Posted by: Jack Henry | June 23, 2022

Editor’s Corner: You

Learning other languages can be tough. One of the things that English speakers have a difficult time with, when learning another language, is learning the informal and formal translations of the word you. Spanish has and usted; French has tu and vous; German has du and Sie, and the list goes on. Well, today I have some interesting information for everyone. Back in merry old England, we used to have informal and formal versions of the word you: thou, thee, and you.

From Grammar Girl:

Since thee and thou have survived mainly in religious and poetic writing, you may be surprised to learn that thee and thou were the informal pronouns. You was formal, and thou was informal.

From the 15th to 16th centuries, thou was used for someone of a lower class or someone you were very familiar with. A parent would’ve referred to their child as thou; a child would’ve referred to their parent as you. About a hundred years later, social status became less obvious, and people started using the more formal you, no matter who they were speaking to. This way, whether you were addressing someone above or below you in status, you were less like to insult them.

While many English speakers started dropping thee and thou, the Quakers continued to use them because according to Grammar Girl, “they aimed to be egalitarian, embrace humility, and avoid markers of class and status. They believed that addressing a social superior as you fanned the flames of vanity.” As time moved on, this became a problem for the Quakers. Thee and thou started being used as insults, and the Quakers were called out for using the familiar, formerly lower-class options. A story from the founder of the Quakers, George Fox said:

We were often beset and abused, and sometimes in danger of our lives for using these words to some proud men, who would say, “What! You ill-bred clown, do you thou me?” It’s hard to understand now, but at the time, it was almost unthinkable to call a superior thou.

It’s kind of funny that we now think of thee and thou as a more formal way to speak, when it was just the opposite. I hope you have found this as interesting as I have.

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her

Technical Editor, Advisory

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