The address of English is one of its most peculiar characteristics. It is one of mine that this bothers me. After all, I was born and raised in England.
Not only does it bother me; it always has. Before I even learnt another European language I had of course no words to think of the “problem”. Nevertheless, when I recently read something that had survived from my school years, it was apparent that I did think of it as a problem, even if I did not have the means either to understand or define it. When addressing my fellow pupils in assembly at (the former) Adwick School in Doncaster, I alternated clumsily between such phrases as “you as a pupil”, and “you as pupils”.
This was also before I had ever been introduced to the difference between thee and you. It is true that I had heard the pronoun “thou” in churches. Yet like (I suspect) the majority of English speaking people today, who have never used the second person singular and for whom it is now such an obsolete concept that they cannot fully understand it, I thought of “thou” – and of course its inflections “thee”, “thy” and “thine” – merely as older versions of “you” (and its inflections “your” and “yours”). That is to say, that I thought it were synonymous with “you”.
The really strange thing about this subject is not only that this is a problem, but that if you explain that it is a problem only with a tiny bit of success, you are not just met with derision – but people are often very offended! Given this concept of “thou” versus “you” is so remote from the language of today, so much so that hardly anybody fully understands it anyway, the reluctance even to hear about it is truly remarkable.
Indeed I found this out quite recently. I am a member of a group for people who are, by their own definition, “excessively concerned with minor details”. It is called “Pedants of the World”. I should therefore have thought that the finer nuances of the language should also include this. Yet when I attempted to write about it, what I had written was firstly ridiculed because it came from the Bible, and then I was accused of being a troll by someone who accused me of hiding behind what he implied was a fake Facebook account. All of this in order for those who did this to be able to dismiss what I had written without once answering a single point I made. This is only one example of the feelings that get stirred up if you dare to discuss this subject.
Naturally in any such discussion a lot of the examples used may end up coming from the Bible (or from some other religious book). “Thou” is not used in Modern English. Where else is one going to find it? The essential point, however, is that “thou” (“thee”, “thy” and “thine”) are not synonyms for you, your and yours. Neither are they merely “older versions” of those pronouns.
Before I continue any further, I must point out that I shall not be discussing “ye” in this particular post. The distinction between “ye” and “you” is the same as that between “we” and “us”, and its loss is a separate issue. The problem – and it is a problem – is the lack of a distinction between the singular and the plural.
One of the reasons this is a problem is its “chicken and egg” nature. Which came first? Do you think because of the language you use, or is language a consequence of how you think? English speaking people declare that their all purpose “you”, which is singular or plural according to the context, is not a problem. Context, we are told, always makes it clear. Yet the problem is that if you need language, or the parts of speech in a language, in order to be able to conceive things – in this case to conceive a problem – then if you do not have such words in your language, you are not even going to perceive you have a problem in the first place. If you first are able to conceive of the situations where indeed context does not make things clear, then you probably will not make such an assertion.
Perhaps people get offended because they find it threatening to their comfortable idea that language changes, which is to say progresses. If the change in language were merely progress, then what you said previously you would still be able to say today albeit in a different way. Yet if you cannot, this also challenges another comfortable idea, to wit that you yourself are in charge of what you communicate. Even worse, that it raises the spectre of a blind spot in your mental perception.
Be in no doubt. You cannot rewrite in Modern English (save in an impractically clumsy indirect way) what was once expressed in the lost distinction of the address. This is a completely different thing to change in the language in which words come and go. People will try to shield themselves from what I am discussing here by claiming that English gets more and more words as time goes by. Yet there are two sorts of words: there are words of the lexis, or mere labels, and there are those we call parts of speech. Everything that we can say today, Shakespeare would be able to say if ever he visited our world in a time machine. He would coin a word of the lexis when he saw a computer, and he would be able to go back to his world and tell people about computers. Yet not everything that Shakespeare said are we able to say, or understand today. Therefore the language is less efficient.
“Thou” and “you”, together with their respective inflections, are parts of speech. You cannot simply speak of their loss as though they were mere words. Indeed, though it were true that the English language is always gaining new words, this does not in itself mean that the language is getting any better. I inherited a set of china, which tragically got broken when I moved house. After I broken the set of china, I had many more pieces of china that I did before – but the set of china was not worth as much! So it is with more and more words of the lexis. What counts is the grammatical function of a language.
It must suffice, now that I have claimed that this is a problem, to give you the proof. I will do so. If you are able to rewrite the examples I give here, so that they mean what they say in Modern English, then clearly I shall have to admit that I am wrong.
