Thursday, October 21, 2021

Thee and Thou

Popular opinion regards the use of Thee and Thou as a type of formal speech in English, likely because it is archaic and used to refer to God. As it came up recently around here, I just want to review the facts, and hit hard a bit that is sometimes not quite understood even by those who know that those forms are not formal.

Thou is the intimate form, related to and similar to French Vous Tu and German Du. It is used in reference to God to stress that intimacy.  That is considered more important than even the respect that would be communicated by "you." This is surprising enough that it is worthy of some reflection on its own. But the usage is even more surprising.  Thou was also used with social inferiors. Thus, it could be used to effect with one's spouses, children, and close friends, and Shakespeare does this in several places, where characters will toggle back and forth between the forms depending on the type of persuasion they are engaging in.  The best example is probably the first scene in King Lear (a play that is coming up a lot for some reason), especially the exchange with Cordelia. 

Yet even this, the possibility of disrespect in addressing God, was considered a worthy risk to preserve the I-Thou intimacy. We are a fortunate people.


james said...

Vous is the formal/plural form. I think you mean "tu"

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes! Thank you. I will fix

Grim said...

I gather the Quakers do it differently, at least those who still do it at all. “Thee” is retained by a few as the familiar form, and “you” is used with outsiders. There is a demonstration of this in “Angel and the Badman” (1947).

Here’s a fellow interested party discussing Quaker usage.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Great link. The story was about that it was about egalitarianism, and I always just took that at face value.