Sunday, February 15, 2009

"The reading"- a suggestion for celebrants

(Coming later this week, I will be posting another reflection on the writing of Richard Hooker, this time about the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament.)

The King's English was so called because of the House of Hanover, the "German Georges." The joke was subtle, namely, that the King's English was German, a language foreign to the realm. The words "thou"and "thee" have remained to this day in our Book of Common Prayer and in the Authorized Version, i.e., the King James Bible. Modern people are largely ignorant of the correct grammar of this older version of English, and may not be aware that "thou" and "thee" are two forms of the same word, a singular form of address. One can say "thou" or "thee" only to an individual, never to more than one person. "You" or "ye" are two forms of the same word, a plural address, and could never be spoken to an individual, but only to groups of two or more. "You" corresponds to "thou" as "ye" does to "thee." (Addition: Both the BCP and the KJV used this rule consistently, even though it was already not the common language on the street anymore. These older rules do not apply even to Shakespeare's works, where the modern use of "you" is found.)

The result of the King's German English was that the word "you" began to be pronounced as rhyming with the German word, "du." However, the word "you" rhymed instead with the word "thou" prior to the period of the reign of the German Georges. This is reflected in the Southern United States where a plural form of address, unique to the region, actually continues an older and more correct form of English; that is, the word "y'all." "Y'all," meaning "you all" is really the word "you" closer to the pronunciation it once had everywhere, a plural address that rhymes with the singular address, "thou."

This is relevant to that phrase in our service of Holy Communion, taken from the eleventh chapter of First Corinthians, and this phrase specifically from Matthew 26:27, as its sources: "Drink ye all of this." As we have been accustomed to saying it for centuries, going back to a time when no need existed for puncuation to set the words "ye all" apart, it sounds as if the Lord is saying to drink all of the contents of the cup. But, we know that the meaning is that everyone present is being told to drink it (whether the folks in traditionalist RC churches like it or not). Modern translations of the scripture put it this way: "Drink this all of you." The word "you" would not be a sufficient translation of a form of the word πᾶς (pas), which must include everyone, rather than simply a plurality that might be only some of those present.

Stage actors have a phrase they use for speaking lines in such a manner as to be understood according to the author's intention: The reading. I suggest that modern ears need us to read the words as if they contained the following punctuation: "Drink, ye all, of this." Another way to write it with the reading built in, could be, "drink--ye all--of this." Just a slight pause, like taking a breath. This is how I have celebrated for many years now.

If you like my "reading" enough to use it, but some wiseacre accuses you of making Jesus sound like a Southern country bumpkin- in case it comes out a bit like "y'all"- just say that you know it is not the King's English.


Jeff said...

Hmmm...I'm certain that thou and ye are nominative and thee and you accusative, as in:

Thou shalt not...
Ye see how large a letter...
Whom have I in heaven but thee?
Unto you is born this day...

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Interesting, the rhyming forms of address do indeed trade places.

What do you make of "Me thinketh," a phrase from II Samuel? It means "Me thinks" the way someone would say "he thinks." Now, there's an object lesson--or is that a subject lesson?

It gets confusing.

Wonders for Oyarsa said...

The correct distinction in southern English would be "all y'all".

Anonymous said...

"Me thinketh" is a relic of Germanic reflexive verbs, a trace of the Greek middle voice. (My German-speaking mother-in-law regularly says "it gladdens me" for "I am glad." It troubles me to have to explain this.)

Jeff is correct re: ye/you, thou/thee.

And btw, the Greek for "all" in the Institution narratives is "pantes" not "pas." The nom. masc. plu. better serves your argument, since "poterion" is neut. sing.
Pedantically yours,

Shaughn said...

I often hear folks object to the language of the KJV with confusion over "thee" and "thou" as the chief culprits.

Comparing it to "ye" and "you" isn't the most straight-forward analogy, though. I find it easier to think of "I" and "me" instead:

I, me, my, mine.
Thou, thee, thy, thine.

Easy. :)

Canon Tallis said...

When I first started doing this my one great fear was that someone would hear it as a command to chug the chalice. But it has never happened so I guess that us old Southron's simply find it completely natural.

Fr. Robert Hart said...


The distinction between the singular and plural forms of address are the reason for showing the relation between them. The "Th" forms are singular, and the "Y" forms are plural.

Canon Tallis:

My fear about people hearing as a command, rather than an invitation, is that someone might think I am saying everyone present must receive every time. Obviously, we have rules as to who may receive, and some people feel that they are not able to.

But, we can say that everyone should receive whenever they can.

Canon Tallis said...

Oh dear, I flubbed again, but in jokes for those forced to read Beowulf, The Vision of Piers the Plowman and Chaucer in the original and who consequently have been thoroughly about the head and shoulders over the use of Thee and Ye and You and Thou sometimes fall completely flat when used on others. Mea culpa.

But many thanks for explaining it to others.

Shaughn said...

Fr. Hart,

The analogy holds, then, does it not?

We, our, ours, us.
Ye, your, yours, you.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I received this by e-mail.