Let me begin, therefore, by using the distinction where English still uses it – in the first person. You must surely agree that if you are a doctor writing about our bodies, I can take take what you say relating to our bodies, as being relevant to my body. If it is the other way round, and I am the doctor writing about the human body, then you can take what I say about your bodies about your (own) body. So far so good. However, suppose you are another sort of doctor, this time an Apostle in the New Testament, and you are talking not about my body, not about our bodies, but rather you are talking about our body – as in our collective body of the Church. Again, we say that the other way round, I am that other sort of doctor, talking not about your body, nor still about your bodies – but rather your body…. ah! There we have the problem! Of course, to solve it at least here, I can say “your collective body”.
Yet if you have to keep putting in “collective”, “plural” or whatever, in order to understand the pronoun, it becomes impracticable. So it is that people cannot understand what they read. They genuinely think that Paul in the letter to the Corinthians tells them that their bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit! That is to say, according to them, I am to understand that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Yet Paul does not say that at all! He says that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and our bodies are members of Christ. You can still say this in the first person. The problem is when people read “you are not your own. You are bought with a price. Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit”. The “you” in these sentences is plural.
If you say that context always shows the meaning, then how can you see that Paul was not talking about your personal body but about your collective one? In the older Bible, you cannot read anywhere where it says “know thy body is the temple of the Holy Spirit”. Instead, and here is the nuance that a pedant ought to be interested in, you read “know your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit”. It is not splitting hairs. The two sentences are completely different. “Thou” and “you” are not synonyms.
That the singular and the plural meaning have become confused is perhaps why it was possible for the Law of Parties. In Texas you can be put to death for what you have done. That may sound reasonable until you realise that I can be executed for what we have done, and we can be executed for what I have done – in addition to what we expect where I can be executed for what I have done and where we can be executed for what we have done. The first “you” of the sentence may be different from the second “you”. How does context tell you, if you are not the person being addressed, but only listening to a conversation?
The very fact that we make the distinction between the singular and the plural all the time in the first and third persons is testimony to the existence of the concept. Moreover, it shows that it is necessary. We say, “I went to our arrangement at school, where my lecture came before our lessons”. We write “We went to the prize-giving, and they gave me the cup we won at the game. The head of the football association told me that it was ours alone because we had deserved it. I was so proud of myself”. In older English, you would have addressed these recipients thus, “Thou wentest to your arrangement at school, where thy lecture came before your lessons”. In that older English you would have written, “You (or “ye”, see earlier note) went to the prize-giving, and they gave thee the cup you won at the game. The head of the football association told thee that it was yours alone because you had deserved it. Thou wast so proud of thyself”. Yet if you write these sentences in Modern English, “You went to your arrangement at school, where your lecture came before your lessons”, and “you went to the prize-giving, and they gave you the cup you won at the game. The head of the football association told you that it was yours alone because you had deserved it. You were so proud of yourself” – how does context show the meaning to someone reading a transcript, or listening to what is being said, such as in our example of Modern day Christians reading what Paul was saying to the Corinthians?
The fact is that there is no way that this distinction can be expressed. That is a problem if you are sitting on death row in Texas for the murder another person committed (and yes, this actually has occurred). Though less dramatic, I find it a problem too when I am unable to express what I actually am thinking because the language will not permit me to do so.
That is one reason I am so thankful to providence that brought me to Norway, where as chance would have it – the language does make the distinction that is both logical and fundamental. Moreover, Norwegian has thankfully ditched the fatuous idea of using a form of plural address for politeness (as in German and French). The distinction of the Norwegian address is now merely that of number, exactly as corresponds in the first and third persons.
Still, it is strange that writing about “thou” versus “you” should cause any offence in a culture that has long since abandoned either this distinction or indeed that aforementioned system of politeness. It is stranger still that so-called pedants should laugh such writing off as a religious discussion, when it clearly is not only about language, but about an importance nuance that has been lost. That the language, and not I the speaker, determines what can be said I consider to be a problem: it is supposed to be the other way round. It is also a problem that much of the literature of the past cannot properly be understood since concepts Modern English does not express are constantly expressed there.
Show me how you can rewrite the above examples so that they still convey the same meaning in Modern English as they do in the older English, and I shall maybe change my mind. Yet you should be aware that these are just a few examples, and older literature is full of sentences that switch between “thou” and “you”. That is why, even though one should be able to paraphrase something, ultimately it becomes too impracticable a task, if one is trying to rewrite exactly the same in Modern English. Still, if you think you can do it, give it a try.
Lastly, as should now be apparent, I am not a faceless “troll”, but a very real person who also like to blog. I hope that if you comment – and your comments are welcome – you therefore at least do me the honour of addressing the points I make, rather than simply call me names to dismiss what I say without ever having to make your case for why you think that I be wrong. As for my Facebook Profile, I am sorry, but that is a matter of privacy, and it is not open to everybody. It does not make it fake.
