I plight thee my troth

This, obviously, is not one word but five. But these five travel together; indeed, one seldom sees plight as a verb outside of this statement, and troth is almost never seen elsewhere. Put together, this sentence is a magical formula. In the right circumstances, the simple act of utterance of it effects a state change: said in turn by two people, it turns two single persons into two married persons. I can vouch for its effectiveness. Aina and I said it more than 12 years ago and we’re still married, and happily so.

This is, then, what linguists call a performative utterance. It requires specific conditions of felicity: an officially enfranchised and suitably conducted ritual, led by a person vested with the power to do so by the necessary bodies (in our case it was the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and consequently also the applicable civic, provincial, and national governments). When we rehearsed the lines in advance, they did not make us married any more than an actor saying this to an actress on the stage as part of a play script would. Certain notions of witches require a magic cauldron to be simmering with the various animal bits before their incantations will have effect, and even Harry Potter must wave a wand. (And Samantha in Bewitched? She had to wiggle her nose or nothing happened.) Likewise, it was only when we were in the actual official ritual that the words worked their magic.

Ritual does not require tradition to be legally effective; it just requires legislation. But in order for a ritual to have personal emotional and spiritual significance, it is very valuable for the ritual to have a rich history, one established in the mists of past time. Many ritual incantations use an old, dead language, one that cannot be debased by being the common coin of daily usage. This is not utterly necessary; for many people, I do is a sufficient spell to change their matrimonial state. But there is a solemnity in a language that is worn with the sweat and dirt of ancient times but has no smell of the modern street. Latin is one such. The language of this spell, I plight thee my troth, is another.

But it’s English! Yes, it is. So tell me: how would you use plight, thee, and troth in a sentence – other than this one? Can you give me a good paraphrase of I plight thee my troth? This sentence is English like a Georgian farthing is money. It is money, yes, but not money you can use in circulation today, nor even money that adheres to the same system used today (a farthing being a quarter of a penny, but an old penny, of which twelve made a shilling, of which twenty made a pound). But, for just that reason – and its antiquity – although you can’t use a farthing at face value, you can exchange a good old one for much more than 1/960 of a pound now. And so likewise this spell lets a person in for not just an ordinary promise but a life-changing state change.

Let us look at its parts. I will leave I and my aside; they are good modern English, descended from Old English ic and min. Thee is also a good old pronoun descended barely changed from Old English, but it is not used in Modern English except in texts that have survived from old times. And what texts are those? Generally texts associated with ritual, texts that were established long ago and have been retained. These texts, which were in contemporary – if poetic – English when they were written, have in the intervening centuries accumulated much of what may be called “beauty and mystery.” Do you know what else has been called “beauty and mystery”? The centuries of soot, grime, and failed restoration attempts that clouded the Sistine Chapel ceiling so badly it was dim and hard to perceive. Cleaning and restoration of that artwork to its original state was decried by some as a great loss. They did not want something fresh, bright, and alive; they wanted what seemed to them to have always been there, the dim hand of past ages. Likewise many people cling to the King James Bible, although it is now in archaic language. The texts it translated were not in archaic language for their time. They were in fresh, direct language. But it spoke of times when things changed, when old rituals were overturned and new rituals were established. Those new rituals of then have become our old rituals of now. Most people do not want old rituals overturned; they just want old rituals. So the dragonflies of past times are preserved in amber for present eyes to venerate.

Venerate! If you wish to venerate someone, what pronoun do you use to speak to them? Many people will say thou and thee, as they know it as the term one uses to talk to God. But thou and thee were in their time terms used to speak to one’s servants, one’s children, one’s friends; one’s elders and superiors were ye and you. Note that God was a thou. Nowadays, the wedding vow I plight thee my troth uses a friendly, familiar term – that sounds like a formal address in high-flown speech.

Now, what is plight? How have you ever used it? In the plight of the [something or other], I suspect. What is a plight? A perilous or dangerous or risky situation. A situation with a sense of fright, one that may have a person pleading. How do we seem to be using it here? To mean ‘pledge’. So is plight related to plea or pledge? Yes and no. The noun plight comes from two different sources, one an Anglo-Norman sense related to plea and referring to condition or state, the other a Germanic sense referring to risk and responsibility. The verb plight is based on the latter, and signifies putting someone or something under risk. It partakes of the [pl] not of pleasing and pleasurable but of plea, pledge, and the pleading please. It is a polite word, but it declares that the speaker is will to stand at risk.

And troth? It must be an old word; it ends in oth, like doth and Goth and reminiscent of all those eth verb endings. It has an echo of trough, but it seems not to feed on it much. You would do as well to bring in both, since in this phrase it binds two together. This phrase is an apodictic utterance: it establishes a clear, incontrovertible truth – it establishes it by creating it, much as saying “I am speaking” makes itself true. It is true that not everyone who has said I plight thee my troth has held true to their vows, but at the time of utterance it binds. So what is troth? Is it marriage? A person who is engaged is, after all, betrothed.

A person who is engaged is betrothed just because he or she has had troth plighted (the promise made in engagement, which could also use the same formula as the one made in wedding). A troth has been bestowed. But the troth is… you want the truth? It is the truth. Troth and truth are so much alike because they were once the same word. Troth is faithfulness, loyalty, honesty. Troth is not something you just trot out. It is something that is a commitment. It is something you plight.

So the magic spell could be I promise you I will be true. There’s nothing keeping it from being that other than the weight of tradition. Those who prefer to write their own wedding vows are free to use those words: I promise you I will be true. They are direct words in the language of today, and when you say them they have a direct connection to a meaning that you actually mean. They are money you can spend. Give someone a valuable old coin and it has history and beauty and a sense of timeless significance. Give someone a crisp new $100 bill and it feels like you’re giving them money. Both have their effects. You make the choice.

Aina and I were married in a Lutheran church (her home church), and so we happily went with their ritual text… after our prelude of music by Philip Glass, and after we walked up the aisle side by side to music by Vivaldi. And she did not change her name. It was a coming together of two independent beings, not an acquisition. But we like the phrase I plight thee my troth. It’s what we said. And we meant it. Even though it would have worked its magical state change even if one or both of us had fingers crossed.

Thanks to Jim Taylor for suggesting today’s theme.

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2 responses to “I plight thee my troth

  1. Your point’s well made. The Jewish Publication Society, after more than a half century of work, published, in 1985, a translation into English of the “Tanakh,” the “Old Testament.”
    I was eager to look at it, so I turned to Ecclesiastes. It begins: “Utter futility…”
    I’m afraid I’m stuck on the King James version.

  2. ‘And therefore I plight their my troth’ is the magical statement for promising to be faithful and true.

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