LINGUIST List 7.599

Tue Apr 23 1996

Sum: Thou and You

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Alan Firth, Summary: Thou and You

Message 1: Summary: Thou and You

Date: Mon, 22 Apr 1996 10:24:56 +0300
From: Alan Firth <>
Subject: Summary: Thou and You
A few weeks ago I posted the following inquiry:
 Could anyone throw light on what seems to be a rather murky area - the
> reasons for the loss of 'thou/thee' from (standard) spoken English. I
> attended a talk recently and heard a linguist forward the notion that it
> was caused largely by 17th Century Quakers in the United States, whose
> egalitarian ways had impacted their speech. The claim was that this
> development spread throughout the English-speaking areas of the world. I
> am not convinced of this. Any help (inc. references) would be much
> appreciated.

I received several responses, many of which were impressively detailed
and extraordinarily informative. At one point in time I was actually
considering the possibility of collecting the responses and
approaching a publisher with a proposal ... (joke). Many sincere
thanks to all who responded. 

To get straight to the point: Judging from the information received,
my source (see above) quite simply got it wrong. As many LINGUIST
subscribers pointed out, Quakers *retained* the 'thee' form in English
- at least amongst themselves. But rather than retaining 'thee' for
the sake of egalitarianism in society in general, there are reasons to
believe that the 'thee' form was one prominent way in which the
Quakers could mark themselves out as being somehow (linguistically)
distinct from their surrounding community. I am informed that 'thee'
was retained with some success by the Quakers (well beyond the time
when it had virtually disappeared from English speech), though it
seems that amongst modern-day Quakers (in the US and UK, at least; I
have not heard from Australian/Canadian Quakers)the 'thee' form is now
becoming a rarity. We know for certain that the 'thou/thee/thy' forms
were disappearing from general English speech over 500 years ago, were
rare by 1650, and have today disappeared from American & most British
(English) dialects -- with the important exception of some dialects of
Northern England (as a native of West Yorkshire, I have first-hand
knowledge of this). As far as I can gather, no sociolinguistic study
has been carried out on the present-day uses of 'thee' in Northern
English speech. [GAVIN O SHEA ( reminded me of
the (still current and prevalent) use of 'ye' in southern and western
Ireland.] So much can be said with reasonable certainty. It seems,
though, that scholars cannot agree on *when* and *why* thee/thou/thy
disappeared, or started disappearing, from English (see the responses
reproduced below), and many have speculated why it is that modern
English is seemingly (actually?) the only Indo-European language
without the so-called 'Tu'-'Vous' (t/v) distinction. No explanations
were offered for its widespread existence in the present-day
(informal) speech of Northern England.

Harold F. Schiffman ( sent me the
following on the Quakers in the US and their use of 'thee': Because of
the non-standard non=RP background of most Quakers in the 17th
century, the form that survived when brought to America is 'thee' and
not 'thou'. In America, Quakerism underwent some schisms in the late
18th early 19th centuries, and today Quakers here recognize 4
different flavors of Yearly meetings: (1) Unprogrammed, which is
closest in form to the original kind of Q meeting, but is socially
liberal, highly educated, in some cases wealthy people. Philadelphia
YM is the stronghold of this group. It went through some schisms but
then there was reconciliation in this century. (2) Evangelical, which
has programmed worship and is socially conservative. (3) Friends
United Meeting, which is programmed but less conservative than
Evangel. (4) Conservative, which are unprogrammed, largely rural, in
the Midwest. Only this group still shows use of *thee* (and thy, and
thine) as a common practice. I do know some group 1 people who use
thee etc., but it was a conscious decision on their part to revive it.

Jonathan Hope ( offered the following useful
overview. I'm not aware of any satisfactory explanation of the loss
of thou/thee in English - especially given their retention in many
related and geographically close languages. The Quaker reference you
cite strikes me as odd - in England at least, the Quakers were
responsible for *retaining* thou longer than other sections of the
community. I doubt that the situation in America would have been
different. Perhaps the implication was that because the Quakers
retained thou, other groups dropped it for fear of being tainted with
their extremism.

	Generally people cite the early urbanisation of England, social
mobility, and the desire not to offend as factors favouring the loss
of thou. There is also the systemic argument that thou is likely to
come under pressure as it demands an extra inflection on the verb, and
these are being dropped in English. I have seen it argued that the
plague was responsible for the loss of thou - because it reduced the
available workforce, raised the price of labour, and meant that bosses
had to call their workers 'you'. This seems to me to be fun, but
entirely unsupportable (how come other countries, which also had the
plague, retained t/v systems?).
 Thou was certainly on the way out in spoken English by the second
half of the fifteen hundreds - see my [Jonathan Hope] article 'Second
person singular pronouns in records of early modern 'spoken'
English', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, xciv, 1993, pp 83-100
 But why it was disappearing is a very difficult question. There
must be some parallel to the reverse loss occurring in many European
langauges at the moment, where the 'thou' equivalent is replacing the 'you'
form - this is generally perceived as being in response to changing social
relationships. The big question here I think, is why 'thou' loss only
occurs in English (or at least most dialects of English).

Susan Meredith Burt (burtVAXA.CIS.UWOSH.EDU), herself a Quaker,
contributed with the following: I think that English Quakers initiated
the use of plain language before coming to America (George Fox, the
founder of Quakerdom, was English). But the joke was that thee/thou
was already obsolescent when Quakers began using it--it seems that
that is why Quakers never got the case-marking right--they used thee
as nominative, for example. Friends' motivation for using thee/thou
was indeed egalitarian--Fox interpreted thee/thou as singular
(correctly), and you as plural, therefore as "vain" when used in
addressing a single person. Friends considered it appropriate to
avoid politeness practices that they saw as excessively flattering,
such as addressing a single person with a plural pronoun, or removing
one's hat as a sign of (excessive?) respect.

