What Meanest Thou?

As a youngster I became familiar, as I’m sure you gentle reader also did, with hearing ‘thou’, ‘thee’, ‘thy’ and ‘thine’ in readings from the Authorised Version of the Bible and the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Such words, I thought were only to be used when talking about or addressing God in prayer. This made them seem very formal and only to be used for these special purposes. Of course, I did also come across them from time to time in the vernacular, for example when my mother slipped into speaking ‘broad Bristol’ with such statements as “Thees casn’t un’erstand a word ‘ee says…” or some such. But that was a relative rarity.

When I started studying German and French at school I learnt that those languages have two different forms of ‘you’, the second person singular, used in different contexts – ‘du’ and ‘Sie’ in German and ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ in French, the latter also being the second person plural. Just to complicate matters, when much later I took up Italian for the fun of it, I discovered that language has three different forms – the informal ‘tu’, the formal ‘Lei’ and ‘voi’ which sits somewhere in between. Mussolini, incidentally tried to do away with the formal ‘Lei’ form and replace it with the ‘voi’ form, but it didn’t work.

These different forms aren’t just different ways of saying much the same thing. The informal ‘tu’ and ‘du’ are naturally used in family contexts or with children, but between adults they are laden with meaning. Used to a stranger they can imply inferiority if not contempt, although that is perhaps changing now with younger people who seem to be more comfortable using the familiar form more generally. The formal ‘vous’, ‘Lei’ and 'Sie' are typically used between people who are acquainted but do not regard each other as ‘friends’. They show courtesy and respect but not familiarity.

Addressing each other in the informal instead of the formal can be a definite step, agreed between the parties – I have heard two Italians do just that agreeing that they would use the ‘tu’ form and thus regard each other as friends. To move back from informal to formal implies a definite rupture. You are no longer friends. Equally, presuming another person will accept the informal form is fraught with danger. I recall a colleague recounting how he had been addressed as ‘tu’ by a contact whose was at a more senior level in SNCF (French railways) and thought that was a signal for him to respond in kind. He very quickly realised his mistake. English usage is so much simpler – you can’t make that kind of faut pas.

In English ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ are archaic forms which have largely dropped out of general use except in some specific areas of the country. Way back in the 1300’s ‘thou’ and the plural ‘ye’ were used in pretty much the same way as our modern ‘you’. Gradually, though the plural ‘ye’ began to be used to address superiors and later, people of equal standing. ‘Thou’ remained in use as a form for addressing family and also people of inferior status. However, from the 17th century ‘thou’ starting rapidly falling out of use to be replaced by the modern ‘you’. Linguists believe this was the result of the increasing identification of ‘you’ with ‘polite society’ and the uncertainty of using ‘thou’ for inferiors versus ‘you’ for superiors (with ‘you’ being the safer default) amidst the rise of a new middle class.

What does this mean for the ‘traditional’ form of the Lord’s Prayer? Put simply, it invites us to think of and address God as a friend, not as a superior beyond out reach. Even the phrase ‘thy kingdom come’ continues the familiar approach despite referring to God’s kingdom. This is in stark contrast to how I construed ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ as a youngster. Because these forms have long fallen out of general use they can make God seem at a distance when the intention was to bring us closer to God.

First published on: 23rd February 2021