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I'm translating a text from Sanskrit, which has a singular/plural (and, actually, dual) distinction in the second person. It has long been the custom in English translation to render the 2nd singular with 'thou', etc. and the 2nd plural with 'ye/you', etc., as in Early Modern English (EModE). This creates a suitably archaic and liturgical feel to the translation.

But I've come unstuck with the phrase 'may you be covered'. If I want to replace 'you' with 'thou', should 'may' become 'mayest' or not?

My feeling is that 'may' is functioning as an auxiliary here. In Modern English, we say 'he likes it', but 'may he like it'. We do not say 'mays he like it', the 'may' is not a finite verb. So I would expect the same to apply to EModE.

However, we would also apply the same logic to 'should'. We would say 'Has he eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded him that he should not eat?', not '... that he shoulds not eat?'. And so I would have expected, applying that logic, to find '... that thou should not eat?'. And yet we have in Genesis:

And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

(Genesis 3:11)

Which leads me to question whether the may would be finite and agree with thou, or not. Should it be 'mayest thou be covered' or 'may thou be covered', and why? This, to be clear, is in the sense of an imperative: 'Be covered!' - only softer.

  • I'm no expert but I would say that it ought to be mayest and shouldest, if you are speaking Early Modern English. – WS2 May 6 '16 at 9:08
  • Be covered = cover yourself? – TRomano May 6 '16 at 11:36
  • @TimRomano Be covered doesn't seem to equal cover yourself here, going by the form of the verb and the rest of the sentence. The commentary to the text also suggests it's somebody else doing the covering, although another exegetical text does say 'cover yourself'. I think the sense really is best expressed by 'may you be covered', although I may be wrong in my translation. But I wanted to make clear that 'may', here, is in the sense of 'may you live in interesting times' and not of 'may I go?' or 'you may go' – Au101 May 6 '16 at 17:16
  • You could say mayest thou be .... – TRomano May 6 '16 at 19:48
  • @TimRomano You could, but it changes the meaning because it's no longer in the subjunctive mood. "Mayest thou" would in fact never be said, because it means the same as "thou mayest"; "may thou" is not the same form at all. – Andrew Leach May 6 '16 at 21:58
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Generally, you would use mayest with thou. Modal verbs (mayest, might, wilt, wouldst, canst, couldst, shalt, shouldst) were conjugated only in 2nd person singular.

The question is whether you still use mayest if the sentence is in the subjunctive mood, or whether you use the bare infinitive may. With main verbs, the subjunctive mood used the bare infinitive, even in 2nd person singular. Did modal verbs obey the same rules?

The evidence from Shakespeare (one of the two standard exemplars of Early Modern English) is that they did not. Even in constructions we would expect to be in the subjunctive mood, modal verbs are still conjugated by adding an -est. Shakespeare used mayst thou 16 times, and never once used may thou. And the following are clearly wishes:

O Imogen, safe mayst thou wander, safe return again!

In dreadful war mayst thou be overcome,
Or live in peace abandon'd and despised!

long mayst thou live
To bear his image and renew his glories!

Hermia, sleep thou there:
And never mayst thou come Lysander near!

Of all say'd yet, mayst thou prove prosperous!
Of all say'd yet, I wish thee happiness!

Ill mayst thou thrive, if thou grant any grace!

Long mayst thou live to wail thy children's loss;

Long mayst thou live in Richard's seat to sit,
And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!

The last of these examples pairs "mayst thou live" with the subjunctive "soon lie Richard" (not "lies"), so we see that "mayst" was used here in parallel with the subjunctive mood for a non-modal verb.

Your quote from Genesis uses thou shouldest in a context that should be in the subjunctive and Tim Romano has found mayest thou for a wish, that would normally be in the subjunctive mood. My conclusion is that in Middle English, for auxiliary verbs, the conjugation was still "thou mayest", "thou shouldest" and so forth, even in the subjunctive. As more support for this conclusion, Shakespeare wrote

How dearly would it touch me to the quick,
Shouldst thou but hear I were licentious
And that this body, consecrate to thee,
By ruffian lust should be contaminate!

and clauses starting should always have a counterfactual meaning, something which normally triggers the subjunctive mood.

So use mayest thou.

One more thing—today hardly anybody understands the details of Middle English grammar, so hardly any of your readers will even notice if you use the wrong verb form.

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Even in Early Modern English, the subjunctive uses the infinitive form of the verb.

One example (which is a recent construction, but in EModE) is:

We proclaim thy death, O Lord, and profess thy resurrection,
until thou come again.

Divine Worship Missal; see no. 23 of this analysis

The example shouldest does not form the subjunctive mood; it's indicative.

Thus, where may is expressing a wish, it is indeed May thou.

  • I have no idea why in the example shouldest isn't in the subjunctive. It would be in modern American English. (e.g., "Has he eaten from the tree, from which I commanded that he not eat.") – Peter Shor May 6 '16 at 16:16
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    Correction to my previous comment, shouldst is in the subjunctive in that example. In Early Modern English, the 2nd person subjunctive of modal verbs was thou mayst, thou shouldst, and so on. For example, from Shakespeare: "In dreadful war mayst thou be overcome, Or live in peace abandon'd and despised!" Shakespeare never used "may thou". – Peter Shor May 7 '16 at 13:06
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    I think this is a good answer and I think we must remember that EModE was not very standardised then, nor do I believe "EModE" is that well-defined now (as in, different people may include different things under that label). So the answer is probably both "may" and "mayest" were used, but I gave @PeterShor the green tick, because I thought he did a good job of the why – Au101 May 7 '16 at 20:14
  • I was debating whether to suggest that EModE should actually be subdivided itself, into Early EModE and Late EModE (or maybe "Transitional" or something) because English was certainly evolving during the period. It's entirely possible that Shakespeare was at the cutting edge of language development (standardising on Mayest) and the Church was conservatively preserving the distinction. – Andrew Leach May 7 '16 at 20:18
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OP wants to know "In EModE should 'may' become 'mayest' when expressing a wish? ... If I want to replace 'you' with 'thou', should 'may' become 'mayest' or not?"

Yes, may would become mayest with thou.

Mayest thou be ...

Consider this example from 1628.

Mayest thou perish unpittied, for making of the Virgin Graces, Harlots.

May you perish unpitied for making harlots of the Virgin Graces.

  • This is interesting. I find in the 18th century several books containing an explanation of the Lord's Prayer: *Thy Kingdom come: Mayest Thou rule and reign in all the affections of our hearts, and over all the actions of our lives ; swaying Thy Sceptre of Righteousness ... *. But the original from 1673 says May thou. – Peter Shor May 7 '16 at 11:55
  • The "original"? – TRomano May 7 '16 at 11:56
  • I assume it's the original. The 1673 book has Richard Sherlock as the author, and the 1843 book has Richard Sherlock listed as a co-author. – Peter Shor May 7 '16 at 11:59
  • Why the downvote? Despite the quibble in my comment, I think this answer is absolutely correct. – Peter Shor May 7 '16 at 12:56
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    Another example of mayst in a wish: From Shakespeare: "In dreadful war mayst thou be overcome, Or live in peace abandon'd and despised!" – Peter Shor May 7 '16 at 13:07

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