Most modern English speakers think of "thou" as a relic of Shakespeare
Thou is the old second person singular pronoun of the English language. Thou is the nominative case; the oblique/objective (functioning as both accusative and dative) is thee, and the genitive is thy or thine.
Thou is primarily unused in modern English apart from in some of the regional dialects of England and in some religious contexts. Otherwise, its contemporary use is certainly an attempt to introduce an archaism.
Thou represents the expected outcome of Old English þú, which, with expected Germanic lengthening of the vowel in an open syllable , represents Indo-European *tu. Thou is therefore cognate with Latin, French, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian tu and modern German du. A cognate form of the pronoun exists in almost every other Indo-European language.
When thou was in common use, personal pronouns had standardized declension according to the following table.
||My / Mine1
||Thy / Thine1
||plural or formal singular
||He / She / It
||Him / Her / It
||His / Her / His (Its)2
||His / Hers / His (Its)2
1 In a deliberately archaic style, the forms with /n/ are used before words beginning with a vowel sound (thine eyes). This practice is irregularly followed in the King James Bible; it may have emerged as a later nicety.
2 In the early Middle English period, his was the genitive case of it as well as he. Later, the neologism its became common. Both can be found in the 1611 King James Bible.
Thou has a set of verb forms that should accompany it if you wish to use it without solecism. These verb forms are generally characterised by the endings -st or -est. They are used in both the present tense and the preterite forms. These are used on both strong and weak verbs.
- thou knowest
- thou knew(e)st
- thou drivest
- thou drovest
- thou makest
- thou madest
- thou lovest
- thou loved(e)st
The forms used with the irregular verb to be are thou art and thou wast; with to have, thou hast and thou hadst; with the auxiliary to do, thou dost (or thou doest, if the verb to do was not being used as an auxiliary) and thou didst; with the irregular verb shall, thou shalt; and with will, thou wilt.
Most of these verb forms are very similar or identical to German conjugations, e.g.:
| Middle English
|| Modern English
| Thou hast
|| Du hast
|| You have
| Thou goest
|| Du gehst
|| You go
| Thou dost
|| Du tust
|| You do
| Thou be'st (variant of art)
|| Du bist
|| You are
| She hath
|| Sie hat
|| She has
| What hast thou?
|| Was hast du?
|| What do you have?
| What hath she?
|| Was hat sie?
|| What does she have?
These endings are related to the Indo-European "s" and "t". (Cf. Russian знаешь, znayesh, you know; знает, znayet, he knows)
The endings in -(e)st are omitted as usual in the subjunctive and imperative moods, except that thou wert is used in the past tense of the subjunctive:
- If thou be Johan, I tell it thee, right with a good advice . . .;
- Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart . . .
- I do wish thou wert a dog, that I might love thee something . . .
Some later authors use thou be'st or thou best as a subjunctive:
If thou be'st born to strange sights . . . (John Donne);
If thou best a miller . . . thou art doubly a thief. (Sir Walter Scott)
This is not the way it was originally done in Middle English. Some later authors also use thou thinketh and similar forms with the old third person singular ending in -eth with thou. This is a mistake, and usually crops up in writing using thou in later parody.
Thee (from the Indo-European "te") corresponds with the oblique or accusative form me in the first person, and is used as a direct or indirect object. Thy and thine correspond with my and mine; that is, the first is attributive, (my/thy goods), and the second predicative (they are mine/thine).
In modern regional English dialects that use 'thou' or some variant, it generally takes the third person form of the verb. This comes from a merging of Early Modern English 2nd person singular ending'-st' and 3rd person singular ending '-th' into '-s'.
Before the Norman Conquest, thou was governed by a fairly simple rule. It did not differ in usage from ye/you; thou addressed a single person, ye more than one.
From French, English acquired the habit of addressing kings and other aristocrats in the plural. Eventually, this was generalised, as in French, to address any social superior or stranger with a plural pronoun, which was felt to be more polite. In French, it came to pass that tu was intimate, condescending, and to a stranger potentially insulting, while the plural form vous was reserved and formal. In languages that use pronouns this way, it is called the T-V distinction.
Something of this did appear in English. At the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Edward Coke, prosecuting for the Crown, reportedly sought to insult Raleigh by saying,
- I thou thee, thou traitor!
here using thou as a verb meaning "to call thou". However, the practice never took root in English the way it did in French (cf. the French verb tutoyer or German "duzen").
