Where Art Thou?

by Translation Guy on July 21, 2010
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My recent post on the Russian language got me thinking about the familiar vs. the formal as used in Russian and most languages in Europe―except for English, which is now strictly formal. We ditched the familiar pronouns of thee and thou long ago.  Here’s a list with guide to usage.

When the familiar and formal levels of speech are used in other languages, contemporary English speakers just don’t get the joke. So the recent stir in the Russian press over the tone Putin takes with Medvedev just doesn’t translate for us.

Three hundred years ago, Englishmen used “thee” and “thou” when making familiar with friends and family, but whenever the use of “thou” might have risked offense, “you” was the safe pronoun.  Eventually “thee” and “thou” seemed so 14th Century that everyone started to avoid them.  It’s like if the French had all decided to always use “vous” instead of “tu” with their intimates.

Lexical drift was changing the level of familiarity required for “thou” to be used appropriately. “Thou” became increasingly informal, and less common, because it was often “safer” to stick to an unloaded formal “you.” As “you” became the only choice pronoun, “thou” drifted to become unfit even to address a dog.

If Shakespeare’s dialogues are any guide, back in the day, thee and thou and you and ye were used interchangeably in the same conversation, and were a comic source the Bard milked endlessly. But for modern ears, it’s hard to pick out the wit from give and take of normal Elizabethan conversation. We’ve lost our ear for it.

But even as these informal pronouns slipped out of usage back in Shakespeare’s time, their growing archaic character attracted others.

Plain and simple was the watch word for the Quakers’ religious movement in 17th Century England. Founder George Fox revived the familiar old forms of thee and thou as “plain speaking,” despite (or perhaps because) they had fallen out of common usage.  It was his attempt to preserve the egalitarian familiarity associated with these formerly intimate pronouns. They were still used by the Society of Friends up until quite recently.

In Fox’s time, just as in the present, most people got all their thees and thous from the Bible. That’s because two hundred years before, William Tyndale, the first English translator of the Bible, wanted to preserve the singular and plural distinctions that he found in his Hebrew and Greek originals. He consistently used thou for the singular and ye for the plural, regardless of the relationship between the speaker and the addressee.

“By doing so, he probably saved thou from utter obscurity and gave it an air of solemnity that sharply distinguished it from its French counterpart. Tyndale’s usage was imitated in the King James Bible, and remained familiar because of that translation.”

It’s interesting how archaic language forms have a way of getting preserved in religious amber. But this goes beyond preservation, since these old pronouns got a makeover as well, and now sound very grand compared to the way they were originally used. With their new and improved meanings, these old terms have nothing to do with the old forms of English interaction.

That is lost to us, as is the plural you. Some dialects have created new words to make up for the plural deficiency of “you” in the standard language. “You-all” will do Down South, and “Youz want some Cheesesteaks?” is a common expression down South Philly.

I close with Dan Le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip’s “Thou Shalt Always Kill” to demonstrate how “thou” is used today.

0 Comments

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  2. I believe that “thou” and “thee” are perfectly plausible and usable in everyday conversation, and can be used when speaking to whomever – -whenever. They are also most definitely NOT used just in sentences where a “shall” or “shall not” follows.

  3. Janene says:

    Thou and thee was the singular form and you and ye was the plural. In common with many European languages, the singular was used for God, family, children and dogs and the plural was considered the polite form to use for strangers and those in (earthly) authority.
    The thou form gradually passed out of use between the 17th and 19th centuries. Printing speeded its demise because the thorn letter used to denote th was replaced by a y. Thou lives on in the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. It has just about died out even in regional speech. In Yorkshire, it now only tends to be used in figures of speech.

  4. Right, Quaker people often still use “thee” and “thy” (although very rarely “thou”) when speaking to another person of their same religion.
    Otherwise, those forms had become largely obsolete by the 18th century.

  5. Jose Flores says:

    Well I know the 1610 translation of the Bible uses it as well as–ye.I am inclined to think the pronouns are much like formal and informal as in many other languages. Spanish-tú and usted. German-du and Sie,Dutch-U and jij, French,tu and vous. In English we now use the informal-you for everyone.When I was younger in church the older formal pronoun was used in prayers and it still is in some churches.

  6. The cut off point between “you” and “thou” varies from language to language, and from one social class to another. In 18th century English the growth of social pretentiousness (which by the 1860s would even substitute initials for the implied intimacy of first names) was allied to the fear of being mistaken for a Quaker to push “thou” further and further down the social scale. By 1800 Miss Austen’s circle had dropped it entirely among themselves, except when reading or writing poetry, but it was still common among their servants, especially those of the elder generation (see, e.g. Samuel Butler’s “Way of All Flesh”). And it persisted outside South East England. Evacuated in 1944 to the large provincial city of Stoke on Trent, my ritual beating up on my first day at my new school was preceded by the announcement “I’ll fight thee” in the second personal singular of contempt. Unwanted linguistic familiarity is still rebuked in parts of Yorkshire with “Don’t thou thou me. Thou, thou them as thous thee.” Outside England the second singular survived longest in the Western Caribbean English of the islands of Providence and Saint Andrew, ceded by the 1781 Treaty of Paris to what is now Colombia.

  7. The Reformation complicated things in English by the liturgical language of the mid-15th century Prayer Book, and the decision of the 1611 Bible translators to use an archaic English based largely on Tyndale’s translation of 1525. This not only preserved the obsolete nominative (subject form) “ye” in the second person plural (which came to be so beloved of Victorian hymn writers) but persisted with the second singular when the congregation addressed the priest (“and with thy spirit”) but even, out of an almost preposterous regard for the literal meaning of the original Hebrew, had their Old Testament kings addressed as “thou.” Then the Quakers, formed in the 1650s, decided that “you” to a single soul was both a sort of lie, but also contrary to their doctrine of universal equality before God.

    • Ken says:

      Patricia, what makes “you” a sort of lie to a single soul? Is that question a Quaker koan?

      Very interesting comments from everyone. Thanks.

      “Don’t thou thou me. Thou, thou them as thous thee!” Now, that’s ye olde fighting words…. I hope you gave as good as you got, Armando…

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