It is not correct to say that 'ye/you' are always plural. In older English 'thou/thee/thine' are second person singular and familiar and 'ye/you/your' are second person plural and formal. English is in this respect closely parallel to more modern German (Du and Sie) and several other modern European languages.

The familiar pronoun is used for friends, family members, God, servants, social inferiors, and pets. The formal pronoun is used for superiors, strangers, and persons to whom one wants to show respect. It is quite proper to address a single person as 'you'. In fact you will find in Shakespeare and elsewhere that address of the same person can shift between 'thou' and 'you', indicating subtle shifts in familiarity which are lost on the modern English-speaker. In German if somebody uses 'du' with you and you are offended you can get sniffy and ask, 'When did you and I lie in the gutter together?' They have a verb for using the familiar pronoun ('duzen'). The Communists in old East Germany didn't like the distinction: and thus the 'sozialistische Du'.

Sometimes poorly educated defenders of classical liturgical English say that they prefer calling God 'Thee' because 'it's more respectful'. But in fact the intended sense is almost directly opposite: God is called 'Thee' because he is our intimate, our Father - albeit one to whom respect is indeed due.

My reply is that I failed to be clear about one important fact: I needed to clarify that I was talking about an older rule than was common in the 16th century, but was used throughout the KJV, and in the BCP.

poetreader said...

Many languages have what is sometimes known as the majestic plural, wherein a form known and recognized to be plural is used for a single individual for the purpose of aggrandisment. Thus kings and editors will often refer to themlves as "We", apparently with the idea that they speak for others. Many languages have done so with the second person, again probably recognizing that the person addressed can be deemed to speak for others, and have gradually applied this more polite form more broadly. In those languages, God (possibly because he speaks for none but Himself) is not so addressed, but rather with an even more lordly (though also intimate) singular.

Around Shakepeare's time English was going through just such a transition, and the plural was beginning to be used in the majestic sense. It was just this that the Quakers objected to: they saw "You" as being clearly plural, and deemed no man worthy to be addressed as if plural, thus insisted on what was clearly known to be the singular form, "thou".

Both KJV and BCP being delierately a bit archaic, from the first, neither accepted the newere majestic use and kept a clear distinction between singular and plural, a trait that is very useful in determining the precise meaning of a passage. The later development in which the singular was lost has allowed a sometimes troublesome vagueness as to just whom is being addressed.

The contemporary use of "They" when refering to a singular person (in order to avoid specifyiung gender) is a far newere example of the same kind of trend, and is equally able to confuse discourse.


Fr. Robert Hart said...

I never use "they" for an individual, and will always "he" for a person of unspecified identity, and therefore of unspecified sex. But, we Touchstone editors are a very conservative lot, insisting on proper English.

Sandra McColl said...

I'm not a hundred percent sure that English was all that fussed about using the second person plural when addressing a person with whom one was non-familiar or who was of higher status. Compared with German, it seems to have used the Du-equivalent far more freely. But, I am NOT an English scholar. Further, German (rather uniquely?) uses the third person plural (capitalised) where French, for example, would use the second person plural. The German second person plural is familiar, and just refers to a lot of Dus (or, as we'd say in Aus, a lot of youse, or as they say in NZ, a lot of ewes, but let's not go there--although it's reputedly lovely at this time of year), although I think in some older and elevated usage, the second person plural gets used for a non-familiar equal.

The majestic plural tends to be first person: the Royal We, the Pontifical Nos (which tends to translate as 'I' in modern languages these days). I think that God even gets caught using a Divine We occasionally (Let us make man in our image). Kings are addressed as thou in the Bible.

And I wholeheartedly support Fr Hart in his refusal to confuse number and use 'they' when it's singular. This is but one instance of so-called inclusive language certainly not including me!

Anonymous said...

Fr. Hart,

I do believe that your correspondent -- whose email you posted -- is formally correct about the familiar/formal distinction at ALL times in English usage.

But, you are indeed correct that by the time of the AV, English was already dropping the second-person familiar pronouns from common usage.

Nevertheless, despite the dropping of the familiar/formal distinction from ordinary English (it is still observed in the contemporary usage of many languages, such a s Spanish) the second-person familiar was kept in religious texts, simply because it had become hallowed by tradition and usage as the proper form of English for common prayer.

For me, the retention of Tudor English forms of the Golden Age of English Literature in Common Prayer is important because it reflects a received, hallowed, living, poetic tradition, and deeply embedded cultural tradition. Even Hollywood almost invariable employes the words "Dearly belove-ed" in wedding scenes.

Sure, in the strictest sense, we don't need the older forms to convey traditional meanings -- indeed all of use contemporary English everyday to communicate age-old sentiments. But, perhaps to truly mark the Christian meaning deeply on our hearts and minds (nous), the hallowed forms are especially edifying, if not absolutely essential.

In any case, those who want to uniformly sweep away traditional ecclesiastical English strike me as cultural Iconoclasts, who probably have a more sweeping and even more dangerous agenda. In my experience, those who try to artificially change language usages usually have an underlying, and often pernicious purpose.