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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Singular and Plural

It is often said that modern translations lose in expressing the meaning of the original languages if a generic "they" is used instead of a generic "he." But, of course, we are all aware that the singular "thou" has been replaced by the plural "you." I had not been aware of how significant this could be until recently. Certainly in studying the Psalms, the difference is remarkable. One is able to notice when God is addressed and when the congregation is addressed, or even oneself.

Iyov introduces his study of the singular in the giving of the ten commandments with this question,
    A careful look at Exodus 20:2 and the text of the Ten Commandments immediately following shows that throughout they are addressed in the singular. Why is this?
Jesus is quoted as using the singular form for the commandments in the gospels. It is a marked feature in his quotations of the commandments in Greek.

For one more example, here is a familiar passage, Rom. 10:5-10, in the KJV, RSV and NRSV, with and without a singular "thou." Does it make a theological difference and how should we address this?
    5For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.

    6But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:)

    7Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.)

    8But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach;

    9That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

    10For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

    [5]Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on the law shall live by it.
    [6] But the righteousness based on faith says, Do not say in your heart, "Who will ascend into heaven?" (that is, to bring Christ down)
    [7] or "Who will descend into the abyss?" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
    [8] But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach);
    [9] because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
    [10] For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.

    5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’ 6But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) 7‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8But what does it say?
    ‘The word is near you,
    on your lips and in your heart’
    (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
Does changing the verb to the plural shift the focus to a group confession? How important are these kinds of changes? Which one is closer to the Greek? Or underlying Hebrew?


At Wed Jun 11, 11:42:00 PM, Blogger dru said...

Very interesting point. For some time I've been concerned that changing singular to plural so as to be able to use a sex neutral pronoun has the unfortunate effect of making the words less immediate.

This has a resonance with David Ker's recent blog on translation committees and chickens. Psalm 1, NIV

"Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers."

uses the word that since about 1985 has become controversial.

The CofE Common Worship psalter is

"Blessed are those who have not walked
in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the assembly of the scornful."

Which is less immediate. In resonance, it isn't saying 'you', so much as 'someone over there'.

Yes, I recognise that 'you' was originally plural, but in current usage, it is singular or plural, whereas 'they' is not - at least not yet. Even in dialect, 'thou' has been fading fast for a long time.

When it was in general use, it was complicated by the sort of issues that apply to 'tu' in French. The widespread presence of these sort of issues with second person singulars in different languages might suggest there could be an innate wariness of the directness of 'you' singular. In Spanish I believe it becomes something that in origins means 'does your grace ..... ' followed by a third person.

But going back to the subject matter, I agree that there is a difference between singular and plural.

The really odd one from David's recent blog is NIRV

"Blessed is the one who obeys the law of the Lord.
He doesn't follow the advice of evil people.
He doesn't make a habit of doing what sinners do.
He doesn't join those who make fun of the Lord and his law."

which skates evasively round 'the forbidden noun' in the first line, and then spoils it by introducing a pronoun that could be avoided altogether by

""Blessed is anyone who
does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
nor stands in the way of sinners
nor sits in the seat of mockers."

"blessed is the one who ....." and "Blessed is whoever... ", also work as they take singular verbs.

There are plenty of other examples. The Common Worship psalter even offers two alternative versions of Psalm 8 vv 5-6.

I've been away recently, hence the silence.


At Thu Jun 12, 12:08:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Welcome back.

Which is less immediate. In resonance, it isn't saying 'you', so much as 'someone over there'.

But Romans 10 continues,

"How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him(T) of whom they have never heard?[c] And how are they to hear(U) without someone preaching? 15And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written,(V) "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!"

Does the meaning really change with the changing pronoun? In the ten commandments, it seems to be deliberate, intentional, but here and in other places incidental.

What about the fact that Paul himself, in writing Romans changed the original pronoun from singular to plural for this expression,

"How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings," Is. 52:7

The LXX does have the sing in this passage.

At Thu Jun 12, 12:10:00 AM, Blogger Iyov said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At Thu Jun 12, 12:11:00 AM, Blogger Iyov said...