William Tyndale, seeking to preserve the singular and plural distinctions he found in his Hebrew and Greek originals, consistently used thou for the singular and ye for the plural regardless of the relative status of speaker and listener. 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.
William Shakespeare occasionally seems to use thou in the intimate, French style sense, but he is by no means consistent in using the word that way, and friends and lovers call each other ye or you as often as they call each other thou. In Henry IV, Shakespeare has Falstaff mix up the two forms speaking to Prince Henry, the heir apparent and Falstaff's commanding officer, in the same lines of dialogue. It might be said here that the Prince combined the roles of prince and drinking companion:
- PRINCE: Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldest truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? …
- FALSTAFF: Indeed, you come near me now, Hal … And, I prithee, sweet wag, when thou art a king, as God save thy Grace – Majesty, I should say; for grace thou wilt have none –
Thou had almost gone out of usage entirely in most English dialects by the year 1650. Its use in the Bible and in classical literature like Shakespeare gave thou an air of formality and solemnity. This usage has entirely dispelled any air of informal familiarity that might have hung around thou; it is used in solemn ritual occasions, in readings from the King James Bible, in Shakespeare, and in starchily formal literary compositions that seek to evoke the solemn emotions called forth by these antecedents. Since becoming obsolete in spoken English, it has nevertheless been used by more recent writers to address exalted beings such as God , a skylark , Achilles , and even The Mighty Thor . In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader, speaking to the Emperor, says, "What is thy bidding, master?" These recent uses of the pronoun suggest something far removed from intimate familiarity or condescension. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which first appeared in 1946, retained the pronoun thou exclusively to address God, using you in other places; the New Revised Standard Version (1989) omits thou entirely.
Quakers formerly used thee as an ordinary pronoun; the stereotype has them saying thee for both nominative and accusative cases. This was started by George Fox at the beginning of the Quaker movement as an attempt to preserve the egalitarian familiarity associated with the pronoun; it was not heard that way, and seemed instead to be an affected attempt at speaking like the King James Bible. Most Quakers have abandoned this usage. The dropping of the subjective case thou has also extended to their usage of the ye, the subjective 2nd person plural pronoun, which is a hypothesis of why "you" is missing its subjective case.
More recently, the philosopher Martin Buber has been translated into English as using the words I and Thou to describe our ideal familiar relationship with the Deity. Most languages which maintain both a formal and familiar second person pronoun address God with the familiar pronoun, since its usage derives from olden times when the distinction between the pronouns was in number only, not in degree of familiarity. Because in current English usage, thou is perceived as more reserved and formal than you, the translation does not convey the intended meaning well.
Thou also appears in the song America the Beautiful by Katharine Lee Bates.
In Modern English in some parts of northern England, "tha" is still used as a familiar pronoun in everyday speech.
After the 2nd person singular forms "thou, thee, thy/thine" passed out of use, "you", previously a 2nd person plural pronoun, became the accepted standard for both the singular and plural forms. However, it eventually became evident that there was still a need for distinction between the two forms. This failing has caused different regions of the US to create their own form of 2nd person plural by morphological analogy. In the southern states, y'all is a widely accepted, though slang, form of 2nd person plural. In the middle region, you'uns or y'uns is sometimes used. In the north, yous or youse (i.e. youse guys) is sometimes used. You guys is widespread throughout English-speaking North America as a means of indicating the plural (this term is used to address both men and women). However, these grammatical expressions are considered slang and are not accepted for formal speaking or writing. The table below shows standardized 2nd person pronouns of today, with regional slang usage shown in brackets.
||Your / Yours
||You [Y'all, Yous, You lot]
||You [Y'all, Yous, You lot]
||Your / Yours [Y'alls, Youses, You lot's]
Personal Pronouns in Present-Day English by Katie Wales (Author) ISBN 0521471028
- Burrow, J. A., Turville Petrie, Thorlac. A Book of Middle English. ISBN 0631193537
- Daniel, David. The Bible in English: Its History and Influence. ISBN 0300099304.
- Smith, Jeremy. A Historical Study of English: Form, Function, and Change. ISBN 041513272X
Last updated: 06-01-2005 19:41:43