times by English teachers and linguists that "thee" and "thou" were singular and "ye" and "you" were plural, agreeing with the preface of the KJV. I have created a new poll to try to find out from you all what meaning "thee" and "thou" has had for you, if you know. It is the first poll in the right margin. The poll is not about etymological (historical) meanings of these pronouns, but about what meaning the pronouns had for you (called synchronic meaning).

Jeremy Pierce of the Parableman blog asks about the meanings of the different second person pronouns used in the KJV, "thee," "thou," "ye," and "you":
A friend of mine read from the preface to his KJV on 'thee' and 'thou' and 'you' in the KJV. According to that preface, 'thee' and 'thou' are used exclusively for singulars and 'you' and 'ye' exclusively for plurals. I'd always been told that 'thee' and 'thou' were the familiar second person pronouns and 'you' the formal, with 'thee' and 'ye' as the subjective and 'thou' and 'you' as the objective. Does anyone have real information on which of these accounts is correct or if somehow there's something to both of them?
I answered Jeremy:
Jeremy, the preface is correct, as far as indicating the meaning of those pronouns as intended by the KJV translators and according to language usage in their time.

However, as the general populace of English-speaking people lost usage of thee, thou, and ye, but continued to use the KJV, a semantic shift took place. The obsolete forms took on a new semantic component of sacredness, formality. So it then sounded more holy to pray to God, using "thee" and "thou" rather than the new second person singular "you" which had spread from being just second person plural to also include second person singular. Since, then, there were competing forms for the meaning of second person singular, i.e. thee, thou, and the new you, and since the obsolete forms sounder more holy to English speakers, the new "you" came to sound too familiar to be used in prayer to God.
A semantic shift took place where the former second person singular pronouns "thee" and "thou" took on the semantic component of formality. People assumed, as they often do, including today, that older sounding English was more majestic. Notice this theme in books by Dr. Leland Ryken where he encourages English Bible translators to return to beautiful, majestic, literary English. He is referring, it appears, to older linguistic forms, both words and syntax, which we humans typically assume must be more majestic than the linguistic forms in contemporary usage. Dr. Ryken is a longtime professor of classical English literature. He loves that literature and it shows in the kind of language he prefers in English Bibles.

Even after people had stopped spearking and writing "thee" and "thou", for a long time, they would pray to God, using "thee" and "thou" instead of "you." They thought they were honoring God with holier language. And, in a sense, they were because those were the meanings in their minds, even though holiness was never a part of the original meanings of those obsolete pronouns.

Historically, there was no reason to use obsolete language. There was no etymological basis for assuming that the obsolete pronouns were more holy than the contemporary pronouns. But meaning is in the mind of its beholders, just as is beauty. So we created a new meaning for the old pronouns. We are doing the same thing today with our nostalgic linguistic revisionism of English Bible translations, where we assume, and even advertise, that some English Bible versions have literary excellence. What is meant is that we have concluded that they have literary excellence because they use older linguistic forms of the language.

The study of sacred language and how contemporary language sometimes becomes sacred is extremely fascinating. As a Bible translator and student of English Bible versions, I am intrigued by and, but also concerned about, some claims made about various Bible translations. Often there is simply no etymological basis for claims made about various language forms or styles of languages used in some English Bible versions. But we create new meanings in our minds, and they become realities at least for those who are part of that subgroup of society which uses the older forms and loves them. Familiarity with those forms does not beed contempt, but, rather, affection. Of course, for those in society who do not use or understand the older forms, a different sociolinguistic effect occurs, namely, one of distancing. If you cannot understand something or if it sounds old-fashioned to you, you will likely either feel distanced, and put off by, that kind of language, or, on the other hand, you may find yourself drawn to it, the latter especially if you grew up hearing that kind of language or if you are a student of classical (older) English literature.

