Thursday, 11 November 2010

Plain dress November - Thee! Quaker!

In 1929 David Lawrence wrote a novel originally entitled Tenderness, which was mainly about a love affair. It became famous for having been banned, under its subsequent title Lady Chatterley’s Lover, mainly because of its inclusion of words then not permitted to be in print, and probably also because its content was considered obscene. Lawrence was desperately hurt at the burning of his book (as Peter Abelard, some centuries before him was also wounded by the experience of having to burn his book which also fell foul of righteous authority). Lawrence wrote a poem about it, asking:

Can you tell me what’s wrong
With the word or with you
That you don’t mind the thing
But the word is taboo?
The ban on D.H.Lawrence’s book was lifted in 1960, but still left it with the aura of a bold and daring venture past the boundaries of good taste and decorum, so naturally we all read it as schoolchildren as soon as we got our hands on a copy.

What I remember struck me about the novel was not the words that seemed to have gripped the attention of others, but that Oliver Mellors, the lover of the title, called his lady ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. I think it was probably the first time – I was eleven when I read it – that I’d grasped imaginatively that ‘thou’ was not a more formal mode of address, but an intimate form.

I had begun to study French at school of course, and had learned the ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ forms of address, and no doubt had it explained to me that in English the two had merged so that we used only the equivalent of ‘vous’ in modern English. That’s a very telling development, I think: losing the ability to address one’s nearest and dearest in an intimate form, retaining only the option of distance, formality and politeness, says a lot about the English.

At church, in my childhood and teenage years, we still spoke to God as Thee and Thou – and I think this had the effect of oddly reversing the sense of formality. In the 1970s, as people rebelled against addressing God as Thou, they believed (I think) they were lowering barriers of separation and distance by dispensing with a stiff, formal mode of address in favour of the everyday (and therefore more friendly, casual and intimate, they thought) form of address, ‘You’.

I mourned that passing, that modernizing because, outside of Lady Chatterley, our praying in church was the only place that had still retained the softer, more intimate ‘Thou’, with its breath of tenderness.

I loved the ideas Martin Buber explored in his book I and Thou, of being able to be completely open to, beheld by, another – with nothing held back. He wrote about communion, about really seeing one another; and that was what speaking the ‘thou’ meant to him. When you become thou to me, I have really seen you, really known you, really loved you. Really seen thee, really known thee, really loved thee.

The use of thee and thou has gone now from England’s north country. My grandfather could still speak broad Yorkshire, but it would not have crossed my father’s mind to do so.

By the time I discovered that the Quakers also said ‘thee’ – albeit with their own defiance of correct grammatical use (I don’t understand why) – that too was waning, indeed had vanished, from mainstream Quaker usage.

But it is still alive among some, not all, Plain Quakers. Quaker Jane always uses the ‘thee’ form. Others with Plain Quaker aspirations also use it, often forgetting halfway through a sentence and ending up with some ‘thee’s and some ‘you’s.

Yvonna asked me in the comment thread after yesterday’s post if I would also start to use the ‘thee’ form of address.

I like what I have found some Plain Quakers doing – which is saying ‘thee’ to those who will understand, and ‘you’ to those who would find ‘thee’ baffling and strange. That seems sensible to me.

I do very much like the Quaker ‘thee’; but I think even better I like the full usage of ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ and ‘thy’. Uh-oh. I can see it coming – I’m going to be out on a limb yet again over this one, aren’t I; following neither Quaker idiom nor anyone else’s either!

12 comments:

Ganeida said...

Oh well, thou cans't thee me all thou likes. :D I used to thee my children when they were very little. As thou says, it is so soft & intimate & friendly. Sadly they grew bigger & decided I was odd. I do muddle my thees & thous though. Safer to stick with thee ~ may be why the Quakers did it, English language being the hotch~potch it is.

Joan said...

It took me a long time to force myself to attempt to understand thee and thy. I used to love to learn, but I have been burned out for some time ( I have bursts of desire to learn these days, but not a steady flow) Finally, I thought I understood it, but then read other things that confused me again. I would think others may be confused about it and are really not all that interested in understanding it since few people are interested in plain living and the old fashioned ways anyhow.

Thee really doesn't know why Quakers say thee and thy? It is because "you" was only used singularly to address people of importance. Never having heard it used like that, it seems strange and to many, unimportant.

