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
, 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: language change, obsolete, semantic shift, KJV, Bible translation, Leland Ryken, authorial intent