Intimate Language

My father remained at heart a rural Yorkshireman. He used address form “thou” to distinguish his intimates from the wider world – “you”. English has this in its roots, similar to the French “tu” and the German “du”.

That it has fallen from use – diminishes us a little. I remember what it is to be addressed as thou. Intimate, warm, enfolding. “Eh, lad thou art…”.

The Jewish existentialist Martin Buber uses the form brilliantly in German. Distinguishing between Sie and Du, Ich und Es. He said “To man the world is two-fold .. the attitude of man is two-fold .. the one primary word is the combination I-Thou, the other is the combination I-It”.

I-thou is a relationship of inner to inner, an authentic encounter that is the touchstone of existence. (I-thou creating “our”). 

Of course, Buber wrote in German and Du has currency in contrast to Sie or Es, whereas in English we now reserve intimate addressing for our relationship with God. How ironic!

In our English language how can we now mark the transition in relationships between the formality of “you are” and the caress of “thou art”? And when and why did we lose the rich language of intimacy?

Surely thou-ness was clear in the minds of the scholars constructing the King James Bible in 1611. Perhaps the slow death of this way of celebrating friendship is linked to the four hundred year rise of materialism since the reformation? 

Perhaps as the smoke clears and we see the I-It debris left by capitalism and atheism a new expression of thou-ness will appear. 

Let us pray so.

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