Thou and Thee in Sacred Literature

December 26, 2010

The words "thou" and "thee" are unfamiliar to most of us, except in the context of sacred writ (particularly the King James Bible). Thus many of us think of "thou" as very formal. In some Dostoyevsky novel, I encountered something to the effect of "why did you address me with the familiar thou?". That got me thinking: is "thou" is an outdated form of familar address, like "tú" compared to "su" in Spanish? Well, more or less, though that distinction may not do it justice in the context of sacred literature.

Etymology Online has a nice little article about the downfall of "thou" and "thee." In a nutshell, "ye" and "you" are the pluralizations of "thou" and "thee", and people started using them for singular as a sign of respect (in other words, "y'all" would historically have been redudant since "you" was already encompassing of "all"). That respect was eventually brought to everyone, even inferiors, and the singular versions were lost. For some reason the subject version "ye" was merged into the object version "you" so that we do not say "ye are boring me" but rather "you are boring me." So it seems like the use of "thou" and "thee" in the Bahá'í writings might give the connotation of some familiarity and personal relationship with God.

It can be difficult to work through these words, so why use them? Today I stumbled across a few Biblical articles that made me revisit that idea of familiarity, perhaps giving a better answer. In a nutshell, the idea is that the difference between singular and plural is actually important – so the antiquated words are used not because of familiarity but rather for accuracy. It signifies the particular compared to the general. Person A addresses a crowd with "ye" and "you" and a particular person in the crowd with "thee" and "thou". In order to test this hypothesis, I did a little search for something in the writings that contains both forms. Turns out there are many instances! The translators, whose "gold standard" is the work of Shoghi Effendi, had purposefully chosen to use the two forms. Here is a sample, one of many, with the different forms highlighted (also highlighted is "thy", the possesive of "thou", thus equivalent to plural "your")

"O King of Paris! Tell the priests to ring the bells no longer. By God, the True One! The Most Mighty Bell hath appeared in the form of Him Who is the Most Great Name, and the fingers of the Will of Thy Lord, the Most Exalted, the Most High, toll it out in the heaven of Immortality in His name, the All-Glorious. Thus have the mighty verses of Thy Lord been again sent down unto thee, that thou mayest arise to remember God, the Creator of earth and heaven, in these days when all the tribes of the earth have mourned, and the foundations of the cities have trembled, and the dust of irreligion hath enwrapped all men, except such as God, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise, was pleased to spare. Say: He Who is the Unconstrained is come, in the clouds of light, that He may quicken the world with the breezes of His name, the Most Merciful, and unify its peoples, and gather all men around this Table which hath been sent down from heaven. Beware that ye deny not the favour of God after it hath been sent down unto you. Better is this for you than that which ye possess; for that which is yours perisheth, whilst that which is with God endureth. He, in truth, ordaineth what He pleaseth. Verily, the breezes of forgiveness have been wafted from the direction of your Lord, the God of Mercy; whoso turneth thereunto shall be cleansed of his sins, and of all pain and sickness. Happy the man that hath turned towards them, and woe betide him that hath turned aside." (Bahá'u'lláh, Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p67).

So let's compare the two perspectives. Thinking strictly of familiarity, I don't understand why there is a sudden switch from thee to ye and thou to you in the middle of this passage. But thinking in terms of singular vs. plural, it suddenly makes a great deal of sense. At the beginning of the passage, Napoleon III is being addressed, in particular. Not in general, but directly addressing Napoleon. Therefore "thy", "thee", and "thou" show up. But in the second half, after the command "say," we have a shift to the plural. This shift then signifies that Bahá'u'lláh is no longer directly addressing Napoleon, but addressing everyone.

Is this an accurate reading? I have no evidence to suggest this interpretation is correct. However, it does seem to shed a new and important light on the passage. If any readers know of anything to support or condemn this understanding, please share it with the rest of us.