Meaning is often not in the text itself; it's in our minds where so much reality is created. And I am not speaking here about original propositional meaning, the content of authorial intent, which I believe in. I am talking about creating of new meanings for textual forms, meanings different from what original forms or their older translations had. We can speak, therefore, of differences between etymological meaning and psycholinguistic or sociolingistic meanings.

These are important things to think about in terms of English Bible translation. We need to ask, as we frequently state on this blog:
For whom is this Bible version created?
What purposes will it be used for?
If a Bible version will be used by those who love obsolete English, then it can have obsolete forms. If it will be used in evangelism among those who do not understand obsolete English, it should not use contemporary forms, unless we wish to allow the medium to push people away from the message, to use some terms from the media and communications consultant Marshall McLuhan. Similarly, if a Bible will be used by new believers, it probably should not use obsolete English, unless the social structure of a congregation calls for a fast paced adoption of church English by anyone who joins that church. And if that is what the ethos of that church calls for, then I question whether that church has gotten its priorities straight.

None of this, of course, calls for use of colloquial language in Bible versions. But it does call for use of contemporary language, if we are truly concerned about the Bible speaking accurately and clearly to those who speak and write contemporary language, which, really, is all of us who are English speakers. There is a huge difference between colloquial and contemporary language. Contemporary language has a variety of registers, from language used by parents with their small children, to language used by elementary school teachers, to languge used in Pulitzer prize-winning contemporary English literature, all the way up to language used by linguists or theologians trying to impress each other at conferences or in technical articles with their erudition and educational pedigrees. There are differences in contemporary language between spoken and written language. All of these differences can be properly reflected in good quality literary English Bible translations which sparkles with the beautiful of current figures of speech, turns of phrases, alliteration, and other literary devices which are used by the best writers today.

What emotional components does the Bible you use communicate to you? What components would it communicate to your unchurched friends?

Can one Bible version serve all English speakers today? Probably not, if it is written in English which is not used by all English speakers today.

Categories: , , , , , ,


At Sun Aug 21, 04:20:00 PM, Blogger Talmida said...

Were the singular 2nd person forms in English ever connected with the familiar form, and the plural 2nd with the formal? I know that the "royal we" made familiar by Queen Victoria's "we are not amused" was in vogue for a time, but were thee and thou ever used as the intimate form?

I was educated by French Sisters, and I still love praying the Lord's Prayer in French: it uses the intimate "tu" throughout. It is NOT the formal "vous" that one would expect for addressing a superior, but the intimate familiar form used for addressing a parent, a child, a best friend.

Could it be that English speakers have turned the familiar thee/thou into a formal address because of our love for majestic language, but lost the original meaning of the word?

At Sun Aug 21, 06:01:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

Wayne, I think you completely missed the question my post was asking. I know full well that 'thee' and 'thou' were not the formal. What I was wondering is if there's any truth to the claim people make in response to that. People often say that 'thee' and 'thou' were the familiar, and 'you' and 'ye' were the formals, and that got switched because of people using the KJV well beyond when the language was current. If that's right, it conflicts with the account that says that 'thee' and 'thou' were simply singular, and 'you' and 'ye' plural. Or is there truth to both, and it's just more complicated?

At Sun Aug 21, 06:09:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Talmida, as far as I know about the history of our language, English has never had a familiar/formal distinction in the second person as the Romance languages have. Of course, English, like any other language, has ways of indicating formality and respect, but it has not been with the second person pronouns.

My understanding is that "thee" and "thou" were familiar forms, although there really was not a contrast with any other "formal" pronoun. But "thee" and "thou" were used in intimate, familiar situations. And I believe people felt comfortable praying to God with that familiarity of "thee" and "thou."

Later, after "you" displaced "thee" and "thou" people added the sense of formality to the diplaced forms, and showed honor to God by using those forms. Or, maybe I am wrong, maybe it was that people felt they were actually being more familiar with God by using the older pronouns "thee" and "thou" with him. In any case, a semantic shift took place so that people continued to use "thee" and "thou" in prayer and felt that "you" was inappropriate. From my own church background, I got the idea that "you" was considered to be too familiar for prayer.

