Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Do Pronouns Matter?

The Thee, Thou, Thine ... Question

This post concerns second person pronouns (singular: thou, thee, thine, thyself; and plural: ye, you, your, yourself).1 Undoubtedly, some do not know (or even care) about the history of our English second person singular and plural pronouns. It's all water under the bridge — a seeming archaic, cumbersome, singular form that feels formal and awkward, though, in early practice, it was never formal, respectful, honorific, or awe-filled? It was informal, intimate.

Some ironic reasons for the singular abandonment are listed below,2 but what if we have lost something vital by abandoning the intimate singular form (thou, thee, thine) when adopting the now ambiguous (singular / plural) you? Do we think that converting thou and thee to you is innocuous? Could there be something we are missing like the “innocuous” Ether 2:20 deletions that Hugh Nibley lamented?3

I believe God accepts all sincere appeals no matter the pronoun usage, but something I have observed is the ubiquitous intermixing of second person singulars and plurals in every book of scripture, often when God is speaking.4 (Aside: How wonderfully revealing of God's nature that He would intermix His many singulars with a child's plural you's when quoting that child.5) But for all the other intermixings: are they just the stumblings of careless prophets or scribes or translators, mis-recording God's speech? Or should we be more aware of possible purpose and targeted application?

I feel a sense of great loss that it is almost impossible now to acquire newer religious anthologies or expositions that quote scripture or address appeals to God that use the intimate singular. I wonder if we, in the English Christian world, have lost some measure of intimacy with God in abandoning our intimate forms while many other languages have retained theirs? But as I observed in a 2010 post6 on the language of prayer:
English, however, is the mother tongue of many and if some ... cannot find intimacy in the narrowed usage of thee and thou, perhaps alternate usage is a matter left to them and God.
1. The Other Traditional Pronouns:
first person pronouns are: singular - I, me, mine, myself | plural: we, ours, ourselves; and
third person pronouns:. singular (gendered) - he, him, his she, her, hers | plural: them, theirs.
2. ● “For Thou and Thee was a sore cut to proud flesh, and them that sought self-honour, who, though they would say it to God and Christ, would not endure to have it said to themselves. So that we were often beaten and abused, and sometimes in danger of our lives, for using those words to some proud men, who would say, “What! You ill-bred clown, do you Thou me?”” —George Fox, A Journal, or Historical Account...., 1836 |
● “So it seems that English lost its informal [intimate] pronouns because people were afraid of offending those who thought of themselves as upper class and because some people were actively using the pronouns thou and thee as insults.”
“Plays and legal documents from the time do show that people were using thee and thou as insults too. The attorney-general at Sir Walter Raleigh’s trial taunted Raleigh by saying “All that he did was at thy instigation, thou viper; for I thou thee, thou traitor.” And a 1913 article in Harper’s Magazine recounts a story from George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, on the trouble he encountered when using thou.
“We were often beset and abused, and sometimes in danger of our lives for using these words to some proud men, who would say, ‘What! You ill-bred clown, do you thou me?’” It’s hard to understand now, but at the time, it was almost unthinkable to call a superior thou.”
4. Just a few examples out of hundreds possible (all bold emphasis added):
Observe whom the pronoun addresses: plural or singular. Would the plural include a group beyond the addressed individual? How did hearers respond to the intermixing?
Old Testament | Genesis 17:10 ~ This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.
Old Testament | Exodus 29:42 ~ This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD: where I will meet you, to speak there unto thee.
Old Testament | Exodus 30:36 ~ And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy.
Old Testament | Leviticus 21:8 ~ Thou shalt sanctify him therefore; for he offereth the bread of thy God: he shall be holy unto thee: for I the LORD, which sanctify you, am holy.
Old Testament | Leviticus 25:6 ~ And the sabbath of the land shall be meat for you; for thee, and for thy servant, and for thy maid, and for thy hired servant, and for thy stranger that sojourneth with thee,
Old Testament | Numbers 10:29 ~ ¶ And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Raguel the Midianite, Moses' father in law, We are journeying unto the place of which the LORD said, I will give it you: come thou with us, and we will do thee good: for the LORD hath spoken good concerning Israel.
Old Testament | Numbers 18:4-7 ~ And they shall be joined unto thee, and keep the charge of the tabernacle of the congregation, for all the service of the tabernacle: and a stranger shall not come nigh unto you. 5 And ye shall keep the charge of the sanctuary, and the charge of the altar: that there be no wrath any more upon the children of Israel. 6 And I, behold, I have taken your brethren the Levites from among the children of Israel: to you they are given as a gift for the LORD, to do the service of the tabernacle of the congregation. 7 Therefore thou and thy sons with thee shall keep your priest's office for every thing of the altar, and within the vail; and ye shall serve: I have given your priest's office unto you as a service of gift: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.
Old Testament | Jeremiah 15:14 ~ And I will make thee to pass with thine enemies into a land which thou knowest not: for a fire is kindled in mine anger, which shall burn upon you.
Old Testament | Ezekiel 5:17 ~ So will I send upon you famine and evil beasts, and they shall bereave thee; and pestilence and blood shall pass through thee; and I will bring the sword upon thee. I the LORD have spoken it.
New Testament | Matthew 6:2-5 ~ Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: 4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. 5 ¶ And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
New Testament | Matthew 11:24 ~ But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.
New Testament | Matthew 26:64 ~ Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.
New Testament | John 14:10 ~ Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.
Book of Mormon | 2 Nephi 7:1 ~ YEA, for thus saith the Lord: Have I put thee away, or have I cast thee off forever? For thus saith the Lord: Where is the bill of your mother's divorcement? To whom have I put thee away, or to which of my creditors have I sold you? Yea, to whom have I sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.
Book of Mormon | Mosiah 3:3 ~ And he said unto me: Awake, and hear the words which I shall tell thee; for behold, I am come to declare unto you the glad tidings of great joy.
Book of Mormon | 3 Nephi 12:26 ~ Verily, verily, I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence until thou hast paid the uttermost senine. And while ye are in prison can ye pay even one senine? Verily, verily, I say unto you, Nay.
Book of Mormon | 3 Nephi 12:39 ~ But I say unto you, that ye shall not resist evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also;
Book of Mormon | Ether 2:15 ~ And the brother of Jared repented of the evil which he had done, and did call upon the name of the Lord for his brethren who were with him. And the Lord said unto him: I will forgive thee and thy brethren of their sins; but thou shalt not sin any more, for ye shall remember that my Spirit will not always strive with man; wherefore, if ye will sin until ye are fully ripe ye shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. And these are my thoughts upon the land which I shall give you for your inheritance; for it shall be a land choice above all other lands.
Doctrine and Covenants | Section 15:3 ~ And I will tell you that which no man knoweth save me and thee alone—
Doctrine and Covenants | Section 98:39 ~ And again, verily I say unto you, if after thine enemy has come upon thee the first time, he repent and come unto thee praying thy forgiveness, thou shalt forgive him, and shalt hold it no more as a testimony against thine enemy—
Pearl of Great Price | Moses 2:1 ~ AND it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Moses, saying: Behold, I reveal unto you concerning this heaven, and this earth; write the words which I speak. I am the Beginning and the End, the Almighty God; by mine Only Begotten I created these things; yea, in the beginning I created the heaven, and the earth upon which thou standest.
Pearl of Great Price | Moses 4:32 ~ (And these are the words which I spake unto my servant Moses, and they are true even as I will; and I have spoken them unto you. See thou show them unto no man, until I command you, except to them that believe. Amen.)
5. Doctrine and Covenants | Section 122:6 ~ If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can't you stay with us? O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb;