LINGUIST List 7.1473

Sat Oct 19 1996

Sum: Pronunciation of "thou"

Editor for this issue: Susan Robinson <>


  • 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 /ju(:)/.

    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 ESPAD1A tlf (981) 563100 ext. 11858 fax (981) 574646