Thee & Thou
The English language is just too polite.
Too polite for thee, anyhow. And thou art left by the wayside too.
Not so long ago—just a few hundred years—thou and its cousins thee and thy were the words to use when addressing one person, while you and ye and your were reserved for more than one. (Thou and ye, like he and she, were used as sentence subjects; thee andyou, like him and her, were the objects of verbs and prepositions.) Indeed, the English language more than a thousand years ago had not only singular and plural pronouns, but optional dual as well: wit for “we two,” and yit for “you two.”
But later in the Middle Ages, after the Norman Conquest of 1066, politeness happened. It became the custom, not only in English but in most European languages, to show respect by addressing someone as you, even if the person was singular. Perhaps it was the inverse of the royal we, used by a ruler in public utterances as if to speak on behalf of God or of all his or her subjects. The subjects would show respect by responding to the plural we with the plural you.
The subtleties of choosing between thou and you could make for great literature. You could write a whole article about the uses of thou and you in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example—as in fact I once did.
But because you was a sign of respect, thou by contrast became a sign of disrespect, at least in public. You would use it in public only to someone you treated as an inferior, such as a servant.
For private intimate moments, addressing God, or a lover, thou remained the norm until modern times. But gradually politeness spread so widely among speakers of English thatyou entirely displaced thou.
Both God and lovers continued to play significant roles in many English speakers’ lives, so even as thou disappeared everywhere else, it lingered in prayers, liturgy, and literature. Hard to imagine Keats using you in his ode:
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Or Tennyson, in his “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” addressing God:
Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.
But by the 20th century, even poets and Bible translators had switched to you.
Even with you usurping the whole of second-person pronouns, the impulse to distinguish between singular and plural remains. That’s why we have plural locutions that prompt purists to gnashing of teeth: you all, y’all, yous, you’ns, and of course that all-time favorite, stemming from a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, you guys.
Would that the purists could resuscitate thou instead. But I’m afraid it’s too late. Thouart lost and gone forever. Dreadful sorry!
September 5, 2011 – By Allan Metcalf