Dear Straight Dope:
What's the deal with the words "thou," "thee," "thy," and "thyne"? What do they mean and why don't we use them anymore?
SDStaff McCarrertA reply:
Hey nummie, the first thing it means is you gotta get a dictionary. The first three words are in there. The fourth isn’t, unless it is a really big dictionary that covers misspellings in a little appendix in the back or archaic forms in the front. Probably you’re thinking of “thine.”
As the dictionary would tell you, we are looking at the old form for second person singular. That is, you used to use “thou” if there were one “you” or “you” if there were two or more “you’s.” But then English did a slow U turn, and now “you” is always “you,” except, of course, for “eeeeww.”
“Thou” was the form of address for an individual, “you” for a group … except for people of high social stature. They were addressed in the plural, since they were seen as representing a larger group. (Thus Queen Victoria, in saying “we are not amused,” was presumably speaking for the Empire.) Over time, the plural came to be used for a wider and wider group of people, just as the m.c. says “ladies and gentlemen” without listing the churls, boors and slatterns who are obviously in the audience. “Thou” became the familiar form, used in addressing intimates, children, social inferiors, and the deity, while “you” was the formal term, used in all other contexts. Eventually the only English-speaking group widely using “thou” were Quakers, who addressed everybody by the old singular, regardless of rank. This has parallels in other languages — only a good friend calls another Frenchman “tu.” Similarly German has the familiar “du” and the formal “Sie.”
OK, you say, I’ve got the “thou” part, but where do the rest of them come from? Easy. English was once a declined language, with the ending or form of a word changing with its use in the sentence. This still survives in the pronouns, as follows:
|my, mine||our, ours|
|thy, thine**||your, yours|
(* although some Quakers use “thee” here)
(**thine before a vowel, so “to thine own self be true”, and thy before consonant, so “thy servant.”
Phew. Now, what does all that mean? Thou, thee, etc., fell out of favor, like words and phrases still do today. Someday some bright kid will look back and say, “Hey, whatever happened to ‘groovy’?”
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