The Quakers were careful about every word and their meanings. Not using the pagan month and days of the week names and I could go on and on. It is a good thing not to become desensitized to all the pagan and anti -christian things that are common in communication. But it is hard if noone else appreciates what thee is saying. It is an opportunity to explain, however. To some of us these little details are helpful to keep us focused on Christ. And to some, especially those living in a strongly anti-christian environment I expect it would be grossly challenging and seem over the top.

I don't think thee will offend anyone with thy feelings about thou. I have seen some disagree on what the proper grammatical uses are of these terms, but how could anyone fault thee because the term "thou" is meaningful to thee in a way that is not at all against Christ. Part of being a Quaker is doing what the Lord puts on thy heart and it is obvious that seeks discernment and understanding in these matters from God and also thee considers the thoughts of others.

Hopefully, I didn't forget to use thee instead of you somewhere!!
Joanie

Ember said...

Hi Ganeida! Waving at thee! x

Hi Joanie! :0)

Yes, I did understand why Quakers chose to say 'thee' instead of 'you' - what puzzles me is why they use a non grammatical for of it. For instance, when thee and thou were still common usage in England, a woman might say to her husband: 'Wilt thou get me some eggs?', where a modern woman would say, 'Will you get me some eggs?'
But a Quaker woman would say, 'Will thee get me some eggs?'

It's like always saying 'me' and dispensing with 'I'; as if one would always say 'Me is going to the shop' instead of 'I am going to the shop'. That's what Quakers have done with the 'thee' form, because they never say 'thou'. That's what puzzles me. I don't know how or why. historically, that developed.

Thanks for saying: 'Part of being a Quaker is doing what the Lord puts on thy heart' Yes. I loved that. :0)

Joan said...

Hi Ember,
I just realized that I had not read your post correctly and I wrongly assumed you did not understand why Quakers use thee etc... . Sorry! See, I am always in such a hurry and with this burned out brain of mine? I am not fit to comment, I am afraid.

I am going to try to study this usage of thou more. I have thought at times using thee didn't sound right and I am trying to figure out how to use thou. My ears should embrace the correct way, I would think. At least to some extent. At Quaker Jane's site there is so much to read and she has some writings of Kenneth Morse who talks about the usage of these words. He was understandable and had lots of other interesting facts about what words really mean ( like sir, mrs, etc...)- but for some reason I still don't remember the facts about thee and thou too well. Have you read that at QJ's? I think he discusses that others don't use these words correctly. It seems that I have read there are differences of opinion of how to use it. English was my best subject, but I am not an expert.

"Wilt thou get me some eggs" sound right to my ears. Will thou get me some eggs? Hmmm. Sounds ok, but then I am used to hearing thee and it sounds ok. I need to study, don't I??
Joanie

MarilynAnn said...

That's interesting about addressing God as thou being the more intimate form, not the formal form. I never thought about that!

Ember said...

Hi again, Joanie! :0)

A good way to familiarise oneself with correct usage of thee & thou is to watch films of Shakespeare plays. Another good way is to pray with the Book of Common prayer. x

Hi MarilynAnn! Over on Facebook (where there's a link to this post) my friend Carien is telling me that the opposite applies in the Netherlands - there, the formal version is applied to God, and is the form declining in social use, where the intimate, informal version is becoming more common in social use. Interesting!

Hawthorne said...

Hi Ember.
Thank you so much for explaining this. I read Quaker Jane too and I was wondering why on earth she used 'thee' when she replied to people's questions! ;-) xx

Ember said...

Hi Hawthorne (pretty name) :0)
Takes a bit of getting used to, doesn't it? But I love it. Like Plain dress, it's something my heart says yes to, long before my head can work out why.

Veiled Glory said...

I remember Frau Weed being very firm on using "du" only to God and your immediate family. Not sure if modern German usage follows this tightly.

Yes, thou seems much more natural. :-)

Ember said...

'God and your immediate family' - what a wonderful concept! Hi Anna! Isn't Frau Weed just the best name?

Veiled Glory said...

Frau Weed was a terrific little sprite of a woman who had raised four boys she called The Four Horsemen (with a wink). She then taught German to squirrely high school students like me.

Ember said...

:0D