Poetical Writing from My Unemployment
In Norway we have a saying. “Ingenting er så galt at det ikke er godt for noe“. It means “Nothing is so bad that there is nothing good about it”. I thought about that last night when I found something I thought had been lost forever.
Back in 1986 I was still living at home with my parents. It was a difficult time. I was no longer in full time education, and I was unemployed. At the age of 21, this was no good situation. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now see how remaining at home so late was extremely destructive to our relationships, but because of my unemployment I simply did not have the means to do anything about this. This resulted in a dysfunctional situation that arguably re-enforced itself in a vicious circle, both with respects to life at home and my prospects for getting out of the unemployment queue.
Because of these circumstances, I went through a crisis mentally. The carefree world I had known in childhood, with its security and comfort was now gone, and I met each day with foreboding and uncertainty. Now thank God – after an influential person who has sadly left this world gave me a reference – I was ultimately successful in getting back into education, and I did leave that queue. Nevertheless it was from this time that I first started putting my thoughts to paper.
“The Enemy” is something I thought had been lost in 2010. I had a flood in the cellar of where I then was living here in Norway, and the original paper containing this got destroyed. Although I had made a copy on my harddisk, I have never been able to find it – until now.
A few weeks ago, I had a devastating harddisk crash, and my friend Jon Blamire in Finnsnes was very kind in telling me exactly how I might rescue my data. After having placed my damaged disk in an enclosure, and being successful in rescuing it, I have been applying the same technique on another yet older disk I have. And sure enough, what do I find today, if not that poetical writing from 1986 that I thought I had lost!
If there is anything that really is interesting, taken as it is from the year 1986 (when I spoke only English), it shows how sensitive I was even then to the distinction between “you” (singular) and “you” (plural). That is something that constantly bothered me, and in many respects still does when I am using English, because I actually think it and am frustrated in trying to communicate it. It is interesting because it shows how different I really must have been given that this is not a feature of the culture I was born in.
The EnemyBe as nasty as you may; you all shall fail. You shall not trouble nor defeat me. I have overcome the lot of you. Your strength is in deception, craftily planned; my strength is in the LORD, whose seal is truth. You are nothing. You are false and empty of all reason. Which of you has any truth? Yet you would dare still to trouble me – and many others too. You are children of deception, the breath of falsehood! Many lives you have laid waste. The ones you hurt are out of sight, rotting in a mental knacker’s yard. They cry aloud, but are not heard. Your crimes go unreported to the world. And so it goes for forever on: each day another joins their ranks. You are the enemy. Like raiders of long ago, you come hoard upon hoard against us, invading the peace and the tranquillity of our minds. How many of you there are! But cowards – all of you! Not to the strong, but to the weak your deadly army goes. Destruction of the self follows you; you leave nothing for our salvaging. Yes you – you are the enemy! These are the ones who have brought us to despair. We were fooled by their crafty game. Haunting us has been their play. We are humans; phantoms they. These ghosts are nothing but good trickery. They should not cause us further fear. Can you not see their emptiness yourself? Shine a light; they disappear! They are shadows in your mind! Ignore them; they can do no harm. You shall live again, and you shall give them nothing for their meal. You shall live in liberty, fearing but Almighty God. Mark my words and have no fear! Unpleasant things will still cross your path. Fear the LORD and worry not! He brings goodness out of ill. Wait for Him and for His will. That is the only thing of any great importance. He is your saviour and your Lord! And if there yet remain some bad thing within your life – then, friend, take this advice. You lead a new life, free of fear and following God; so you be a good Christian, and remember it is more blessed to give than to receive – give it to the enemy.
The above text, with few alterations, was written by me in 1986. The “enemy” was all the troubled thoughts I had at that time, which I looking back upon see as particularly critical.
During that time my thoughts became, as I recall myself thinking of them, “noisy”. However – and thanks be to God – I did not ever think of them as anything other than troublesome thoughts. That is to say, that I remained at all times conscious of what was real and what was not. This critical period lasted until the very early nineties, when I gradually became less troubled by things. I cannot remember any exact date when I realised I no longer had a problem, but I guess it must again have been at some point in the early nineties shortly after I had arrived in Norway.
Not being a psychologist, and never having been to one, I can only suggest the causes of this internal personal crisis. I believe that it was caused in part by long term unemployment, coupled with my related inability to move out of the nest, and away from my parents. Certain people spoke of me as a parasite for that reason. I would “muse” on the meaning of life, that seemed to have disappeared with the end of my school days. It is now my belief that I thought about things a little too much.
In terms of my literary output, this period was quite constructive. I wrote poems and other short pieces of writing. It is not untrue to say that I developed my own special form of English. Of particular interest as mentioned above was my concern to distinguish between “you” in the singular and “you” as the pure plural.
Now that all this lies in the past, I find it much easier to speak about. I put it out on my Site, hoping that it will serve as encouragement for others.