Larry Trask (
 I find the idea that the loss of English `thou' was due to the Quakers to
be inconceivable -- though I note that Dick Leith takes this notion
seriously in his book _A Social History of English_.
 All the sources I have seen, including Leith, who gives a very
good account, agree on the main conclusions. English-speakers began
to use `you' as a respectful singular in the 13th century, probably
under French influence. Except in conditions of intimacy, `you'
quickly became established as the ordinary way for an upper-class
speaker to address an equal, as well as a superior, and by the 16th
century `thou' was all but non-existent in upper-class speech, except
in addressing obvious inferiors. Naturally, this usage began to be
copied by the middle class, and by the 16th century `thou' was
likewise rare in middle-class speech, except in addressing obvious
inferiors. But `thou' lingered long among working-class people,
especially in rural areas, and it still survives today in parts of the
north of England, where it has reportedly become something of a badge
of solidarity.
 None of this requires any particular explanation, but one
point does: why did the non-reciprocal use of `you' and `thou' in
power-based relationships disappear? Now, as Brown and Gilman argue
in their famous paper, there has been a steady trend (now mostly gone
to completion) in European languages to replace the older
non-reciprocal power-based use of T and V pronouns with a newer
reciprocal solidarity-based use. Something similar appears to have
happened much earlier in English, with the added twist that `thou' was
driven out of the standard language altogether. Nobody knows why, but
Leith has an interesting suggestion. He proposes that 16th-century
England, in comparison with most other European countries, was
characterized by a fluid and prosperous middle class, in which rapid
rise was possible by entrepreneurial success. England, he argues,
therefore lacked the comparatively rigid social structures typical
ofother countries, at least as far as the middle class was concerned.
Whereas every speaker of French or Spanish knew his own station and
knew that of everyone else, so that power-based non-reciprocal usage
could be readily maintained, a middle-class English person was by
comparison insecure: he could never quite be sure whether a stranger
was an inferior, an equal, or a superior. Therefore, Leith concludes,
the reciprocal use of `you' rapidly took hold among the middle class
as the safest option, as a safe way of avoiding giving offense to a
person one might need to do business with or ask favors of.

(Mike Earl Darnell -- see also below -- offers the same explanation. (AF))

Larry Trask continues:
 As for the Quakers, Leith tacks on an afterthought. At the time
when Quakerism arose, `thou' was still frequent in working-class
speech, and he thinks the Quakers adopted it as a mark of humility.
Fine, but he goes on to suggest that the lack of respectability of the
Quakers in their early days combined with the general working-class
status of `thou' to make this last pronoun increasingly unacceptable
to respectable middle-class speakers, thus hastening its demise. But
I personally see no justification at all for invoking the Quakers: it
seems clear that `thou' was already on the way out of standard English
by that time, so why drag in extraneous excuses? Does it really make
sense to suppose that `you' spread into working-class speech because
working-class people objected to the Quakers?

Michael Earl Darnell (
As to the argument that the Quakers led to the disuse of the T form, I
offer this quotation from the article. I reproduce so much here
because these lines also point out the pejorative quality 'thou'
seemed to have taken on.
 "Numerous episodes involving the insulting sense of 'thou'
appear indrama and in historical anecdotes. Perhaps the best known is
from shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night', when Sir Tody goads Sir Andrew
into a duel telling him that whe he meets his opponent 'if thou
thou'st him some thrice, it shall not be amiss"(3.2.50-51). In the
trial of Sir Walter Raliegh in 1603, the prosecutor sought to insult
Raliegh with, "I thou thee thou traitor!" From a play around 1638, a
master berates an apprentice "How dare you thou a gentleman. **
Quakers were physically abused when, for religious reasons they
insisted on thouing everyone" The last sentence is slightly misquote
above, it actually begins "In the middle of the seventeenth century,
Quakers were. . ." the article " 'O! When Degree is Shak'd'
Sixteenth-Century anticipations of Some Modern Attitudes Toward Usage"
Joseph M. Williams p.69-101 In 'English in its Social Contexts: Essays
in Historical Socio-Linguistics. edited by Tim William Machan and
Charles T. Scott Oxford U Press, 1992

Charles Scott ( offered the same reference, and
the following comment: The business about the Quakers bears a
relationship, I think, but not in the way you describe. George Fox
was passionately concerned to maintain the NUMBER distinction between
the 2nd person pronouns thou and ye. But the Quakers seemed to have
been the ones to initiate leveling of the paradigm by extending the
objective case thee form into the subjective case, thus eliminating
thou, e.g. Thee must not do that. Ironically, the same leveling took
place in the plural paradigm when objective case you replaced
subjective case ye. That seems to have been the Quaker contribution
to the 2nd person personal pronoun development.

Christopher Bobbitt (, member of Bloomington
Meeting, Religious Society of Friends) suggests two books, both by
Richard Bauman [Professor of folklore at Indiana University -

_Christ respects no man's person: the plain language of the early
Quakers and the rhetoric of impoliteness_. Austin, Texas: Southwest
Educational Development Laboratory, 1981. [Working papers in
sociolinguistics, no. 88]

_Let your words be few: symbolism of speaking and silence among
seventeenth century Quakers_. New York: Cambridge University Press,
1983. [Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture, no. 8]

Thanks also to:
Karl Reinhardt (KReinhardtUH.EDU)
Glenn Bingham (
Stuart Luppescu (
Anton Sherwood (
Peter Lasersohn (

Thank thee all for enlightening me (and, I trust, others) on this most
fascinating topic.

Alan Firth
Aalborg University, Denmark
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