LINGUIST List 7.1473

Sat Oct 19 1996

Sum: Pronunciation of "thou"

Editor for this issue: Susan Robinson <>


  1. Mario Cal Varela, Sum: pronunciation of "thou"

Message 1: Sum: pronunciation of "thou"

Date: Fri, 18 Oct 1996 19:42:26 BST
From: Mario Cal Varela <>
Subject: Sum: pronunciation of "thou"

About a week ago I posted a query on the modern pronunciation of the
pronoun "thou" in English. I Thank the following eight people for
answering or showing some interest in the topic:

Allan Wechsler
Anthea Fraser Gupta
John E. Koontz
Max Wheeler
Glynis Baguley
Carsten Peust
Colin Whiteley
Laurie Bauer

This was the original query:
In modern stage performances of 17th century drama, or whenever texts
from the Early Modern English period are read aloud, I understand that
the pronoun "thou" tends to be systematically pronounced with the
vowel of MOUTH. However, I have not found any reference in
descriptions of English at this stage to such a pronunciation. It is
rather given as /thu(:)/. If this is accurate, where does the /thau/
variant come from?

Several of the respondents point out that, since /Dau/ would have been
the regular development of ME /u:/ through the "Great Vowel Shift",
the pronunciation of "thou" as /Du:/ must be either from a period
before the GVS or from a dialect not yet affected by this chain shift.
In particular, Anthea Fraser Gupta says that /u:/ was probably the
last vowel to be affected and that in the Early Modern period there
must have been dialectal variation between /au/ and /u:/ in the
HOUSE/THOU set (a number of modern English dialects still have
/u:/). In this case we would simply expect people to pronounce "thou"
with the same vowel they had in HOUSE. Apparently in the EModE period
there were more English speakers with /u:/ and fewer with something
like /au/.

If this is the case, modern performances of Shakespeare, always given
in modern pronunciation (with small differences), simply assume that
"thou" has developed regularly (Glynis Baguley) and that it went out
of use after having undergone the shift (J.E. Koontz).

However, I checked M. Goerlach's (1991)"Introduction to Early Modern
English" and Dobson's (1968) "English Pronunciation 1500-1700", on
which Goerlach bases his description, and none of them lists /Dau/
among the variants. For "thou" contemporary orthoepists give
apparently only /Du:/ and unstressed /Du/. Funnily enough, for "you"
Dobson records a strong form with /au/, although Goerlach gives only

A good reason why the vowel of "thou" should remain unshifted is
advanced by Laurie Bauer, who says that "thou" being a frequent word
it would be more likely to retain the original pronunciation if
lexical diffusion was involved.

Should this be so, then the /Dau/ pronunciation is perhaps a modern
"guess" based on the analogy with other <ou> words in the
Standard. But if it is a mistake it can't be corrected. As Allan
Wechsler says, the[Daw]-pronunciation is already enshrined in poetry
that wouldn't work with [Du]. Like Fitzgerald's _Rubaiyat_:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread---and Thou
 Beside me singing in the Wilderness---
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Mario Cal Varela
Departamento de FiloloxEDa Inglesa e Alemana, despacho 307
Facultade de FiloloxEDa
Universidade de Santiago de Compostela
c/ Burgo das NaciF3ns s/n
Santiago 15705
tlf (981) 563100 ext. 11858
fax (981) 574646
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