Monday, February 20, 2017

What think ye of "thou"?

The subject of the use of "thee" and "thou" came up in church yesterday. I mentioned how Quakers use those words for intimate relationships and "you" for common relationships. Another elder remarked how out society has made "you" both a common and intimate term and basically dropped "thee" and "thou." Perhaps that's part of the problem in so many churches — the reduction of God to a "common" relationship as reflected in out word usage. And in doing so, we've lost the sense of God as holy and sovereign. Words mean things...
The real meaning of "thou" dropped out of standard English about 300 years ago; it survived in some dialects (parts of northern England — "Tha thinks?" = "Thou thinkest?" = "Do you think so?" — and the Quaker plain speech) longer. Now English-speakers see it as part of religious language (the King James Bible is conservative American Protestants' Latin) so they often mistake it for the formal you as many readers know, and as the quotation above assumes. I like it (Anglican English is my religious English), and knowing some other languages that kept the intimate form (Latin and Spanish, Slavonic and Russian), I know what it is. People at least used to think the Continuing Anglican movement is about thous and thees just like they think I am a conservative Roman Catholic because I supposedly have a fetish for Latin. (It's international, its meaning doesn't change, and it's pretty.) I understand the late Bishop James Mote of the Anglican Catholic Church, a Continuum founding bishop, could take or leave thous and thees; for him it was all about the Catholic faith as they thought it was received by the Church of England and Episcopal Church. He said the thous and thees out of obedience because that's what was in the book.

Everybody eventually comes up with a liturgy and a rite, as Fr. Peter Gillquist once pointed out, and everybody eventually comes up with a religious form of their language. For English-speakers it's Tudor. Even the new Mass in the Roman Rite keeps the English Our Father in that style. My theory: the only English prayers most Roman Catholics care about are the only ones we used for centuries, those of the rosary, which have amazingly stayed about the same even after Vatican II.


  1. The Ruthenians (as of 10 years ago when I attended the Divine Liturgy semi-regularly) use an ICEL-looking but not ICEL-behaving English in their Divine Liturgy that is Godward in orientation so I know that the Thees and Thous are not necessary to achieve such sacred verbal posture. Nonetheless, I find KJV-ismo very familiar and very comforting. If given a choice, which I don't have customarily, I prefer the KJV language to more modern forms of English expression.

    1. The translation the Ukrainians use is still ICELish in the creed but correctly has "and with your spirit" and the words of institution saying "for many" as in Pope Benedict's reform in the Roman Rite.

  2. One issue that is important, but rarely discussed, is that by using only the plural form of the pronoun is that it does have theological repercussions. This is especially true in reference to the unity of the Trinity, in Latin the Trinity, often by reference to "God" uses the singular form, thee or thou, whilst modern translations in English use the plural from, you. Thus implying that the Trinity is not one, but several. The modern translations of the Gloria is a prime example. There are many more. This is why languages that have preserved the use of plural and singular forms of the pronoun are better vehicles for translating Latin, as well as Greek than modern English.

    It would be better to continue to use the singular form in reference to especially the Trinity and actually take the time to educate the laity for the reason of retaining these older forms of the language. But that may take time that in the modern Church is spent in social justice and tearing down walls, so long as it is not the wall around the Vatican State.


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