If ye love me

If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another comforter, that he may bide with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.

One staple in the repertoire of the kinds of church or community choirs I sing in is If ye love me, by Thomas Tallis. Note ye and you, will and shall and pray the Father

Some people decry any change in language as the first step to incoherent grunting, but language has always changed and always will. Example 1: ye and you. Until about 400 years ago, (most) English speakers observed the distinction between the subject form ye (ye love me) and the object form you (give you, bide with you), and also the singular and/or intimate thee/thou/thy/thine and the plural and/or polite ye/you/your/yours. These all collapsed onto all-purpose you/your/yours, and almost no-one cared. (Art, wast and wert disappeared around the same time.)

The people who rail against singular they rarely mention singular you, which must have been just as shocking at the time, and the people who use non-standard plural forms such as y’all,* all y’all or yous(e) are railed at for being non-standard. (Note that you started off as plural anyway. If anything, we need a ‘singular you’.) (*I originally included you all, but the more I thought about it, the more I became sure that plural you all is standard: compare “I am very pleased to welcome you all here today” and “I am very pleased to welcome y’all here today”. (Also all of you.))

Because most people encounter thee/thou/thy/thine in Shakespeare, the King James/Authorised version of the bible or the Book of Common Prayer, or musical settings of texts from those sources, they imagine that these are formal/polite, and use them in conscious but often mistaken imitation. Leigh Brackett and/or Lawrence Kasdan, the scriptwriters of The Empire Strikes Back, has/have Darth Vader asking the emperor “What is thy bidding, my master?”. 

(Wikipedia has more about the T-V distinction (from Latin tu and vos).)

Example 2: will and shall. Some people carefully observed the distinction between I/we will and you/she/he/it/they shall and vice versa. Henry Fowler’s explanation of it (plus would and should) runs to more than 7,000 words. More than 100 years later, no-one cares. Shall survives mainly in the polite offer “Shall I open a/the window?” and even then many people would say “Do you want me to …?”

Some people go as far as decrying any variation in language. If there are two ways of saying something, then either one of them is right and the other is wrong, or there is and must me a distinction between the two. (Linguist/blogger Arnold Zwicky calls this the One Right Way principle.) I would always say pray to the Father, but pray the Father has existed alongside it for centuries. I would have pegged it as an Americanism, but the translation of the bible Tallis used (?the Great Bible of 1539) was made before the permanent settlement of North America by the British, and Google Ngram Viewer shows no significant difference between British and American usage. Bible translations use pray the Father, pray to the Father and ask/beg the Father (but not *ask/beg to the Father). The Greek is ἐρωτήσω τὸν Πατέρα, erōtēsō ton Patera, will ask the Father. Note also comforter/advocate/helper/counselor/intercessor/paraclete. The Greek word is Παράκλητος, parakletos, which is used only here and 1 John 2:1, literally para-,  beside + klētós, called, invited. (Compare Latin advocātus, originally past participle of advocāre to call to one’s aid.)

Four vaguely related stories:

At one stage I noticed a student saying you is or you was enough times to notice. He explained that he was talking to one person, me. That’s how he’d been taught or how he’d processed it. It was hard for me to convince him to change. 

A former colleague was at one stage into Brazilian men, and asked on Facebook for someone to practice Portuguese with. One of her former students (who I knew) wrote “I’ll help you. You was my best teacher.”

It was legendary among foreign English teachers in South Korea that Koreans answer “How are you?” with “I’m fine, thanks. And you?”, which is apparently the first they they formally learn. In the last year of my first stay in South Korea, I worked with the Gyeonggi-do English Program. We spent a week at a conference. The coordinator of foreign English teachers walked out in front the first plenary session and asked “How are you?”. 500 foreign English teachers replied “I’m fine thanks. And you?”. 

