Mind your Thees and Thous

Here’s a little etymology I learned while digressing from my morning Bible reading:

In English, pronouns come in three cases: Nominative (for the subject of a sentence), Objective (for direct and indirect objects, and the objects of prepositions), and Possessive (to indicate, you know, possession).  Originally, for the second personal pronoun, those forms looked like this:

case singular plural
Nom. thou ye
Obj. thee you
Poss. thy/thine your(s)/yourn

In other words, the word you was objective plural, and that was it.  If you’re having a hard time remembering how ye and you used to go, a little King James Bible might help. Matthew 5:21-22 – “Ye (Nom. pl.) have heard it said…. but I say unto you (obj. pl.)”

Then, one day “You” got tired of being king of all it could survey in its own little pond, and started calling for more a taller throne.  In other words, for some reason people started using “you” as the singular form of the word, but only in formal circumstances.  So at home with the wife and kids, it was thee and thou, but at public ceremonies and in court it was you and you.  If that sounds bizarre and backwards to you, there’s a reason.  Wait for it.

Religious folks, of course, objected to this.  We have our Bibles; words are important to us.  Quakers, for instance, were famous for using their thees and thous far into the 19th century.  But when we finally did start to cave on the formal use of you singular, we wanted to retain the sense of intimacy from the informal use of thou.  And what could be more intimate than a Man’s relationship with God?  So when Martin Buber wrote his famous book, Ich und Du, the English translation was “I and Thou,” not “I and You.”  In the American Standard series of Bible translations, the formal you is used for human conversation and the more intimate thee and thou are used for prayer.

And that’s where pietism broke the evolution of the English language, because prayer in the Bible isn’t intimate and personal.  Nearly every recorded prayer in scripture is from a public or instructional event.  How could it be otherwise?  That’s the way prayer works.  Even your most private, pious prayers eventually find expression in public, if you ever pray in public.

But the American Standard and the King James versions taught us that thee and thou belonged in prayer, even if they didn’t belong in our day-to-day speech.  And since public prayer is the formal, not informal,  we began to think of thee and thou as very formal and officious, and began to think poorly of people who push God away by praying in officious sounding, stiff grammatical forms.

And, of course, putting thees and thous only in public prayers served to shove them further out of our normal conversation.

Incidentally, I also learned that the old letter for “th” – Þ (lowercase, þ) is called “thorn.” (One imagines that calling it “þe” would have been confusing.) I haven’t yet figured out how to put it in the song…

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