Issues of Translation: Thou and Thy

"Issues of Translation" was originally a series of articles I wrote for The Crown, the newsletter for All Saints, Sacramento published between May 2010 and March 2011. It was spured originally by an article about the King James bible which lead several members of the congregation to ask why there are so many different translations, and what makes one better then another. Rather then try to answer that question directly, I undertook to write a few articles showing why it is not obvious how to translate scripture.

Rather then allow these articles to languish on my hard drive, I have decided to repost them here. I plan to put one out each Friday. In the articles I occasionally refer to traditions common to The Episcopal Church or our parish. You should know then that for most scripture readings we use the New Revised Standard Version of the bible. Some of our liturgical sources (i.e. Rite I) still use language from the Authorized Version (now known as the King James Version or KJV). Choral Evensong services also have reading from the KJV. "Our hymnal" referers to The Hymnal 1982 of The Episcopal Church, and "our prayer book" refers to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

We are all aware that the English language shapes the way we view the view the bible, but did you know that translating the bible also influences our Language? Phrases like “the apple of my eye” or “on eagles wings” come out of scripture.

One curious case is the persistence of some old pronouns in our liturgy long after they fell out of use in vernacular speech and writing. “Thou” “thy” and some related words are part of the traditional language of our church, but why did these hang on when so many other words were dropped? It is part of the history of our language.

Let’s start by talking about what these word actually mean. ‘Thou’ is the second person singular pronoun and ‘thy’ is its possessive form. In modern English we have replaced the words with “you” and “your,” but this leads to some ambiguity because ‘you’ is also the second person plural pronoun so that unless it is clear from context you are never sure how many of you there are. (Folks in the south have solved this problem with “ya’ll,” but that’s another story) Prior to the loss of the word in the early 17th century, addressing God as ‘you’ would have been polytheistic, and therefore condemned.

So what happened in the 17th century? As early as the 13th century, it had been a custom to address royalty in the plural form. Gradually “you” became the mode of formal address with the singular pronoun reserved for family, close friends, children, and servants. It actually became an insult to “thou” someone in public, mocking them as not worthy of formal address. The church however maintained its insistence in using thou and thy for God, noting not only that it was the singular pronoun but also that in following Christ’s example the church ought to address God on familiar terms.

The irony here is that we now have a liturgical tradition of using the singular form of the second person pronoun only in addressing God. It has become instead a formal and “holy thou.” Almost the opposite of its original meaning.

At this point in time, use of these words springs more from a desire for tradition then any real difference in meaning. Our language changes and is still changing, but we hold on to pieces of the past because they do not translate pleasantly into modern usage. There is always a balance to be struck between our love of the familiar and traditional and the barrier that it places on those for whom the words seem foreign.