God as Thou

God as Thou January 15, 2015

Matthew Cobb shared this entertaining infographic about when to use “tu” or “vous” in French:

tu or vous

I am tempted to make one for Romanian, which would be much more complex. When do you use tu, voi, dumneata, dumneavoastră, and maria ta?

This is of religious and not just linguistic interest, as the infographic notes. God is addressed in Romance languages with the “tu” pronoun, and this should not surprise anyone who recalls that English used to have an equivalent pronoun, “thou.” Of course, as the latter ceased to be generally used in English, “thou” (or even “Thou”) came to have connotations of greater rather than lesser formality. And so today, if someone calls God “thou” they probably think they are paying greater respect.

I think the origin of this is that the modes of expressing formality by using the plural or a plural-based form of the second person pronoun are from later than, or other languages than, those in which the Biblical tradition was first expressed. But the result is interesting – one which makes people address God with less reverence than their boss.

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  • Jodi

    I was taught (in a fairly fundamentalist church, even) that adressing God as “Thou” was (originally) a radical symbol of speaking to God as a close friend or loving parent. “Thou” was the pronoun that accompanies “Abba, Daddy!”

  • arcseconds

    Not just romance languages. German and Russian also do this.

    I wonder how the thing started?

    Latin didn’t have a formal ‘you’, so my guess is that actually they just preserved the singular ‘you’ in translations, and when the formal ‘you’ developed out of the plural, no-one decided to formalize the second-person pronoun used for God, leaving him with a now-informal mode of address.