I guess this is something that needs to be field tested, the semantic difference in prayers between using "you" and "thee."

At Mon Aug 22, 03:37:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

Wayne, the poll doesn't offer the choice I would have thought most obvious. When people use 'thee' and 'thou' in prayer, I thought they were just being archaic.
I thought they were trying to sound traditional. This is certainly the perception I had as a kid. It didn't convey to me more familiarity or more formality, just mere traditionalism. It struck me as being a lot like saying, "In Jesus' name, amen" at the end of a prayer. In both cases, people doing it often don't seem to me to be thinking about why they're doing it when they do it. It's just tradition. I realize now that this isn't always the case with either, but the poll is asking how people thought of it when they first encountered it, and at that time it just sounded like mere ritual. You don't have that as an option, so all the answers of the poll are incorrect for me.

At Mon Aug 22, 06:52:00 AM, Blogger Wayne said...

it just sounded like mere ritual. You don't have that as an option, so all the answers of the poll are incorrect for me.

Jeremy, when I made the poll, I realized that I might not have thought of all the options, so I put in #3 which is for an answer that is not in the poll. Your answer would be #3. Ideally, there should be a place in the poll for a respondent to explain what their #3 answer is, but the poll service doesn't give us an option to fill in a blank also.

I'm sorry that #3 was not clearer for its purpose.

At Mon Aug 22, 07:55:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, thank you for this interesting article.

You wrote: English has never had a familiar/formal distinction in the second person as the Romance languages have.. Well, the point here is not about the Romance languages. In fact Latin never had this distinction, but it is a distinction which is made, in varying ways, in very many of the languages of continental Europe, including German, and even in Russian, Turkish and Persian. I suspect that it originates in the common European culture of the 17th and 18th centuries, from which Britain maintained some detachment. And it is a distinction which is breaking down rapidly in many of these cultures; the phenomenon which you observed in Alaska perhaps 50 years ago is becoming more and more common in Europe, in which people generally use the familiar singular form in conversation even with strangers except in particularly formal settings.

The 17th century change in English to using "you" for the singular even in informal and familiar contexts seems to be a separate change. But it is not a complete one, for "thou" is still used as the singular in some northern British dialects of English.

I agree with Jeremy's last point: I consider that when people call God "thou" in prayer, at least these days, they are simply following tradition. Perhaps they also consider this part of a higher and more majestic register of language suitable for prayer. But I don't think there is a real conscious choise of showing greater respect and honour.

At Wed Aug 24, 08:51:00 AM, Blogger Trevor Jenkins said...

Wayne commented in his blog post that
Dr. Leland Ryken ... encourages English Bible translators to return to beautiful, majestic, literary English. He is referring, it appears, to older linguistic forms, both words and syntax, which we humans typically assume must be more majestic than the linguistic forms in contemporary usage. Dr. Ryken is a longtime professor of classical English literature. He loves that literature and it shows in the kind of language he prefers in English Bibles."

In that suggestion Ryken ignores the important task that Ernst-August Gutt establishes for Bible translators of "asking the target audience what they want". In his book Relevance Theory Gutt cites an anecdote concerning a Bible translation into the Guaraní language i n Brazil; after all the effort of producing the translation the saddest part is "everything had to be translated again".

I'm also reminded of an anecdote in Mildred Larson's book
"Meaning-Based Translation" (2ed), page 480 ( or "A good example is the translation of the bible done by Judson into the language of Burma. This Bible is a third longer than the Bible in English. Before printing it, he checked it with Buddhist monks to make sure that they could understand it. For clarity, the text had to expanded considerably. But after over a hunderd years, it is still understood and used by the people."

Would seem that Judson got it right. I wonder whether the ESV will even last as long as the RSV that it is meant to replace.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home