What’s up with thou?

Er, or would it be, ‘What’s up with thee?’… ‘What’s up with ye?’

What’s up with English’s history of second-person pronouns, more specifically.

That’s our topic of exploration today. Doing so uncovers more than the answers to frivolous questions of anachronistic grammar – the history and contemporary status of these pronouns illuminates one of the most profound effects of a language’s continuing evolution.

So where did things start? The words we would recognize as second-person pronouns, like ‘you,’ ‘thou,’ and ‘ye’ came into usage in the Middle English period of our language’s development, which is usually denoted as the 11th through 15th centuries. In this period, ‘thou,’ ‘thee,’ and ‘thy’ were simply always used as the singular, and ‘ye,’ ‘you,’ and ‘your’ were plural. So, we’d have sentences like below:

Middle English (~11th – 15th centuries)
(to one person)
“Thou art awesome.”
“I love thee.”
“I love thy family.”
(to two or more people)
“Ye all are awesome.”
“I love you all.”
“I love your families.”

Before this, in Old English, the words were all basically the same – just written and pronounced differently. What became ‘thou’ started as ‘þu,’ and would have been pronounced ‘thoo.’ Yes, that ‘þ’ used to be an English letter for the ‘th’ sound. That letter was called ‘thorn,’ which is possibly the coolest name for a letter the English language has ever had.

A fundamental shift occurred as Middle English evolved into what we know as Early Modern English, which is the language’s history in the 16th and 17th centuries, more or less. In this period, the ‘ye,’ ‘you,’ and ‘your’ branch was, as before, always used in plural situations; now, however, it was also being used in singular situations, when the person speaking wanted to show respect or formality. The ‘thee,’ ‘thou,’ ‘thy’ branch was still only used in singular situations, but now also only when the speaker wanted to show informality or intentional disrespect. So, you might call a friend ‘thee’ to show closeness between friends, but if you called an elder or Parliament member ‘thee,’ it implied disrespect. So in this period, we’d have sentences like below:

Early Modern English (~16th and 17th centuries)
(to one person, informally)
“Thou art awesome.”
“I love thee.”
“I love thy family.”
(to one person, formally and respectfully)
“Ye are awesome.”
“I love you.”
“I love your family.”
(to more than one person)
“Ye all are awesome.”
“I love you all.”
“I love your families.”

What could have caused that shift?

As with most linguistic shifts, no one can say with certainty, but most theories suggest that, as England developed with a French nobility and crown (note our of the Norman conquest of 1066 that established a French native as ruler of England), English speakers tried to ‘be more French’ by introducing a distinction of respect in address. The French language also has two different second-person singular pronouns, ‘tu’ and ‘vous,’ to be used either informally or formally, respectively. The idea, then, is that English speakers began to use the plural forms (‘ye,’ ‘you,’ and ‘your’) when speaking to a single person, to denote respect. ‘Thou’ and its brothers held on as the informal and familiar branch.

In Modern English, ‘you’ and ‘yours’ have taken over completely. The reasons for this are, again, murky. It seems likely, however, that with an increasing philosophy of equality and respect accorded to the ‘common’ man, the use of a formal and familiar distinction would wane. That ‘you’ should take over for ‘ye’ as well (that is, today we say “You are awesome,” not “Ye are awesome”) is less thematically defined, but does not have a large impact. The grammatical importance of distinguishing between subject and object pronouns is largely nullified when a language places rigid meaning on word order. That is, if we say “I miss him,” it’s clear, by position, who is missing whom. If we were to ‘incorrectly’ say that as, “Me miss he,” we still tend to interpret the same meaning, because in English we place primary importance on word order. In other languages, word order is less meaningful. In Latin, for instance, word order is almost entirely an aesthetic choice, with almost no grammatical prescription.

So there’s the history: interesting, but what effects does it have today, beyond losing the linguistic flair afforded by an informal-formal pronoun distinction? The answer lies in our modern perception of ‘thou,’ ‘thee,’ and ‘thy,’ and the limited context in which such words are still used.

Ask yourself: where do you know those words from? What texts, written in the history of our language, inform your conceptions of those words?

The answer for the vast majority of the English speaking world is: Shakespeare, and the King James Version of the Bible.

Shakespeare’s work and the KJV Bible are the two sources that regularly use ‘thou’ derivatives, and are still read regularly today. So, what connotations does that have us, as a general English-speaking whole, assign to ‘thou’ and its kin? Well, from Shakespeare, as a population we tend to connote: old, fancy, complex, difficult-to-understand, intellectual, high-brow. From the Bible, we tend to connote: sacred, fancy, special, complex, removed-from-normal-life, grand-idea, ancient. These leave us thinking of ‘thou,’ ‘thee,’ and ‘thy:’ they mean important, fancy, intellectual, grand, old, and complex.

Now, the huge shift comes in the fact that both all of Shakespeare’s works and the KJV Bible were written during the Early Modern English period. This is when ‘thee’ connoted informality, familiarity, closeness-to-oneself – which is almost the opposite to the connotations we ascribe it today.

In our experience of Shakespeare, the effect isn’t overly drastic, beyond making us feel like a great many wonderful texts are more alien or high-brow or ‘above us’ than they need to be. Remember, Shakespeare was a popular playwright among the masses – not just the elite. Were we not hindered by a linguistic distancing, more of us would readily appreciate how relatable, jovial, and fun Shakespeare can be. And even the intellectual, high-brow side of Shakespeare would become much more accessible.

The effect on our experience of the KJV Bible, however, is rather monumental.

In the KJV Bible, ‘thou’ and its derivatives are used when people are addressing God. The authors of the KJV Bible intentionally used this pronoun form in a time when ‘thou’ connoted familiarity and ‘ye’ connoted formality and respect. The use of ‘thou’ in the KJV Bible was meant to emphasize the immanence of God, the closeness and connection that each individual person has with God, the intimacy and familiar love that they considered to be the essence of any person’s relationship with God. God in the KJV Bible is addressed how one would address a close friend, an intimate relation – not how one would address a distanced, formal superior, like a King or nobleman.

How many of us instinctively read such a context in such lines as the following from Psalms?

I will praise thee, O LORD, with my whole heart; I will shew forth all thy marvellous works.
I will be glad and rejoice in thee: I will sing praise to thy name, O thou most High.

On first reading, we tend to interpret here an utter deference to a superior, the sort of tone that a countryman might have before a royal throne. And yet the grammar used implies a closeness, a familiarity, an intimacy and informality existing between the speaker and his Lord.

The King James Version of the Bible has remained the most popularly used English translation of the Bible since it was first printed in 1611. How much impact might this simple, seemingly insignificant grammatical shift have had on the development of Christianity in the last 400 years?

And where else might simple, seemingly insignificant assumptions and unrealized connotations lead to a profound misinterpretation of meaning?

Daniel Klayton

Author Daniel Klayton is a poet and writer – as well as a lifelong student of philosophy, and a man of peace. Learn more about Daniel at his artist page !

And if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out his latest collection of poetry, Elemental Sonnets .

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