The word thou is a second person singular pronoun in English. It is now largely archaic, having been replaced in almost all contexts by you. It is used in parts of Northern England and by Scots (/ðu/). Thou is the nominative form; the oblique/objective form is thee (functioning as both accusative and dative), and the possessive is thy or thine. When thou is the grammatical subject of a finite verb in the indicative mood, the verb form typically ends in -(e)st (e.g., "thou goest"; "thou do(e)st"), but in some cases just -t (e.g., "thou art"; "thou shalt"), although in some dialects of Old English (mainly in the North), this verb form ended in -s, hence the Quaker habit of using what looks like the third person form of the verb with "thee" as the subject (paralleling the usage of "you"). In Middle English, thou was sometimes abbreviated by putting a small "u" over the letter thorn: þͧ.
Originally, thou was simply the singular counterpart to the plural pronoun ye, derived from an ancient Indo-European root. Following the Norman invasion of 1066, thou was used to express intimacy, familiarity or even disrespect, while another pronoun, you, the oblique/objective form of ye, was used for formal circumstances (see T–V distinction). In the 17th century, thou fell into disuse in the standard language, oft regarded as impolite, but persisted, sometimes in an altered form, in regional dialects of England and Scotland, as well as in the language of such religious groups as the Society of Friends. The use of the pronoun is also still present in poetry.
Early English translations of the Bible used the familiar singular form of the second person, which mirrors common usage trends in other languages. The familiar and singular form is used when speaking to God, in French (in Protestantism both in past and present, in Catholicism since the post-Vatican II reforms), German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish, Turkish, Lithuanian, and Scottish Gaelic (all of which maintain the use of an "informal" singular form of the second person in modern speech). In addition, the translators of the King James Version of the Bible attempted to maintain the distinction found in Hebrew between singular and plural second person pronouns. As such, they used "thou" for singular, and "you" for plural.
In standard modern English, thou continues to be used only in formal religious contexts, in literature that seeks to reproduce archaic language and in certain fixed phrases such as "fare thee well". For this reason, many associate the pronoun with solemnity or formality. Many dialects have compensated for the lack of a singular/plural distinction caused by the disappearance of thou and ye through the creation of new plural pronouns or pronominals, such as yinz, yous and y'all or the colloquial you guys. Ye remains common in some parts of Ireland but these examples just given vary regionally and are usually restricted to colloquial speech.
Because thou has passed out of common use, its traditional forms are often confused by those imitating old speech.
|2nd person||singular informal||thou||thee||thy/thine||thine|
|plural or formal singular||ye, you||you||your||yours|
|3rd person||singular||he/she/it||him/her/it||his/her/his (it)||his/hers/his|
- The genitives my, mine, thy, and thine are used as possessive adjectives before a noun, or as possessive pronouns without a noun. All four forms are used as possessive adjectives: mine and thine are used before nouns beginning in a vowel sound, or before nouns beginning in the letter h, which was usually silent (e.g. thine eyes and mine heart, which was pronounced as mine art) and my and thy before consonants (thy mother, my love). However, only mine and thine are used as possessive pronouns, as in it is thine and they were mine (not *they were my).
- From the early Early Modern English period up until the 17th century, his was the possessive of the third person neuter it as well as of the third person masculine he. Genitive "it" appears once in the 1611 King James Bible (Leviticus 25:5) as groweth of it owne accord.
Typical examples of the standard present and past tense forms follow. The e in the ending is optional; early English spelling had not yet been standardized. In verse, the choice about whether to use the e often depended upon considerations of meter.
