The word thou (in most dialects) is a second person singular pronoun in English. It is now largely archaic, having been replaced in almost all contexts by you. Thou is the nominative form; the oblique/objective form is thee (functioning as both accusative and dative), and the possessive is thy or thine. Almost all verbs following thou have the endings -st or -est; e.g., "thou goest". In Middle English, thou was sometimes abbreviated by putting a small "u" over the letter thorn: .
Originally, thou was simply the singular counterpart to the plural pronoun ye, derived from an ancient Indo-European root. Following a process found in other Indo-European languages, thou was later used to express intimacy, familiarity, or even disrespect while another pronoun, you, the oblique/objective form of ye, was used for formal circumstances (see T-V distinction). In the 17th century, thou fell into disuse in the standard language but persisted, sometimes in altered form, in regional dialects of England and Scotland., as well as in the language of such religious groups as the Society of Friends. In standard modern English, thou continues to be used only in formal religious contexts, in literature that seeks to reproduce archaic language, and in certain fixed phrases such as "holier-than-thou" and "fare thee well". For this reason, many associate the pronoun with solemnity or formality, connotations at odds with the word's history. Many dialects have compensated for the lack of a singular/plural distinction caused by the disappearance of thou through the creation of new plural pronouns or pronominal constructions, such as y'all, yinz, youse, you lot, and you guys. These vary regionally and are usually restricted to colloquial speech.
Typical examples of the standard present and past tense forms follow. The e in the ending is optional; early English spelling had not yet been standardized. In verse, the choice about whether to use the e often depended upon considerations of meter.
A few verbs have irregular thou forms:
In Old English, the second-person singular verb inflection was -es. This came down unchanged from Indo-European and can be seen in quite distantly related Indo-European languages: Russian знаешь, znayesh, thou knowest; Latin amas, thou lovest. (This is parallel to the history of the third-person form, in Old English -eþ, Russian, знает, znayet, he knoweth, Latin amat he loveth.) The anomalous development from -es to modern English -est, which took place separately at around the same time in the closely related German and Frisian languages, is understood to be caused by an assimilation of the consonant of the pronoun, which often followed the verb. This is most readily observed in German: liebes du > liebstu > liebst du (thou lovest). The three languages belong to the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European languages, of which Frisian is the closest to English.
|Thou hast|| Do hast || Du hast || You have |
|She hath|| Sy hat || Sie hat || She has |
|What hast thou?|| Wat hasto? || Was hast du? || What do you have? |
|What hath she?|| Wat hat sy? || Was hat sie? || What does she have? |
|Thou goest|| Do giest || Du gehst || You go |
|Thou dost|| Do dochst || Du tust || You do |
|Thou be'st (variant of art)|| Do bist || Du bist || You are |
In the subjunctive and imperative moods, the ending in -(e)st is dropped, although it is generally retained in thou wert, the second-person singular past subjunctive of the verb "to be". The subjunctive forms are used when a statement is doubtful or contrary to fact; as such, they frequently occur after "if" and the poetic "and".
In modern regional English dialects that use thou or some variant, it often takes the third person form of the verb -s. This comes from a merging of Early Modern English second person singular ending -st and third person singular ending -s into -s.
In Old English, thou was governed by a fairly simple rule: thou addressed one person, and ye more than one. After the Norman Conquest, which marks the beginning of the French vocabulary influence that characterized the Middle English period, thou was gradually replaced by the plural ye as the form of address for a superior person and later for an equal. For a long time, however, thou remained the most common form for addressing an inferior person.
The practice of matching singular and plural forms with informal and formal connotations is called the T-V distinction, and in English is largely due to the influence of French. This began with the practice of addressing kings and other aristocrats in the plural. Eventually, this was generalized, as in French, to address any social superior or stranger with a plural pronoun, which was felt to be more polite. In French, tu was eventually considered either intimate or condescending (and, to a stranger, potentially insulting), while the plural form vous was reserved and formal.
In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson, in A Grammar of the English Tongue, wrote: "...in the language of ceremony... the second person plural is used for the second person singular...", implying that the second person singular was still in everyday use. By contrast, The Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage says that for most speakers of southern British English, thou had fallen out of everyday use, even in familiar speech, by sometime around 1650. Thou persisted in a number of religious, literary, and regional contexts, and those pockets of continued use of the pronoun tended to undermine the T-V distinction.
One notable consequence of the decline in use of the second person singular pronouns thou, thy, and thee is the obfuscation of certain sociocultural elements of Early Modern English texts, such as many character interactions in Shakespeare's plays. In Richard III, for instance, the conversation between the Duke of Clarence and the two murderers takes on a very different tone if it is read in light of the social connotations of the pronouns used by the characters.
here using thou as a verb meaning "to call thou". Although the practice never took root in Standard English, it occurs in dialectal speech in the north of England. A formerly common refrain in Yorkshire, which admonished overly familiar children, declared:
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which is still an authorized form of worship in the Church of England, retains the 17th-century language and uses the word thou to refer to the singular second person. The Book of Common Prayer is treasured among worshippers because of the beauty of its language, which is considered one of the greatest works in English.
