Wednesday, 13 February 2013

How Now Thou Lovely Plough

I love learning foreign languages, but I've gone on in detail about that before. At the time I also mentioned my curiosity about the loss of the 'thou' form in English. Why did we lose it, when did we lose it and does it mean we're all ice-cold swine?

Anyway, I should also have mentioned, while on that particular subject, that one of the things I find adorable about the fiendishly hard Hungarian language is the fact that, as well as having the 'you' and 'thou' forms familiar to anyone who's had a go at any of the Germanic, Slavic or Romance languages, it also has a third utterly unfathomable - to me at least - mode of address that is either more or less haughty than the other two (I've never been able to make out where it really fits in in the complex world of linguistic efforts to express the subtleties of human relationships).

Furthermore, Hungarians, already in possession of an extra nuance in their interchanges, (and two different verb declensions, depending upon whether the object of their sentence is vague - 'a', 'some', 'several' - or definite - 'the'), also have a verb form reserved specifically for activities that go on between a first person singular - 'I' - subject and a second person singular (or plural [ideal for orgies])  - 'thou' - object. Thus, there is 'I see him' and 'I see you' and 'he sees thou', but, as well, in the phrase 'I see thou', a special iteration of the verb is used to convey the exclusively intimate relationship that exists between an 'I' and a 'thou'.

Such nuance in a language's grammar strikes me as both sophisticated and sensitive. My mother tongue seems a rather primitive tool by comparison. Remembering how as a small child in primary school I baffled my teacher - (no, no, not lovely Miss Monck Mason, she would have understood immediately - it was that horrid Miss Pickard) - by writing a story - (at the school that I went to virtually all we ever did was write stories) - about a character called 'pudding hat' who led an uprising of the common nouns, demanding the same rights as proper nouns to have initial capital letters - (of course, 'pudding' should have moved to Germany I realised when I started learning that language decades later) - I wonder now whether it is in fact English verbs, rather than nouns, that should be revolting. Rise up, 'doing words', demand equality with your more subtle Hungarian chums.

6 comments:

  1. "Such nuance in a language's grammar strikes me as both sophisticated and sensitive. My mother tongue seems a rather primitive tool by comparison."

    Well, Anglo-Saxon did have the two versions of the second person, also a dual that has long since dropped out of English. Yet I would hesitate to call it more sophisticated or sensitive. The last time I picked up the books purchased in college, it seemed to me that most of the verbs I encountered described either assault or robbery--but perhaps I opened to the wrong part of the reader.


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    1. Or perhaps it was only the thugs who survived to make the written record. I am still intrigued by the idea of a mother tongue where each person makes it clear exactly what degree of intimacy they feel they share with any interlocutor

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  2. I rather like the idea of 'thou', but I daresay, apart from 'art', we'd need 'wert' and 'wilt' as well. If 'twas good enough for the Bible [you know the Bible] and Shakespeare....

    When did it disappear? Can we blame those Roundheads for starting the rot? Did he really say, "When did you last see your father?" or "When didst thou...."

    Or the Victorians much later? At school we gave either of these the blame for chipping away at everything else that was fun.

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    1. That's a good question. I bet my brother knows.

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  3. I remember learning that Vietnamese had 25 different words for "you", depending on the relationship you had with the person you were addressing, but googling it, I can only find reference to 7 (with 7 corresponding forms of "me"). Still, not bad.

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    1. Not bad at all (what can it be like to have to shuffle through the possibilities and ensure you don't get the tone wrong when you start a conversation?)

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