- to know: thou knowest, thou knewest
- to drive: thou drivest, thou drovest
- to make: thou makest, thou madest
- to love: thou lovest, thou lovedest
A few verbs have irregular thou forms:
- to be: thou art (or thou beest), thou wast (or thou wert; originally thou were)
- to have: thou hast, thou hadst
- to do: thou dost /dʌst/ (or thou doest in non-auxiliary use) and thou didst
- shall: thou shalt
- will: thou wilt
In Proto-English, the second-person singular verb inflection was -es. This came down unchanged from Indo-European and can be seen in quite distantly related Indo-European languages: Russian знаешь, znayesh, thou knowest; Latin amas, thou lovest. (This is parallel to the history of the third-person form, in Old English -eþ, Russian, знает, znayet, he knoweth, Latin amat he loveth.) The anomalous development from -es to modern English -est, which took place separately at around the same time in the closely related German and Frisian languages, is understood to be caused by an assimilation of the consonant of the pronoun, which often followed the verb. This is most readily observed in German: liebes du → liebstu → liebst du (lovest thou). The three languages belong to the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European languages, of which Frisian is the closest to English.
|Early Modern English||Modern West Frisian||Modern German||Modern English|
|Thou hast|| Do hast
| Du hast
| You have |
|She hath|| Sy hat
| Sie hat
| She has |
|What hast thou?|| Wat hasto?
| Was hast du?
[vas hast duː]
| What have you, What do you have? |
/ /, / /
|What hath she?|| Wat hat sy?
[vat hat sɛi]
| Was hat sie?
[vas hat ziː]
| What has she, What does she have? |
/ /, / /
|Thou goest|| Do giest
| Du gehst
| You go |
|Thou doest|| Do dochst
| Du tust
| You do |
| Thou beest
(variant thou art)
| Do bist
| Du bist
| You are |
In Dutch, the equivalent of "thou", du, also became archaic and fell out of use and was replaced by the Dutch equivalent of "you", gij (later jij or u), just as it has in English, with the place of the informal plural taken by jullie (cf. English you people, you guys).
In the subjunctive and imperative moods, the ending in -(e)st is dropped (although it is generally retained in thou wert, the second-person singular past subjunctive of the verb "to be"). The subjunctive forms are used when a statement is doubtful or contrary to fact; as such, they frequently occur after "if" and the poetic "and".
- If thou be Johan, I tell it thee, right with a good advice ...;
- Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart ...
- I do wish thou wert a dog, that I might love thee something ...
- And thou bring Alexander and his paramour before the Emperor, I'll be Actaeon ...
- O WERT thou in the cauld blast, ... I'd shelter thee ...
In modern regional English dialects that use thou or some variant, such as in Yorkshire, it often takes the third person form of the verb -s. This comes from a merging of Early Modern English second person singular ending -st and third person singular ending -s into -s (the latter a southern variation of -þ (-th)).
The present indicative form art ("þu eart") goes back to West Saxon Old English (see OED s.v. be IV.18) and eventually became standard, even in the south (e.g. in Shakespeare and the Bible). For its influence also from the North, cf. Icelandic þú ert. For its ultimate origin, see OED be, etymology section i.ε/ζ. The preterite indicative of be is generally thou wast.
Thou originates from Old English þū, and ultimately via Grimm's law from the Proto-Indo-European *tu, with the expected Germanic vowel lengthening in accented monosyllabic words with an open syllable. Thou is therefore cognate with Icelandic and Old Norse þú, German and Continental Scandinavian du, Latin and all major Romance languages, Irish, Kurdish, Lithuanian and Latvian tu or tú, Greek σύ (sy), Slavic ты / ty or ти / ti, Armenian դու (dow/du), Hindi तू (tū), Bengali: তুই (tui), Persian تُو (to) and Sanskrit त्वम् (tvam). A cognate form of this pronoun exists in almost every other Indo-European language. The second person pronouns in Uralic languages such as Finnish and Hungarian are also similar.
In Old English, thou was governed by a simple rule: thou addressed one person, and ye more than one. After the Norman Conquest, which marks the beginning of the French vocabulary influence that characterized the Middle English period, thou was gradually replaced by the plural ye as the form of address for a superior person and later for an equal. For a long time, however, thou remained the most common form for addressing an inferior person.
The practice of matching singular and plural forms with informal and formal connotations is called the T–V distinction and in English is largely due to the influence of French. This began with the practice of addressing kings and other aristocrats in the plural. Eventually, this was generalized, as in French, to address any social superior or stranger with a plural pronoun, which was felt to be more polite. In French, tu was eventually considered either intimate or condescending (and to a stranger, potentially insulting), while the plural form vous was reserved and formal.