Each evening we watched a Korean movie. One of these was Welcome to Dongmakgol (trailer). During the Korean war, an American pilot is forced down near a remote mountain village. The local school-teacher, who speaks a very small amount of English, asks him “How are you?”. He tells him exactly how he is in highly colloquial English. The school-teacher looks puzzled and says to the other Koreans “He should say ‘Fine, and you?’”. (This clip, from 4:04)

Korean speakers avoid saying you for reasons of politeness. The communion service of the Anglican Church of Korea has the following exchange:

주께서 여려분과 함께
The Lord be with various people (viz, you, plural)
또한 부제(사제)와 함께 하소서
And also with deacon/priest (viz, you, singular)

PS 27 Feb. I didn’t mention French but it was at the back of my mind as a language which has the T-V distinction. A Facebook friend posted a link to this page of 27 Jokes and Puns Only Those Who Know a Little French Can Understand. Number 19 is a complex flow chart of people and contexts to decide whether to use tu or vous. One commenter said “Choosing between « tu » & « vous » is actually quite easy: you just have to remember that « vous » = “you” and « tu » = “thou”.
It’s just that french people aren’t all that formal, so they might use “thou” a little more”. This assumes that English-speaking people know the difference between “you” and “thou”. Another replied “You got it backwards …intentionally?
Thou being increadably formal, and French being uptight using the formal vous thousands of times more often than an English speaker …”. This assumes that thou is incredibly formal.

Even in English, with its all-purpose you, we still have to decide who we can say ya to and who we have to say you to, as well as, for example, “How do you do”, “Howdya do”, “How are you doing”, “How are you, “Howya doin'” and “Howdy”.


6 thoughts on “If ye love me

  1. Interesting that the Wikipedia page for the “Welcome to Dongmakgol” film lists the “Korean” title as merely the transliteration of the English title into Hangeul. But I guess this was intentionally an English-language film and the title was in English in keeping with the theme.

    It seems to be that the present-day misapprehension of “thou” as formal may have contributed to a change over time in how individuals relate to God in prayer. While it was clearly meant to be an intimate communication between pray-er and pray-ee, it may now appear to be a more ritualistic action demanding more personal preparation.


    • Prayer runs the complete spectrum between ritual (which has its uses) and personal. I belong to a prayer book/liturgical-type church. I walked into a Korean Anglican church and understood exactly what was going on. My wife’s Korean Uniting (=Methodist/Presbyterian/Congregational) church here is mostly free-form apart from obvious ‘prayers’ or ‘praise’ or ‘sermon’.


  2. Your mention of “27 Jokes and Puns Only Those Who Know a Little French Can Understand” (which was quite fun to read) made me think about cross-lingual puns between English (et al.) and Korean.

    A long time ago on a family trip to Los Angeles, we visited Little Tokyo and passed the Kajima monument. I think my daughter asked me what that place was, and I told her it was a place you’re not supposed to go because that’s what the name means in Korean (though it’s really a Japanese place).

    You may remember the Woody Allen movie “Sleeper” in which one of the characters from the future tells Woody “Shut up and eat your shiksa.” While that was a funny double-entendre moment (at least for Jews), it wasn’t until much later that I learned the word for “food” in Korean, so from that standpoint it’s a perfectly reasonable statement.


    • I would transliterate 가 as ‘ga’, so wouldn’t immediately associate Kajima with that Korean word.
      I don’t know that Woody Allen movie, but learned shiksa from The Big Bang Theory. It would seem that Allen has a Korean shiksa now!


  3. I actually remembered the Japanese place name as “Gajima”, but when I verified it on Wikipedia it used “Kajima” as the preferred spelling. Either one would get the point across. (Btw, my wife’s pronunciation of that part of LA as “Little Dokyo”, including the pronunciation of “y” as consonantal rather than vocalic, has crept into my own speech.)


    • I can’t remember that I’ve ever heard my wife say Tokyo, but I once said karaoke to a Japanese student and he had no idea what I was talking about. After I explained the concept he said ‘Oh, [Japanese pronunciation]’. I’m not going to use the Japanese pronunciation just because it’s the Japanese pronunciation.


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