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Thou Needest Not Nostalgia

December 3rd, 2009 by dk

The holiday season is no time for nostalgia. Nostalgia never did anyone any favors. The past has much to offer us, but nostalgia doesn’t create that connection. It foils it.

We came to the Left Coast twenty years ago and the first thing I missed was history. I raised my sons in Connecticut, where your house isn’t considered old unless it once was taxed by the King of England. Everything here is so young and fresh and new. When we try to honor the past, we usually botch it up with cartoony versions of what we imagine once was. Ever notice how all the old-style brew pubs look the same?

We keep photographs or newspaper clippings of our favorite moments from the past, but the rest of the paper or the scene around the subject is gone. Without context, we doom ourselves to nostalgia, narcissism’s vengeful neighbor.

We only remember what we remember, never what we were told. And so the past keeps its distance from us, which is what it and we prefer. Nostalgia won’t allow us to retrieve the past, while we make it more attractive than it was. We’re stuck, wishing for a past that never was and unhappy with the present too.

Christmas and Hanukah and other solstice celebrations bring tradition, but on their own terms. When nostalgia creeps in, the real thing often breaks through. Around a feasting table, our siblings mercilessly remind us of the parts of the story we left out. The past becomes present again, and we’re better for it. We see ourselves in context of who we were and where we came from.

We needn’t open the gift. The gift opens us.

Pitch me your thousand pleasures of the holiday season, and I’ll toss back the “sand” and keep the “thou.” My single favorite pleasure this time of year is “thou.”

We never should have let “thou” fade into archaic oblivion. We’ve lost any elegant distinction between the singular and plural of the second person pronoun. “Elegant” connotes a certain social respect, or it can mean a pleasingly precise solution with no extra motion. “Thou” gave us both. It could focus intently on another individual with no ambiguity. It could also convey respect, even homage — a proper noun, so to speak.

“You” can’t be expected to do the same. It’s the wrong shape, for starters. The sound of the word cannot be made more emphatic. Elongation cannot convey an urgency. Say the word “you.” Now say it again, like you really mean it. Try the same exercise with “thou” and you’ll hear what I mean.

You can emphasize the singular only with extra words. Start a sentence with “You, Don Kahle …” and I’m pretty sure a scolding will follow. “Thou” skirted all those troubles.

Our own southern states came to regret this linguistic misstep, coining “you all” and “y’all” for the plural, reserving “you” for singular references. That was a step forward, but then they lost a war. What Dixie can’t provide, Old Europe can.

Christmas brings us songs from centuries past that nobody has dared improve. Tradition is allowing dead people to vote, and they choose the same songs they sang, the way they sang them.

Christmas music is filled with sexism, militarism, xenophobia, and a piety that leaves no room for differences. Like Grandma’s favorite pound cake recipe, we’re more careful today, but once a year won’t hurt us, and the special cheer may do us good. “Polyunsaturated” to Grandma meant the pet bird came inside before it rained. Why shouldn’t Grandma continue feeding us occasionally?

None of those unfortunate features need detract from the beauty our language once had. Some enjoy Shakespeare for this same reason, but I prefer the song. It’s one thing to hear the rhythm of well chosen words, but something else to utter them, effortlessly from memory, as if you wrote them or as if they just occurred to you.

Traditional song brings “thou” back, dressed in all its original splendor. Was there more splendor in a world when I might have asked if thou thought it so? Yes, I believe there was. Or even “yea,” to mean yes and amen at once — I’m certain of it.


Forsooth, Don Kahle ( writes a column for The Register-Guard on Fridays. He stays busy the other six days each week with a variety of other ventures.

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  • 1 Marat I. Kayumov Jan 6, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    I am a linguist and I have always been disappointed about the fact that the English language of today lacks this beautiful word “thou”, whose precise delicacy we are now ‘not allowed’ to exercise. Teachers prohibit this word and say “it is the wrong usage (or merely archaic, which is BAD for them)”. Very often I try to insert ‘this word of lustful poetry’ into my academic discourse to enliven the students’ minds and souls, to make them more ‘adjustable’ to the language. But I am nearly always immediately disillusioned: I realize the students of now are only hunting for the slang and the ‘sex-and-joint’ vocabulary.

    Actually, I have thought that there are practically no people among the natives who do feel nostalgic for the good times of the language. Now I happily recognize you to be one.

    Thank you so much for your article.

    Marat I. Kayumov, Russia.