In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson, in A Grammar of the English Tongue, wrote: "in the language of ceremony ... the second person plural is used for the second person singular", implying that the second person singular was still in everyday use. By contrast, The Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage says that for most speakers of southern British English, thou had fallen out of everyday use, even in familiar speech, by sometime around 1650. Thou persisted in a number of religious, literary and regional contexts, and those pockets of continued use of the pronoun tended to undermine the obsolescence of the T–V distinction. (Samuel Johnson himself was born and raised not in the south of England, but in Lichfield, Staffordshire, where the usage of thou persists until the present day, see below, so it is not surprising that he would consider it entirely ordinary and describe it as such, as he indeed does in his grammar. This would seem to resolve the apparent contradiction above.)
One notable consequence of the decline in use of the second person singular pronouns thou, thy, and thee is the obfuscation of certain sociocultural elements of Early Modern English texts, such as many character interactions in Shakespeare's plays. In Richard III, for instance, the conversation between the Duke of Clarence and the two murderers takes on a very different tone if it is read in light of the social connotations of the pronouns used by the characters.
Use as a verb
Many Indo-European languages contain verbs meaning "to address with the informal pronoun", such as German duzen, the Norwegian noun dus refers to the practice of using this familiar form of address instead of the De/Dem/Deres formal forms in common use, French tutoyer, Spanish tutear, Swedish dua, Dutch jijen en jouen, Russian тыкать (tykat'), Polish tykać, Romanian tutui, Hungarian tegezni etc. Although uncommon in English, the usage did appear, such as at the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603, when Sir Edward Coke, prosecuting for the Crown, reportedly sought to insult Raleigh by saying,
here using thou as a verb meaning "to call thee". Although the practice never took root in Standard English, it occurs in dialectal speech in the north of England. A formerly common refrain in Yorkshire for admonishing children who misused the familiar form was:
- Don't thee tha them as thas thee! ("Don't thee thou them as thous thee")
And similar in Lancashire dialect:
- Don't thee me, thee; I's you to thee! ("Don't thee me, thee [i.e., "you child"]; I'm you to thee!")
See further the Wiktionary page on thou as a verb.
As William Tyndale translated the Bible into English in the early 16th century, he preserved the singular and plural distinctions that he found in his Hebrew and Greek originals. He used thou for the singular and ye for the plural regardless of the relative status of the speaker and the addressee. Tyndale's usage was standard for the period and mirrored that found in the earlier Wycliffe's Bible and the later King James Bible. But as the use of thou in non-dialect English began to decline in the 18th century, its meaning nonetheless remained familiar from the widespread use of the latter translation.
Quakers formerly used thee as an ordinary pronoun; the stereotype has them saying thee for both nominative and accusative cases. This was started at the beginning of the Quaker movement by George Fox, who called it "plain speaking", as an attempt to preserve the egalitarian familiarity associated with the pronoun. Most Quakers have abandoned this usage. At its beginning, the Quaker movement was particularly strong in the northwestern areas of England and particularly in the north Midlands area. The preservation of thee in Quaker speech may relate to this history. Modern Quakers who choose to use this manner of "plain speaking" often use the "thee" form without any corresponding change in verb form, for example, is thee or was thee.
In many of the Quranic translations, particularly those complied by the Ahmadiyya sect in Islam, the terms thou and thee are used. One particular example is The Holy Quran - Arabic Text and English translation, translated by Maulvi Sher Ali.
In the English translations of the scripture of the Bahá'í Faith, the terms thou and thee are also used. Shoghi Effendi, the head of the religion in the first half of the 20th century, adopted a style that was somewhat removed from everyday discourse when translating the texts from their original Arabic or Persian to capture some of the poetic and metaphorical nature of the text in the original languages and to convey the idea that the text was to be considered holy.
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which first appeared in 1946, retained the pronoun thou exclusively to address God, using you in other places. This was done to preserve the tone, at once intimate and reverent, that would be familiar to those who knew the King James Version and read the Psalms and similar text in devotional use. The New American Standard Bible (1971) made the same decision, but the revision of 1995 (New American Standard Bible, Updated edition) reversed it. Similarly, the 1989 Revised English Bible dropped all forms of thou that had appeared in the earlier New English Bible (1970). The New Revised Standard Version (1989) omits thou entirely and claims that it is incongruous and contrary to the original intent of the use of thou in Bible translation to adopt a distinctive pronoun to address the Deity. When referring to God, "thou" is often capitalized for clarity and reverence. While Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic (the languages of the Bible) do not have a special orthography (such as capitalization) for indicating that the Deity is being referred to, their grammars are more successful than English in making noun/pronoun agreement unambiguous.
