female second person singular pronoun in Psalms

In Garifuna the second person singular pronoun (“you” in English) has two forms. One is used in women’s speech and one in men’s speech. In the Garifuna Bible the form used in men’s speech is typically used, except when it’s clear that a woman is quoted or in Psalms where the women on the translation team insisted that the form used in women’s speech (buguya) would be used throughout the whole book.

Ronald Ross (in Omanson 2001, p. 375f.) tells the story: “Throughout most of the translation, [the distinctions between the different forms of the pronouns] presented no problem. Whenever the speaker in the text was perceived as a man, the male speech forms were used; and when a woman was speaking, the female speech forms were used. True, the women members of the translation team did object on occasion to the use of the male forms when the author (and narrator) of a book was unknown and the men translators had used the male speech forms as the default. Serious discord arose, however, during the translation of the Psalms because of their highly devotional nature and because throughout the book the psalmist is addressing God. The male translators had, predictably, used the male form to address God, and the male form to refer to the psalmist, even though women speakers of Garifuna never use those forms to address anyone. The women contended that they could not as women read the Psalms meaningfully if God and the psalmist were always addressed as if the readers were men. The men, of course, turned the argument around, claiming that neither could they read the Psalms comfortably if the reader was assumed to be a woman.

“Initially there seemed to be no way out of this impasse. However a solution was found in the ongoing evolution of the language. There is a strong propensity for male speech and female speech to merge in favor of the latter, so the few remaining male forms are gradually dying out. Moreover, male children learn female speech from their mothers and only shift to the male speech forms when they reach adolescence to avoid sounding effeminate. However they use the female form buguya when addressing their parents throughout life. So the women wielded two arguments: First, the general development of the language favored the increasing use of the female forms. Secondly, the female forms are less strange to the men than the male forms are to the women, because the men habitually use them during early childhood and continue to use them to address their parents even in adulthood. Therefore, the female pronominal forms prevailed and were adopted throughout the book of Psalms, though the male forms remained the default forms in the rest of the translation.”

See also female first person singular pronoun in Psalms.

addressing God with informality

Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Tuvan uses a formal vs. informal 2nd person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Unlike other languages that have this feature, however, the translators of the Tuvan Bible have attempted to be very consistent in using the different forms of address in every case a 2nd person pronoun has to be used in the translation of the biblical text.

As Voinov shows in Pronominal Theology in Translating the Gospels (in: The Bible Translator 2002, p. 210ff.), the choice to use either of the pronouns many times involved theo-logical judgment. While the formal pronoun can signal personal distance or a social/power distance between the speaker and addressee, the informal pronoun can indicate familiarity or social/power equality between speaker and addressee.

In these verses, in which humans address God, the informal, familiar pronoun is used that communicates closeness.

Voinov notes that “in the Tuvan Bible, God is only addressed with the informal pronoun. No exceptions. An interesting thing about this is that I’ve heard new Tuvan believers praying with the formal form to God until they are corrected by other Christians who tell them that God is close to us so we should address him with the informal pronoun. As a result, the informal pronoun is the only one that is used in praying to God among the Tuvan church.”

In Dutch translations, however, God is always addressed with the formal pronoun.