Friday, September 11, 2009

English and the Second Person

In the development of English, the second person pronouns have been swept away by time—as have their verb modifications. This change has produced a gulf between our times and all written forms of the eighteenth and earlier centuries. I’m keenly aware of this in reading Dorothy Sayers’ translation of Dante—and, alongside hers, others’. The convention is to preserve the second person forms found in the original Italian—which are still there today. Even with long exposure, these forms simply refuse to melt into my mind, will not digest, linguistically speaking, and hence they act on my faculties as tiny grains of sand might if in the peanut butter on my bread.

I learned three languages before I encountered English: Hungarian, German, and French. The second person is still alive and well in all three. It’s used in ordinary spoken and written language; no artificiality attaches to them. The English “thou goest” sounds stilted, not so the German “du gehst” or the French “tu vas.” In all three of these, and others, there are even words to describe the act of speaking in the second person. In Hungarian that word is tegezni, in German duzen, in French tutoyer.

Those of us who grew up speaking languages with this extra dimension are all aware—not intellectually but viscerally—of the extra potentials present in having an informal (second person) and a formal (third person) way of addressing another human being. In English we use the formal “you” in both cases. In German (just to stick to a single counter-example), saying “you” (“Sie”) to someone always carries an implied formality. In he world of ordinary business, this usage is so routine as to be, on the surface, indistinguishable from the same sort of interchanges in English; but one immediately knows that the environment has changed, loosened, as it were, when intimates, be that in the office, in the neighborhood, and in the family revert to second person modes of speech.

I smile, remembering something. When tensions arose between my Father and my Mother, my Father used to switch to the third person address in speaking to Mother. It was a way of signaling displeasure… And the little boy listening, knew this perfectly well. Now, in writing a memoir in English, the poverty of modern English prevents my giving a natural example. For us the second person is unnatural.

The expression, in speech, of distinctions in class, rank, or age relies, in other languages, on this facility. In English we have to signal these distinctions with added words like Sir or Ma’m or simply more courteous and deliberate forms of speech.

The very fact that language tools, if present, will be used to their fullest—especially by poets—produces the dilemmas translators must resolve. In the translations of Dante, preserving the second person, despite its rankling dissonances for the English-speaking ear, has been the choice. I would not go that way myself. What I would ask myself is this: How would Dante have attacked this chore. And my guess is that he would have preferred to use the modern English to its fullest extent to communicate as fluidly as possible the real essence of his vision. And if, here and there, the “thou-ye” and the “thee-you” tooling was missing to signal rank or stature, he would have found a way around it using other means.

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