Like his contemporaries William Shakespeare uses thou both in the intimate, French style sense, and also to emphasize differences of rank, but he is by no means consistent in using the word, and friends and lovers sometimes call each other ye or you as often as they call each other thou, sometimes in ways that can be analysed for meaning, but often apparently at random.
For example, in the following passage from Henry IV, Shakespeare has Falstaff use both forms with Henry. Initially using "you" in confusion on waking he then switches to a comfortable and intimate "thou".
- 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 –
While in Hamlet, Shakespeare uses discordant second person pronouns to express Hamlet's antagonism towards his mother.
- QUEEN GERTRUDE: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended..
- HAMLET: Mother, you have my father much offended.
More recent uses
Except where everyday use survives in some regions of England, the air of informal familiarity once suggested by the use of thou has disappeared; it is used in solemn ritual occasions, in readings from the King James Bible, in Shakespeare and in formal literary compositions that intentionally seek to echo these older styles. Since becoming obsolete in most dialects of spoken English, it has nevertheless been used by more recent writers to address exalted beings such as God, a skylark, Achilles, and even The Mighty Thor. In The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader addresses the Emperor with the words: "What is thy bidding, my master?" In Leonard Cohen's song "Bird on the Wire", he promises his beloved that he'll reform, saying "I will make it all up to thee." The Kaiser Chiefs song "I Predict a Riot" is mentioned below. In Diana Ross's song "Upside Down" (written by Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards) we hear the lyric "Respectfully I say to thee I'm aware that you're cheatin'." These recent uses of the pronoun suggest something far removed from intimate familiarity or condescension, while they could be seen as mirroring the mode of address used with the Deity in the Bible as discussed above; or in the case of "Upside Down", may simply allow a catchy rhyme.
Most modern writers have no experience using thou in daily speech; they are therefore vulnerable to confusion of the traditional verb forms. The most common mistake in artificially archaic modern writing is the use of the old third person singular ending -eth with thou, for example thou thinketh. The converse – the use of the second person singular ending -est for the third person—also occurs ("So sayest Thor!" – spoken by Thor). This usage often shows up in modern parody and pastiche in an attempt to make speech appear either archaic or formal. The forms thou and thee are often transposed.
In the fictional teenage argot nadsat, invented for Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange (and the film adaptation), Alex and his droogs regularly use "thou", which fits in with their semi-Edwardian clothing. For example, when fighting a rival gang, Alex addresses them thus (note the mixing of "you" and "thou" for the second person):
- Well if it isn't fat stinking billygoat Billyboy in poison! How art thou, thou globby bottle of cheap stinking chip-oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly thou!
Some translators render the T–V distinction in English with "thou" and "you", particularly in places where you appears in the place of expected thou, or vice versa. This practice has largely fallen out of use. Ernest Hemingway, in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, uses the forms "thou" and "you" in order to reflect the relationships between his Spanish-speaking characters and to better represent in English the Spanish language in which both formal (usted) and familiar (tú) second-person pronouns still exist.
In reading passages with thou and thee, many modern readers stress the pronouns and the verb endings. Traditionally, however, the e in -est ought to be unstressed, and thou and thee should be no more stressed than you.
You is now the standard English second-person pronoun and encompasses both the singular and plural senses. In some dialects, however, "thou" has persisted, and in others thou is retained for poetic and/or literary use. Further, in others the vacuum created by the loss of a distinction has led to the creation of new forms of the second-person plural, such as y'all in the Southern United States. The forms vary across the English-speaking world and between literature and the spoken language.
