Thou Pesky "Thou"

Bookmark and Share

by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor

One of the more interesting points of Shakespeare's language is the sometimes confusing usage of thou and you within the works. To many readers, the logic behind Shakespeare's choice of when and where to use either form of address may seem haphazard, and in many cases, it is. Like many other words of Shakespeare's day, words have shifted meanings or dropped from the language altogether (for instance, agnize, fadge, or trow). Most people only know thou from either the Bible or Shakespeare; you is the only second person pronoun we use in Modern English, and thou is usually viewed as little more than an archaic variant. It wasn't always so.

Going back into the days of Old and Middle English, there were two forms of address in the second person: thou and ye. Thou was singular, and ye was plural. The objective singular was thee, and the objective plural was you. There weren't any additional connotations to this usage. The Norman Conquest of 1066 introduced French as the vernacular of law, government, and "refined" literature; English gradually absorbed more French words into its lexicon, and with them, more French conventions.

One of those conventions was using the plural pronoun to address royalty and other high nobility. Over time, this norm became more generalized, used in formal social situations when addressing any stranger or social superior. Meanwhile, you gradually supplanted ye and began to be used singularly as well as formally. Thus, around the 1200s, Middle English developed a distinction between thou and you.

Such distinctions remain in both French (tu/vous) and German (du/Sie). There is an informal "you" that one uses with those one knows, and a more polite, reserved "you" that one uses in other company. Thou and you at some point in Middle English operated the same way. Thou would have been used by those of higher standing addressing those beneath them (such as a master addressing a servant) or commoners addressing one another. You, on the other hand, would have been used by those of lower social standing addressing those above them (such as a child addressing a parent) or by the upper class addressing one another. Thou implied intimacy; you implied a polite reserve. Although this pattern of formal distinction didn't embed itself as firmly in English as it did in other European languages, it did exist for a time.

As this distinction signified respect, it would have been something of a social faux pas when the convention was broken. A master addressing a servant with you might have raised eyebrows in the thirteenth century. Among the upper class, using thou could have been considered a sign of disrespect. For a subordinate to use thou when addressing a superior, however, such familiarity would at best be considered presumptuous—and more likely boorish. Likewise, the use of thou could be considered condescending or insulting when used in a more formal situation.

The clearest example of this in Shakespeare is Sir Toby Belch's line in Twelfth Night, when he eggs on Sir Andrew Aguecheek to challenge Viola with "if thou thou'st him some thrice, it shall not be amiss." Not only is Sir Toby telling Sir Andrew to insult Viola with thou, Sir Toby himself is slyly insulting Sir Andrew by using thou with his peer. Shakespeare intentionally plays upon the significance of thou in this scene.

With the beginning of Early Modern English in the fifteenth century, however, the distinction was already becoming lost as you began to supplant thou as the only second person pronoun. By the time Shakespeare was writing, the inconsistency of his usage tells us that the process was already underway. For instance, Shakespeare often uses ye and you interchangeably, and there are instances of close friends or lovers calling each other you as well as thou—sometimes within the same speech.

Thou was essentially extinct in standard English usage by the 1700s. One of the main reasons thou survives at all is Tyndale's translations of the Bible into English in the early sixteenth century. In his translations (for which he was condemned to die at the stake in 1536), Tyndale returned to the simpler convention of Old English, consistently using thou in singular usage and ye in plural usage. As Tyndale's work became the foundation for the King James version of the Bible in 1611, thou was preserved for posterity.

Ironically, however, the association of thou with Biblical verse and classical literature has completely reversed thou's original standing. Thou—when it is used at all—is now viewed as the language of solemn ceremony and formality, while our you is the more colloquial of the two terms. This only adds to the modern confusion over usage and intent in Shakespeare.

Today, aside from limited dialects and liturgical usage, we rarely encounter the lexical bygone of thou. We've long since simplified our everyday speech by exclusively using you. Although the distinction may be lost today, there was once a logical basis for differentiating thou and you. Shakespeare simply used this distinction—when it served his purpose—as another potential means of revealing character and situation.

Notes

1. Because I already know what questions these will have brought up....

agnize: to acknowledge or confess; to take pride in
fadge: to succeed, to turn out well
trow: to trust, to believe

2. While you only has one genitive, or possessive, case (your), thou has two: thy and thine. Thy is used when preceding consonants, and thine is used when preceding vowels. Thine is also used by itself in the same manner as yours.