Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Thou and You

A repost:

Here's some lovely poetry courtesy of Andrew Marvell. Notice the words in bold.

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.

Once upon a time English was nice and simple. There was the second person singular thou and the second person plural you. Then in 1066 everything went wrong. The Normans arrived bringing with them the royal plural. "We are not amused," said Queen Victoria. "We are Henry the Eighth, we are," said Henry the Eighth. This pluralisation of royals was not simply I becoming we, they also had to be addressed as though they were plural. So the top of society started to demand that they were addressed plurally as you.
This spread. You became a simple reverential form. Through the sixteenth century it got more and more complicated. People would call others you in the way that junk mail tends to add an esquire to my name. You was everywhere. Thou was familar or condescending. You used it to your servants.
So what do you call the girl you love? What do you say when you are trying to be familiar with the queen of your heart. Do you wish for worship or intimacy? Can you be intimate with your deity? Does it depend whether, like Marvell, you're in Hull or London?
None of these questions bothered William Tyndale as he sat down in the early sixteenth century to translate the Bible. Not for him the shallow flirtations and flattery of society, nor the intricacies of adoration: he wanted accuracy.

Now, Greek (in which the Gospels are written) has a second person singular and a second person plural. So he translated the singular as thou and the plural as you. That is why God is thou: not because He is your friend (He isn't, He thinks you're bad), but because God is singular. Jesus thous (it can be a verb like tutoyer) individuals and yous crowds.

And here is an oddity, here is a bit of the screenplay for scene 57 of that delicate, lyrical work The Return of the Jedi:

Darth Vader, standing with other members of the Imperial council, cautiously approaches his master. The ruler's back is to Vader. After several tense moments, the Emperor's chair rotates around to face him.

VADER What is thy bidding, my Master?

Thou was the singular, then it was the familiar, then it was the condescending, then it was left only in the Bible often used to address God, and thus thou became reverential again.

Well I say that thou has survived only in the Bible. I believe that there are still a couple of people in Yorkshire who thou each other (I'll believe anything about Yorkshire). A popular beat combo from Leeds called (slightly tautologically) the Kaiser Chiefs recorded a song alarmingly titled I Predict A Riot with the lines:

Watching the people get lairy
It's not very pretty I tell thee
Walking through town is quite scary
It's not very sensible either

Which is thou's proof of life, or at least life Yorkshire.


  1. A similar thing happened in Dutch with du, which is cognate with thou - it's disappeared in the modern form of the language, although it's standard in modern German, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. The familiar form of 'you' in Dutch is je (cognate with ye) in the singular and jullie in the plural, which comes from je lui (literally 'you lot')

  2. Whereas in English the singular (Thou) has been almost lost and the plural (You) used for everyone, in Irish it is the other way - the plural form has been almost lost and the singular (Tú) is the norm.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Ní doigh liom. I don't think so. The second person plural sibh is alive and well, and in Scots Gaelic is used as a polite form, like vous is in French. It's also explains the existence of yous in Irish English, as well as Australian English.

  3. Thou has been retained in the dialects of most of the old danelaw parts of the country so you'll find it in Lancashire and Derbyshire as well as Yorkshire, for example.

  4. Also Diana Ross (not a Yorkshirewoman as far as I know) in Upside down sings:

    "that I need I cherish the moments with you Respectfully I say to thee.."

  5. Italian is even stranger; the polite form is 'lei', which means 'she'.

    1. Same with German - Sie, although it's written with a capital 's' and conjugated differently Sie sind (literally 'she are'*) as opposed to sie ist

      Dutch uses u as the polite form, in Afrikaans it's still written as a capital U

      * cognate with Old English sindon, which lost out to earon, from which we get 'are'.

  6. My grandmother, who didn't speak English, found it hilarious that we should use "you" both formally – and when addressing the family dog.

  7. Interesting also to note that people in Ireland, Scotland and the North East have found it necessary to adopt the plural form 'yous' (or is it 'youse', I'm never quite sure of the spelling).

  8. One thing I've always wondered - or rather, wondered since I found out the truth about ye olde pizza shoppe - is whether it's just a coincidence that the only difference in spelling between you and thou is th and y.
    I assume that, when the letter thorn was still around, thou would (or at least could) have been spelled þou. And then when thorn stopped being around, it could either have been transliterated to th, or replaced with y, which I am assured that it looks like. Must have been confusing, and I wonder if this had anything to do with the disappearance of thou (I have no idea if the timescale of the loss of þ and of thou makes this hypothesis remotely plausible)

  9. I don't think German Sie sind is "she are" so much as "they are" as in "you[r majesties/graces/eminences] are". The capitalisation indicates that the pronoun is covering up for a missing honorific. It's a case of 3rd person plural being used for 2nd person singular/plural which only confuses the situation further... Similar to Spanish "usted" which derives from "vuestra merced" (your grace) and "ustedes" from "vuestras mercedes" (your graces).

    1. I stand corrected, although I only used 'she are' for etymological reasons. In Dutch, ze zijn ('they are') is cognate with German sie sind, but does not mean 'you are'. In Portuguese você has a similar origin to usted, being derived from vossa mercee - in Brazil, it's almost supplanted tu, while in Portugal, it's considered more formal than tu but less formal than o senhor or a senhora. In Argentina and some other Latin American countries, vos is used instead of , but never in Spain, where it's considered an archaism.

  10. I always thought the informal German Du became English thou and the formal German Sie became English thee. Am I not right?
    Could you please write something about "I"? Surely it comes from the German "ich", but when did it become a permanent capital letter? This the only language to do this I believe.

  11. I think that thou is second person singular subject and thee is second person singular object (distinction like I/me). Similarly thine/yours (or yourn in the Yorskshire vernacular)