In The Magician of Lublin - part five, section 3 - this scene takes place between Emilia and Yasha:

"What did you say, dear?"
"I said that I love you and that I can't wait until you are mine."
She waited a moment. Her knee touched his through the gown. Something like electricity coursed into him through the silk. He was overcome with desire. A tingle streaked down his spine.
"It's even more difficult for me than for you."
She said "thou" to him for the first time in their relationship. She barely managed to breathe the word. He heard it more in his mind than in his ears.
(translated by Elaine Gottlieb and Joseph Singer, 1960)

Where does Emilia say "thou" here? The sentence immediately beforehand includes the word "you", not "thou". Was it just the singular word "thou"? If so, what was the significance of that? It's obviously something important if it's the first time it's being said.

What's going on here?

  • 2
    See T-V distinction. Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 12:51
  • And I think the 'She said "thout" to him' line is where she says it. Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 17:13

1 Answer 1


Yiddish, like many European languages, makes a distinction between a formal and informal way of saying "you". The informal or familiar form is "du". The formal or respectful form is "ir", the same as is used for the plural "you". The informal could be used toward a child or close family member, but to use this towards a member of the general public would be seen as insulting.

Earlier forms of English had this distinction too, with "thou" as the familiar and "you" as the formal and plural. This has changed with "thou" now being regarded as archaic, but it is not unheard of for translators who want to demonstrate the distinction choosing to use "thou". This can be seen in other English language works that are trying to render Yiddish phraseology into English, such as Children of the Ghetto by Israel Zangwill.

Unfortunately, an author or translator's use of "thou" can often be misunderstood by a modern English reader. Because of the influence of the King James translation of The Bible, where "thou" is used extensively, it is often perceived by modern readers as being the more formal mode, exactly the opposite of the original intention! In this story, the phrasing of "you" is a significant plot point, so the translator probably did not think they could sidestep the issue. They had to use "thou" as the best English fit, even though they were presumably aware of its shortcomings.

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