by Amy K. Lavender
Back by popular demand, University of West Georgia Newnan hosted the first of its second round of English language lectures last week. This series, dubbed “The Curious Adventures of English Words” is part of The Other Night School–a continuous series of lectures featuring various topics in the humanities.
“This is really a continuation of the series we did back in the spring,” explained Dr. Chad Davidson, UWG professor of English and director of UWG’s School of the Arts. “So we’re expanding it, and now it is part of The Other Night School. In the spring, we’ll be adding talks from art, philosophy and music.”
The Oct. 4 talk focused on the word “you” and was delivered by Davidson himself. He showcased the evolution of the word, its uses in other languages, and just how many languages use the word “you” or a close equivalent.
“How many of you knew English is distantly related to Iranian and ancient Sanskrit?” he asked. “The word ‘you’ is used in dozens and dozens of languages in the Indo-European group. And English is related to all of these languages, even languages like Hindi, Persian and Kurdish.”
Davidson also elaborated on how the word “thou,” which was regularly used in speech in Old English, has gradually been pushed out of the language.
“Basically, ‘you’ committed murder,” he laughed. “It killed our friend ‘thou.’ ‘You’ won out in the survival of the fittest.”
According to Davidson, both “you” and “thou” had ascribed uses as formal and informal words in our language in Old English, similar to how the romance languages have both formal and informal modes of addressing people. However, over the years, the use of “thou” became very loose, and there were no truly strict rules that governed its use. Whether you used “you” or “thou” depended on how you wanted to position yourself in the surrounding company, whom you wanted to show respect to or even the subject you were talking about.
“Shakespeare exploits this in his plays,” Davidson explained as he showed the audience an exchange between Gloucester and Lady Anne in Richard III. “These pronouns become a little unstable. They no longer address a singular or plural noun, now they’ve got all this social weight to the pronouns.”
In the example, Act 1 Scene 2 of the play, Lady Anne and Gloucester transition back and forth from “thou” and “you,” respectively, to both using “thou” while speaking to each other. Lady Anne is telling Gloucester how much she hates him, and he’s telling her how much he loves her, sort of.
“Shakespeare is very rhetorically minded,” Davidson said. “He’s a very good orator. So he’s deploying these pronouns in a very skilled way, a very complicated way. Here, using the ‘you’ in a very intimate way, it sounds off. During this time, you didn’t love someone in a ‘you’ way. It would be like calling your spouse by their last name. So there’s some head games going on here.”
Davidson said English has lost its variety of pronouns, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is lacking.
“It doesn’t mean that our language is deficient,” he said. "It’s just being used differently. Our local and regional dialects have helped to fill in the gaps.”
The next installment of “The Curious Adventures of English Words” will be on Oct. 18 and will examine the word “will,” followed by a look at the verb “be” on Oct. 25. All lectures will be held at UWG Newnan’s main lecture hall at 6 p.m. and are free and open to the public.Posted on