I mentioned it elsewhere, but I'll repeat it here -- besides English translations that retain the second person singular (KJV, RV, ASV, Darby, YLT, DRC, JPS1917) I found a few contemporary annotated editions that note the singular form at Exodus 20:2:

The NET Bible

The NRSV - New Oxford Annotated Bible (I checked the 3rd Augmented edition)

The NRSV - HarperCollins Study Bible

However, the vast majority of translations I checked -- including contemporary editions favored by those who argue that inclusive language is fatally befouled by singular/plural confusion -- made no note of the singular form whatsoever.

At Thu Jun 12, 12:17:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks for pointing this out. I note that in the gospels the commandments are quoted using the singular form in Greek. Other citations such as Paul's citation of Is. 52:7 are not so carefully translated into Greek.

I would think that the commandments are a significant passage and deserve careful annotation.

At Thu Jun 12, 12:18:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

PS Thanks to TC for this.

At Thu Jun 12, 09:58:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Iyov mentioned "English translations that retain the second person singular". But surely all do, in the verse in question, Exodus 20:2, because in modern English "you" is a singular pronoun. True, it is also a plural pronoun, although being displaced as such by forms like "y'all". But the default understanding of "you" is singular except where the context implies a plural reading.

Thus, perhaps unlike Suzanne who was brought up on KJV, I have no problem with the RSV and NRSV versions of Romans 10:5-10 because I automatically understand the "you" here as singular. The verses which I might misunderstand are those which are plural in the original but not clearly marked as such in English translations.

At Thu Jun 12, 01:51:00 PM, Blogger dru said...

It would be useful if English still had a way of distinguishing in the second person between singular and plural, of showing what is personal and what is general. I don't think many people would yet take a bible seriously with y'all or youse in it.


At Thu Jun 12, 02:59:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

As Forrest Gump says,

"Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you'll get."

"You" may be like life.

At Thu Jun 12, 06:12:00 PM, Blogger Andrew said...

I was just thinking about this the other day, but in connection to a translation of Dante's Divine Comdy. The solution of Dorothy Sayers, translating in the 1950s, was simply to use the 'thou' form where necessary, but otherwise using modern English. It's an incredibly helpful device in these books, and newer translations really do lose a shade of meaning by using the 'you' form.

Similarly, I believe that this would be the least obtrusive manner of doing so in a Bible translation. Why complain that there isn't a device in English to represent the second-person singular when we already have one? I would really like to see a modern translation that uses it. (Perhaps yet another variant of the RSV, where it was already used to some extent.)

At Thu Jun 12, 07:42:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

Peter said:

Iyov mentioned "English translations that retain the second person singular". But surely all do, in the verse in question, Exodus 20:2, because in modern English "you" is a singular pronoun. True, it is also a plural pronoun, although being displaced as such by forms like "y'all". But the default understanding of "you" is singular except where the context implies a plural reading.

Really? You think that even though the address was given to the entire mass of the Israelites gathered at at the foot of Sinai, some might not read the form as the plural form? You noticed the clear difference between the second person pronoun between Exodus 20 and Leviticus 19?

That simply strains credulity. Unless, Peter, you are as, I suspect, a secret KJV reader (or read the Bible in Hebrew.)

At Fri Jun 13, 02:50:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Andrew, what we need is a device for marking the second person PLURAL unambiguously, like "y'all" or maybe just write it "you all" to make it more acceptable. Probably in the 1950s people did understand "thou" as singular because they were brought up on KJV. But these days, and partly reinforced by the confusing influence of RSV, they tend to think of it as a special pronoun of respect used only in reference to God. So putting "thou" in a modern translation will only cause confusion.

Iyov, I admit that my understanding of the Ten Commandments may be coloured by having first learned them in KJV or Book of Common Prayer form, and by knowing some of them in Hebrew. As for Leviticus 19, without looking up the Hebrew or KJV I don't know if this is singular or plural. But from TNIV's useful device "Each of you" in verse 3 I would surmise that verse 2 is plural but verses 3 onward are singular. Of course I may be wrong. Without "Each of you" I would probably have understood all of this as plural because of the plural context in verse 2. And maybe the same for the Ten Commandments.

At Fri Jun 13, 04:12:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

maybe just write it "you all" to make it more acceptable.

putting "thou" in a modern translation will only cause confusion

TNIV's useful device "Each of you"

Peter, You are absolutely right in your suggestions here.

Otherwise, for a text such as "Philemon," the TNIV has to mark by a footnote the first "you" in verse 3, saying: "The Greek is plural; also in verses 22 and 25; elsewhere in this letter 'you' is singular."

