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Thou

This article is about the pronoun "thou": for the unit of length, see thou (unit).

Thou is the old second person[?] singular pronoun of the English language. Thou is the nominative case; the oblique[?] or accusative is thee, the genitive is thy or thine, and the predicate adjective is 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 a certain sign of deliberate archaism.

Etymology

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, and Spanish tu. A cognate form of the pronoun exists in almost every other Indo-European language.

Usage

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.

Strong verbs:
thou knowest
thou knew(e)st
thou drivest
thou drovest

Weak verbs:
thou makest
thou madest
thou lovest
thou loved(e)st

The forms used with the irregular verb to be are thou art and thou wert; with the irregular verb to have, thou hast and thou hadst.; with the irregular verb shall, thou shalt, and with will, thou wilt.

The endings in -(e)st are omitted as usual in the subjunctive[?] and imperative moods:

If thou be Johan, I tell it thee, right with a good advice. . .;
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart. . .

Some later authors use thou be'st or thou best as a subjunctive:

If thou be'st born to strange sights. . . (John Collier[?]);
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 corresponds with the oblique or accusative form me in the first person[?], and is used as they are: as a direct or indirect object. Thy and thine correspond with my and mine. In the deliberately archaic style in which you might want to use thine, remember that the forms with /n/ are used before any word beginning with a vowel sound: thine eyes.

History

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.

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 status of who was addressing. 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, in starchily formal literary compositions that seek to evoke the solemn emotions called forth by these antecedents, and otherwise to address lofty persons like God or Achilles. Thor, the comic book, made frequent use of the "thou" form.

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.

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. Because in English thou is actually more reserved and formal in actual practice, the translation does not convey the intended meaning well.



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