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, who called it "plain speaking". Most Quakers have abandoned this usage. At its beginning, the Quaker movement was particularly strong in the northwestern areas of England, and particularly in the north Midlands area. The preservation of thee in Quaker speech may relate to this history. Modern Quakers who choose to use this manner of "plain speaking" often use the "thee" form without any corresponding change in verb form, for example, is thee or were thee.
In the English translations of the holy writings of the Bahá'í Faith, the terms thou and thee are also used. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the the Bahá'í Faith, adopted a style that was somewhat removed from everyday discourse when translating the texts from their original Arabic or Persian to capture some of the poetic and metaphorical nature of the text in the original languages and to convey the idea that the text was to be considered holy.
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. This was done to preserve the tone, at once intimate and reverent, that would be familiar to those who knew the King James Version and read the Psalms and similar text in devotional use. The New American Standard Bible (1971) made the same decision, but the revision of 1995 (New American Standard Bible, Updated edition) reversed it. The New Revised Standard Version (1989) omits thou entirely, and claims that it is incongruous and contrary to the original intent of the use of thou in Bible translation to adopt a distinctive pronoun to address the Deity. When referring to God, "thou" is often capitalized for clarity and reverence. While Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic (the languages of the Bible) do not have a special orthography (such as capitalization) for indicating that the Deity is being referred to, their grammars are more successful than English in making noun/pronoun agreement unambiguous.
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 (the Dutch language is an exception here), since its usage derives from older times when the distinction between the pronouns was in number only, not in degree of familiarity. Because in current English usage thou is perceived, however wrongly, as more reserved and formal than you, the translation does not convey the intended meaning well - a closer, colloquial translation of the idea would be Us or You and me, or in Australian English, "Mates".
Most modern writers have no experience using thou in daily speech; they are therefore vulnerable to confusion of the traditional verb forms. The most common mistake in artificially archaic modern writing is the use of the old third person singular ending -eth with thou, for example thou thinketh. The converse—the use of the second person singular ending -est for the third person—also occurs ("So sayest Thor!"—spoken by Thor). This usage often shows up in modern parody and pastiche in an attempt to make speech appear either archaic or formal. The latter is ironic as thou was historically informal, you being the formal form. The forms thou and thee are often transposed (as in Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose).
In the fictional teenage ideolect nadsat, invented for Anthony Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange (and the film adaptation), Alex and his droogs regularly use "thou", which fits in with their semi-Edwardian clothing. For example, when fighting a rival gang, Alex addresses them thus (note the mixing of "you" and "thou" for the second person):
Some translators render the T-V distinction in English with "thou" and "you", particularly in places where you appears in the place of expected thou, or vice versa. This practice has largely fallen out of use. Ernest Hemingway, in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, uses the forms "thou" and "you" in order to reflect the relationships between his Spanish-speaking characters.
Thou is often falsely interpreted as having been formal; its use today can give an impression of stiltedness. In reading passages with thou and thee, many modern readers stress the pronouns and the verb endings. Traditionally, however, the e in -est ought to be unstressed, and thou and thee should be no more stressed than you.
|2nd Person||singular||tha||thee||thy (tha)||yours / your'n|
The apparent incongruity between the archaic nominative, objective and genitive forms of this pronoun on the one hand and the modern possessive form on the other may be a signal that the linguistic drift of Yorkshire dialect is causing tha to fall into disuse; however, a measure of local pride in the dialect may be counteracting this.
Some other variants are specific to certain areas. In Sheffield, the pronunciation of the word was somewhere in between a /d/ and a /th/ sound, with the tongue at the bottom of the mouth; this led to the nickname of the "dee-dahs" for Sheffield folk. In Lancashire and West Yorkshire, ta was used as an unstressed shortening of thou, which can be found in the song On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at. These variants are no longer in use.
The use of the word "thee" in the hit song I Predict a Riot by Leeds band Kaiser Chiefs ("Watching the people get lairy / is not very pretty, I tell thee") caused some comment by people who were unaware that the word is still in use in the Yorkshire dialect.
Follow! But! follow only if ye be men of valor, for the entrance to this cave is guarded by a creature so foul, so cruel that no man yet has fought with it and lived! Bones of four fifty men lie strewn about its lair. So, brave knights, if you do doubt your courage or your strength, come no further, for death awaits you all with nasty big pointy teeth.|
These lines present an interesting mixture of old and new styles. To establish the antiquity of the scene, the actor (John Cleese) uses the ancient form ("if ye be men of valor"), then, having accomplished this with one ye, he switches back to the modern forms, saying "if you do doubt your courage" and "death awaits you all"). The lack of a modern distinction between singular and plural you created a need for you all to make it clear that the actor is addressing the entire company of knights.
The case is similar in Scotland (and North East England), where youse (and most often written with that spelling) is used in informal speech in some southern Scottish and northern English dialects.
In much of provincial Ireland ye or yez is used as the nominative and accusative plural with yeer as the possessive. In Dublin, youse and yiz are used in the nominative and accusative plural, with yer or yizzer as the possessive.
|2nd Person||singular||You||You||Your / Yours|
|''plural||You [Y'all, Yenz, Yous, Yinz, You guys, Yous guys]||You [Y'all, Yunz, Yous, Yinz, You guys]||Your / Yours [Y'all's, Yunz', Yous's, Yinz's, You guys's, Yous guys's, Your guys's]|