This is my response to friend Don's "The Dearth of Souls," posted earlier today on this blog site.
There is indeed an increasing dearth of souls, lexically if not metaphysically: the frequency of this word in its plural form is about a third of what it was 150 years ago and in its singular form less than a fourth. It looked like the word was heading for extinction, with ever decreasing use through the 1960’s. But there has been a slight increase since then thanks to expressions such as soul music, soul food, and soul mates. In this revival, soul is used as a modifier of another noun, a structure that was very rare before the 1960’s. Its use in such expressions seems to be in keeping with your preference to “use the soul…as a style and not a content.”
The contemporary dearth of soul is not only in secular literature. In the King James Bible, completed in 1611, soul occurs 132 times in the book of Psalms. This is reduced to 74 occurrences in the mid-20th century, scholarly revision that “preserves those qualities which have given to the King James Version (KJV) a supreme place in English literature." Later translations, concerned with using contemporary English more than echoing the KJV, reduced or eliminated the use of soul in the Psalms: 12 occurrences in the Living Bible and Good News Translation, 9 in the Holman translation, and only one in the Common English Bible (Psalm 42) and Contemporary English Version (Psalm 143). I never use it in my translation Praise.
Ms. Jayde(-d?) might cite all this in support of her claim that “there aren’t any souls in the world anymore”—or at least soon won’t be—that the souls of modern speech are fading echoes of ancient creeds.
What replaces the biblical soul? In the more modern translations, it is usually a pronoun: “my soul is sore vexed” becomes “I am in deep distress.” To the modern ear, my soul may sound like my cow, something to be—as you put it—lost, sold or “taken care of in some barn away from one’s house.” The I is better in this respect. It cannot be possessed grammatically: no my I or her she. I or she is less “ethereal” than Mr. J’s spirit, in that it is a pointing word (a deictic). When we use I and you, we are always pointing at someone with a “curl or lobe of ear” who “can be touched with one’s fingertips.” Or, as the conservative New International Version indicates, someone with a neck:
KJV: Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul. (Psalm 69)
NIV: Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
KJV: [Joseph’s] feet they hurt with fetters: he was laid in iron. (Psalm 105)
NIV: They bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons.
The words in bold are translating the Hebrew “possessive pronoun + nefesh”. As indicated in the lines from Psalm 105, even the KJV translators realized they had to render this expression more concretely in certain contexts: “his soul was laid in iron” would be pushing too far its preference for spiritualizing the psalmists’ texts. And some of that venerable KJV group must have grimaced at the philosophical if not poetic awkwardness of “water com[ing] in unto my soul”—of concrete, tangible material coming in to abstract, intangible essence.
Nefesh is used in biblical texts to refer to the part of the body which connects the mouth to the lungs and stomach. The focus might be on the outside of this structure, as in the above verses, or on the inside—the throat. The nefesh expands to swallow while eating with great appetite (Isaiah 5), feels thirst (Psalm 107) and can be clogged up by dust (Psalm 44). The throat as passageway of air gives the extended sense of nefesh as the action of breathing or breath: the prophet Elijah prayed that the nefesh return to a widow’s deceased son—that his breath return. The Deuteronomist used the expression “heart and throat” to refer to complete commitment: “You are to love your divinity YHWH with all your heart and all your throat”; that is, every thought (the heart being the organ of intellect) and every breath should support your commitment to YHWH. In the creation accounts, animals and humans were distinguished from plants by their life-enabling breath.
Nefesh is often used as a synecdoche, a part representing the whole. “All the nefeshes—all the breathing throats—in one’s household” refers to all those who have breathing throats—all the members, all the people. But the KJV, followed by many modern versions reversed the direction of the synecdoche. Rather than having a part stand for the whole, they have translated references to the whole (a person, humans) by referring to a part and transformed ancient Hebrew texts into platonic ones by referring to that part as a soul.
I still think of myself as having a soul, understanding it in terms of a wide—and perhaps confusing—array of philosophical and religious texts and Christian hymns. But I agree that it is helpful to think of it as “under the stove”—the warm breath supporting the thinking brain and feeling guts.
Observations about the frequency of soul are based on analysis of Brigham Young’s Corpus of American Historical English and Corpus of Contemporary American English.
Another trend suggested by these databases is to use soul to refer to negative or inessential, finite aspects of character. Human soul occurred five times more frequently in the 2nd half of the 1800’s as it did in the last two decades, good soul and noble soul ten times more, inmost soul over one hundred times more. In [Adjective + soul] expressions that do occur more frequently now than in earlier decades, the adjective tends to have a negative reference: e.g. lost, damned, and unfortunate modify soul more often now than they did decades ago. American too might be grouped with these modifiers since it tends to modify soul in negative contexts: for example, “dark corners of the American soul,” the haunted American soul,” and quotes of D. H. Lawrence’s ”The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”
Trails we follow,