But to avoid cumbersome footnotes, how about something like this (where the switch from plural to singular is also marked)? Here's from a translation I attempted some time back:

"3 TO YOU ALL: Favor and Peace..."

"4 Blessed favor goes to my God when my memories of you, sir, are made vivid in my prayers..."

"22 I’m expecting, in fact, that the requests each one of you is making will bring favor to you all..."

"25 WITH THE BREATH OF EACH ONE OF YOU: The favor of the Master – Joshua Anointed"


TC does a great job (as Suzanne in her comment notes) of showing how Paul is sensitive to the difference between singular and plural forms of pronouns.

At Fri Jun 13, 04:30:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Here's a puzzler:

Luke 4:34,

ἔα τί ἡμῖν καὶ σοί Ἰησοῦ Ναζαρηνέ ἦλθες ἀπολέσαι ἡμᾶς οἶδά σε τίς εἶ ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ

Why does Luke have this deity, this demon, use the plural a couple of times to Jesus, and then switch to singular with the verb οἶδά?

(Luke's translation of the demon's speech--or was this a Greek deity talking?--mirrors John's translation of what Jesus says to his own mother. Both translators apply an idiomatic Greek construct to the vocative speech of the demon to Jesus and of Jesus to his mother. Here's John 2:4,

καὶ λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί γύναι οὔπω ἥκει ἡ ὥρα μου)

Do our English translations need to mark the plural "you" in Luke's Greek?

At Fri Jun 13, 11:37:00 AM, Blogger Iyov said...

J.K. --

Clearly, you meant to say "Paul is insensitive" instead of "Paul is sensitive."

Robert Alter has a great series of lectures on the influence of the KJV Hebrew Bible on contemporary style in the writings of Herman Mellville, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow.

At Fri Jun 13, 12:25:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks for sorting that out. I was wondering.

What I have noticed is that in the Greek there is no pronoun in verse 10 so in the English the words "man" "one" and "you" are all supplied. The most natural to English would be "you" I think. I can't say that there is a distinctive meaning component to saying "one" instead of "you" in this case. There is no masculine form of any kind in Greek. The RSV clearly adds the masculine in the English.

For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved. RSV

For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. NIV

For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. NRSV

But "one" cannot be used in all contexts.

Back to the KJV, and in reflection, considering also the comment on the Gideon's in another thread, I think we have to realize that the Bible belongs to more than just the evangelical community. There is a larger world out there which considers the Bible to be a major text in the English language. So far, for this larger context, no Bible has replaced the KJV. Other Bibles which may have made some impact are the NEB, Good News, NIV, etc. - clearly secondary.

At Fri Jun 13, 02:04:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Iyov, "contemporary style" in Herman Melville (1819-1891), William Faulkner (1897-1962) and Saul Bellow (1915-2005)? Of these only Bellow can remotely be considered "contemporary", and even he is clearly a figure from a past generation who wrote his best known works before vast changes in English of the 1980s and following. I suspect that there would be very much less KJV influence in the works of most authors currently writing, in true "contemporary style".

Suzanne, I think RSV has put the German pronoun "man" into the English text of Romans 10:10. That is the only way to explain this otherwise highly anomalous use of "man" without the article, which otherwise is used (most commonly with a capital letter) only of things common to the whole species e.g. "Man walks on two legs". A formally equivalent rendering would be something like "For this is believed in the heart, leading to justification, and confessed with the mouth, leading to salvation", with "this" referring back to verse 9. Why do none of the formal equivalence versions retain the passive here?

At Fri Jun 13, 02:32:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Now Peter's got us remembering Barbara Kingsolver (1955 - ). So much to think of from this living and rather alive novelist..., what to choose?

“So instead you rock by the window, drinking the light from her skin, breathing her exhaled dreams. Your heart bays to the double crescent moons of closed lashes on her cheeks. She’s the one you can’t put down.

My baby, my blood, my honest truth: entreat me not to leave thee, for whither thou goest I will go. Where I lodge, we lodge together. Where I die, you’ll be buried at last.

I've always wondered if Paul was as sensitive as Melville, Faulkner, and Bellow (not to mention George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence). I've left a comment now at your blog.

