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.