Category: tu/vous

Talking to God

By , 14 August 2009 7:17 pm

There’s a lot that I could blog on this week, from family matters to healthcare policies, but I want to continue the theme that was picked up last week: that of language. One of the fun things of struggling with another language (and I never do more than struggle) is that, like looking in a mirror, you see familiar things very differently.

Anyway, let’s begin with some grammar. For those of you that don’t know French, French verbs take a tu form for family, children and close friends and a much more respect-laden vous form for everybody else, particularly those who are above you socially. Vous is also used when you are addressing more than one person. Most tourists tend to use the vous form in France because it’s less likely to give offence. English residents and others living in France apparently go through nervous agonies knowing when to shift from the vous to tu form. (I’m told that there are similar patterns in German, Spanish and other European languages: it is called the T-V distinction and you can read all about it on Wikipedia.)

Now God doesn’t play a major part in French culture. Voltaire and others had good go at ejecting him around the time of the French Revolution and he never really seems to have made much of a comeback. You get the impression that, in popular French Catholicism, the ‘Blessed Virgin’ and the ‘Saints’ tend to occupy what we might call the spiritual ecological niche that Father, Son and Holy Spirit fills in Protestantism. Certainly all the evidence is that if God is at all considered in the French mindset he is as a very remote and distant character. So with that all in mind, it comes as something of a surprise when, reading a French Bible you see that God is addressed in the intimate tu form.

On and off this week I have been trying to find out through the Internet and a French teacher friend something of the origins of this peculiarity. What transpires is that the Protestants seem from fairly early days to have used tu to address God while the Catholics didn’t. This caused some animosity and heightened the religious divide between them. The Protestants were held to be overly familiar; they seem to have retaliated by saying that the Catholic use of vous could mean that they believed that God was not one. Given that Bible reading was not actually approved of in Catholicism until 45 years ago, the debate was probably quite academic. However at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) papal approval was given firstly, to reading the Bible and secondly, to using the informal manner of address. So things are changing: nevertheless, some French Catholics have never adjusted and still resolutely use the vous form of God. After all, the argument goes, isn’t it inconsistent to address the Virgin Mary as vous but to address her Boss (so to speak) as tu?

This leads back to the fact that we used to have a similar problem in English with thee, thou and thine. Thee took the place of the French tu and was used for close friends and social equals and inferiors. You/ye and yours were reserved for those of higher social status. (There is a very good Wikipedia article on it). Apparently it had largely fallen out of use by around 1650 in southern Britain so all those historical novels set in the Civil War with them thee-ing and thou-ing are probably incorrect. As an aside, it has persisted in North English dialect until the present. Growing up in Lancashire it was very common to often hear people addressed as thee: as in “I’ll get thee a cuppa’ tea” and “where has tha’ been?” Being totally lacking in linguistic skill (grammar of any sort was starting to die out in the 1960s) I only now realise that it was restricted to use between friends and in the singular form only. The curious irony is, of course, that many people assume that the use by the Authorised Version (KJV) Bible of thee and thou is to indicate a respectful distance between us and God. That was not the meaning: far from it.

In fact, the issues here are not entirely linguistic; it’s the old dilemma of familiarity and respect. Because neither Hebrew nor Greek uses this T-V distinction we don’t have a pattern to go from. In this respect English Bible translators have much less of a problem: they don’t have to choose. I suppose using the tu form in prayer is something one would learn. How suitable you would feel it was, would probably depend on how you felt you stood in respect to God. If you see God as your Heavenly Father then the family tu form would no doubt seem utterly sensible. But if you see him as Lord then I presume vous would seem more appropriate.

A final comment here. In the Lamb among The Stars the Assembly worlds speak the artificial Communal. In case anyone asks I have no real answer as to whether that language would have preserved the T-V distinction. The issues of familiarity and respect, of God being Father, Friend and Lord are, this side of glory, not easily resolved.

Have a good week


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