Persistence of second-person singular
In traditional dialects, thou is used in the counties of Cumberland, Westmorland, Durham, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire and some western parts of Nottinghamshire. Such dialects normally also preserve distinct verb forms for the singular second person, for example thee coost (standard English: you could, archaic: thou couldst) in northern Staffordshire. The word thee is used in the East Shropshire dialect which is now largely confined to the Dawley area of Telford and referred to as the Dawley dialect. Throughout rural Yorkshire, the old distinction between nominative and objective is preserved. The possessive is often written as thy in local dialect writings, but is pronounced as an unstressed tha, and the possessive form of tha has in modern usage almost exclusively followed other English dialects in becoming yours or the local word your'n (from your one):
|2nd Person||singular||tha||thee||thy (tha)||yours / your'n|
The apparent incongruity between the archaic nominative, objective and genitive forms of this pronoun on the one hand and the modern possessive form on the other may be a signal that the linguistic drift of Yorkshire dialect is causing tha to fall into disuse; however, a measure of local pride in the dialect may be counteracting this.
Some other variants are specific to certain areas. In Sheffield, the pronunciation of the word was somewhere in between a /d/ and a /th/ sound, with the tongue at the bottom of the mouth; this led to the nickname of the "dee-dahs" for people from Sheffield. In Lancashire and West Yorkshire, ta was used as an unstressed shortening of thou, which can be found in the song "On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at". These variants are no longer in use.
In rural North Lancashire between Lancaster and the North Yorkshire border 'tha' is preserved in colloquial phrases such as "What would tha like for tha tea?" (What would you like for dinner), and " 'appen tha waint" ("perhaps you won't" – happen being the dialect word for perhaps) and "tha knows" (you know). This usage in Lancashire is becoming rare, except for elderly and rural speakers.
The use of the word "thee" in the hit song "I Predict a Riot" by Leeds band Kaiser Chiefs ("Watching the people get lairy / is not very pretty, I tell thee") caused some comment by people who were unaware that the word is still in use in the Yorkshire dialect.
The use of the phrase "tha knows" has been widely used in various songs by Arctic Monkeys, a popular band from High Green, a suburb of Sheffield. Alex Turner, the band's lead singer, has also often replaced words with "tha knows" during live versions of the songs. His election to sing in his native Sheffield accent and their overall revival of the dialect has been met with positive feedback and critical acclaim.
Thoo has also been used in the Orcadian Scots dialect in place of the singular informal thou. In Shetlandic, the other form of Insular Scots, du and de are used. The word "thou" has been reported in the North Northern Scots dialect of Cromarty as being in common use in the first half of the 20th century and now only in occasional use.
Use in cinema
The word thou can occasionally be heard in films recorded in certain English dialect. In Ken Loach's films Kes and The Price of Coal, the word is used frequently in the dialogue. It is used occasionally, but much less frequently, in the 1963 film This Sporting Life.
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- Shorrocks, 433–438.
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- Middle English carol:
If thou be Johan, I tell it the
Ryght with a good aduyce
Thou may be glad Johan to be
It is a name of pryce.
- Eleanor Hull, Be Thou My Vision, 1912 translation of traditional Irish hymn, Rob tu mo bhoile, a Comdi cride.
- Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, act IV, scene 3.
- Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus, act IV, scene 2.
- Robert Burns, O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast(song), lines 1–4.
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- Psalm 90 at the Wayback Machine (archived February 18, 2006) from the Revised Standard Version
- Ode to a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- The Iliad, translated by E. H. Blakeney, 1921
- The Mighty Thor at the Wayback Machine (archived June 20, 2006) 528
- See, for example, Rob Liefeld, "Awaken the Thunder" (Marvel Comics, Avengers, vol. 2, issue 1, cover date Nov. 1996, part of the Heroes Reborn storyline.)
- Burgess, Anthony (1962). A Clockwork Orange. William Heinemann. p. 15. ISBN 0-434-09800-0.
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- The Cromarty Fisherfolk Dialect, Am Baile, page 5
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|Look up thou, thy, thine, thee, or thyself in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- A Grammar of the English Tongue by Samuel Johnson - includes description of 18th century use
- Contemporary use of thou in Yorkshire
- Thou: The Maven's Word of the Day
- You/Thou in Shakespeare's Work (archived forum discussion)
- A Note on Shakespeare's Grammar by Seamus Cooney