130. The wanderer
The English are, perhaps due to Nietzsche’s influence, often held responsible for the levelling tendency of modernity. This nation of shopkeepers—as once was, the shopkeepers are mostly Pakistani now—is responsible, so the story goes, for the democratic trend in global affairs and the grinding down of anything aristocratic or noble. Whatever the wider truth of this observation—and there is truth to it—there is a specific truth regarding the English language and the levelling tendency, for English itself has become more vulgar and common over the decades.
We have long forgotten now, but there was a time when the English used the forms “thee” and “thou”; today, the forms exist only among some working-class Northerners and, as we shall see, the Quakers. These forms, now comically archaic to the modern ear, occupied the same position as the French “vous” and “tu” forms and the German “du” and “sei”—along with, roughly, the Russian use of the patronymic. These forms of address were designed to denote intimacy and formality; and they still do on the continent, where the moment a person uses the “tu” form with another is an indication that their acquaintance is now intimate, not superficial or passing.
In the old days, the Englishman on the road who passed the squire on his horse would tip his hat to the gentleman and say, “How are you, sir?” Back in his cottage, by the fireside, he would turn to his son and say: “And how art thou, son?” The “you”—like the royal “we” or “one”—was reserved for social superiors and moments of formal address, whereas the “thee” and “thou” forms were for family intimates and friends. The archaic expression “don’t get familiar with me” reflects this concern, a rebuke against someone taking liberties and using the “thou” form before a real connection has been made. The forms are even encoded in the King James Version, where the people speak to God in the familiar “thee” and “thou” forms: the form of address literally told a person where they stood in relation to society and God.
The Quakers, those passive aggressive free riders, were strict egalitarians and so only used “the plain speech”, the familiar form, with all and sundry. The priggish Quaker on the road would address the local squire familiarly, “Where goest thou at this hour, Mr. De Quincey?” The point was that the Quakers refused to acknowledge social distinctions; they were like today’s vegans, showing off their supposed moral superiority by refusing to conform to social norms. Richard Nixon, a Quaker growing up in the California of the 1930s, remembers his relatives still using the Quaker plain speech—even in the New World the Quakers were “theeing” and “thouing” everyone they met. Ironically, a Quaker using “thee” and “thou” today sounds more pretentious, elitist, and undemocratic than an ordinary person saying “you”, since “thee” and “thou” sounds, to most people, archaic and pretentious, as if a person were pretending to be a medieval knight or something very grand—actually it is quite the opposite.
We all treat each other, linguistically, as if we were gentlemen and ladies and we allow no distinction between formal and familiar address; we are all, supposedly, the best of friends. It is almost as if we all started calling each other “comrade”, for we are all, as far as our linguistic form is concerned, equal. This has happened over a period of about two-hundred years, and it happened along with the rise of democracy and the Industrial Revolution—it is a loss in the nuance and power of the language, a loss in marking friend from enemy. So we only see how far we have fallen thanks to the Quakers and their rascally attempt to subvert the language in the first place; they tried to drag everyone down to “thee”, but what they did not foresee was that democracy would instead attempt to elevate everyone up to “you”—if you know what I mean.