Saturday, July 22, 2017

The "Thee and Thou" Society


Is anyone else irritated when people use "they" as a sort of gender-neutral SINGULAR pronoun (instead of "he" and "she")?  As a prescriptive grammarian (a person who thinks that language should "follow the rules"), I react like someone has raked their nails down a blackboard!  I mean, "they" is a plural pronoun, right?  

Well, it may surprise most people to know that "you" is also  actually a plural pronoun, just used as a singular pronoun.  Anyone who dislikes singular "they" should, by all rights, also object to singular "you".  

Who we are

We are a group of English speaking people who have long felt the need for an alternative to the common use of "you" as a singular pronoun.   The fact that English speakers have invented a plethora of work-arounds for the plural meaning, (mainly variations on "you", e.g. "y'all", "you guys", "youse", "yinz" and others), indicates that there is indeed a problem with using one word for both singular and plural.  

Luckily, a solution is already a part of the language, albeit, very rarely used.  It's high time we revive this very useful set of forms.

What can be done?

The solution is in the form of "thou, thee, thy, and thine" and has been used by American Quakers almost since their arrival in the Pennsylvania Colony in the 18th century.  Simply put, the word "thee" is used instead of "you", and "thy" instead of "your", and finally "thine" instead of "yours."

For those who say "thou" should be used instead of "thee" for the subject, since "thee" is the objective form, may be surprised to learn that "you" is also the objective form (of "ye") and nobody has objected to this use in almost 500 years.)

The other part of the Quaker usage is the use of "thee" with the 3rd person singular form of the verb, the form that ends with -s: is, has, does, speaks, etc.  So, instead of "you are" we say, "thee is." Instead of "you have" we say "thee has" and so on. This usage has its basis in some northern dialects in England in which the old verb form used with "thou" ended in "-s" instead of "-st." 

Finally, "thou" if it is used, is for direct address, as in the Bette Midler film, "Hocus Pocus" (1993), when the character Winnifred Sanderson says to one of the protagonists, "Ah, Thackery Binx, thou mangy feline!" (he had been turned into a cat), where modern-day speakers would say, "You mangy feline!"

The "wrong" social use of "thou"

While it is true, that "thou" and its other forms were used in the past as a "familiar" form of address (similar to Spanish tú, French tu, and Russian ты) and taken as offensive or insulting if used with social superiors, this has not been an issue for almost 500 years.  Its absence from standard English has stripped it of all any nuance of familiarity and insult when used to the "wrong people".  However, this very same absence is also responsible for the erroneous view that it is somehow "formal".  This is mainly due to the fact that the vast majority of people only hear it when addressing God.  But, really, shouldn't we be on the most intimate terms with our Heavenly Father? The truth of the matter is that before the Norman invasion, "thou & Co." was used strictly for singular address, whether to king or peasant.  This blog is an attempt to revitalize this original usage.

Contemporary usage

The forms, "thee is," et al., are used today mainly by members of a small Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends (Quakers), a small subgroup of Old Order Brethren, and also scattered members of various other Christian denominations, including a very small minority of Quakers in other Yearly Meetings.  The reasoning behind the Quaker and Brethren (and this writer's) usage is that we feel that the use of "you" for singular (even though it is a plural pronoun) is a form, at worst, of untruthful speaking or at the very least incorrect usage.  

It is not known if "thou" and company are still used in those dialects in the UK that they previously appeared in;  however, if they are, (as is usual for such forms), they are the domain of more rural areas, and mainly elderly speakers.  Given that Quakers of various ages use it, we can be secure in the knowledge that the Quaker/Brethren usage is the one that is the most used in the 21st century.