With your post there on Altar, the KJV, and especially Bellow, you've got us also remembering Herzog.

Remember? When he’s trying on clothes, looking like his father’s cousin Elias Herzog, then his father, Rabbi Sandor-Alexander Herzog, then the protagonist’s mother’s Moses whom she wished would become a rabbi...

“And his figure!—the long veins winding in the arms and filling in the hanging hands, an ancient system, of greater antiquity than the Jews themselves... Bare-legged, he looked like a Hindu.

Consider the lilies of the field, he remembered, they toil not, neither do they spin, yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed...

He had been eight years old, in the children’s ward of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal, when he learned those words. A Christian lady came once a week and had him read aloud from the Bible. He read, Give and it shall be given unto you: good measure, pressed down and shaken together and running over shall men give unto your bosom.

At Fri Jun 13, 03:35:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


I found the translations for Romans 10:10 rather curious myself. I am glad that you picked up on that point. It is odd.

On the KJV,

I simply can't argue with the facts, the Landry News which I blogged about before is a modern book with an anticonservative bias, promoting the open discussion of divorce by children. I am sure it is on the index somewhere, but my students love it, and they carefully looked up the vocabulary necessary to read two verses from the KJV which inform the theme of this book.

Also Ada Blackjack mentions the KJV in an historic context. Kingsolver, of course, is familiar with the historic editions of the KJV.

At Fri Jun 13, 04:13:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, I have never heard of this Kingsolver before, but I accept that she is my exact contemporary. And I accept that modern writers do sometimes quote from KJV. I note that Kingsolver quotes exactly from Ruth 1:16 KJV for two clauses, but as soon as she departs from the KJV text she returns to singular "you" with "you’ll be buried at last". So it is more accurate to say that she is quoting than that her style is influenced by KJV. Bellow is of course also quoting, not allowing his own style to be influenced.

At Fri Jun 13, 04:21:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Kingsolver wrote The Poisonwood Bible, which I would recommend to any Bible translator as a fascinating book. It is a little weak in the "strong male character" department, so I don't really know how men would like this book. Her book, the Prodigal Summer, is quite a nice romance all around, but Poisonwood Bible is a bit depressing - but absolutely fascinating from a linguistics point of view. I would love to hear what others think of it. I think it is brilliant even the parts I don't agree with.

At Fri Jun 13, 05:57:00 PM, Blogger Andrew said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At Fri Jun 13, 05:59:00 PM, Blogger Andrew said...

Peter: regarding the fact that using 'thou' to represent the singular and 'you' the plural might be confusing to some readers, I think that this is something that could easily be addressed in a preface. (Just as, for example, the divine name is.) A Bible that did this probably wouldn't be something intended for normal public reading, but rather more of a literal study aid.

In Latin class, we run into this problem from time to time as well. At least one of our professors has in fact advocated using the 'thou' form to distinguish singular and plural where it would make the sense clearer, though of course we're not publishing our translations. Still, I maintain that it's the simplest and least obtrusive manner of doing it. It's already well-established in the English language through books like the KJV, and it doesn't require adding in extra words or footnotes.

At Fri Jun 13, 06:09:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

It would give a Quakerish tone to the language.

At Sat Jun 14, 08:55:00 PM, Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

What a long thread - I missed lots on my short holiday. Re Philemon, the you plural is sensitive to the address of the letter to more than one person and particularly the church at his house. There is still a question as to whether the plural you is addressed to the collective or to the several individuals. For another example of this tension see Romans 7 - ye are dead to the law by the body of Christ that ye should be married to another, ... Is this 'ye' collective or addressed to each of several as well as all together? As if to clarify, Paul immediately switches to we and I - showing that the collective may be in view but also the several individuals are in view as well.

Re the singular - there is a further distinction: is the singular (such as in Psalm 1:1) the man, any man, a human, or anticipating the anointed of Psalm 2? Singularity can be direct, personal, example, or definitive and particular. In Psalm 1, 'the man' is definitely masculine ha'ish - but even Rashi gives a reading of 'adam in his commentary - and he downplays the definite article.

At Sat Jun 14, 09:26:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

That's interesting about Rashi and ish. I found that adam and ish, aner and anthropos are very often used synonymously in the Psalms. But more interesting was how important plural and singular "you" were.

I hope you follow my Cahill posts. It has turned out to be quite interesting for me.


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