Those who thee and thou: the second person singular pronoun after 1800

Cheratra Yaswen, copyright 2003


Originally, thee/thou was the singular second person pronoun, while you functioned as the plural second person pronoun. The use of each was unmarked; that is, each was used in general communication and served a mere grammatical purposes and neither connoted any unusual intent, tone, or meaning. By the sixteenth century, you had come to be generally used for both the plural and singular second person in Standard English, while thee/thou was used only in specific situations (i.e., not merely to distinguish singular from plural), thus becoming a marked form of address. It has been speculated that this shift was occasioned by the English desire to adopt a T-V form of address similar to that used by the French, in which the plural form (the V form, in this case, you) was used to connote respect even to a singular addressee, while the singular form (the T form, in this case thee/thou) was used to address one’s inferiors or to connote familiarity (Walker, 75). By the seventeenth century, thee/thou was generally used to express familiarity, affection, or contempt, or to address one’s social inferiors (Lass, 149).

By 1800, both unmarked and marked uses of thee and thou, had become virtually obsolete in Standard English (Denison, 314). Yet, throughout the nineteenth century, its marked use remained extant in many regional dialects, particularly those of rural, “working class”, and farming communities (Wright, V.6, 81). As in older Standard English, thee/thou continued to be used to address family members, particularly one’s children (Wright, 101), to express familiarity or affection, to address one’s inferiors, or to express contempt. These marked uses of thee/thou still survive today “mostly amongst the oldest generation of speakers” (Wales, 76) in a reduced number of English dialects in the north, south, and south/west of England and in Canada’s Newfoundland (Wales, 14, 76).[1] The distinction between thee/thou and you as singular and plural pronouns has become obsolete even in dialect form. (There are, however, several dialects which contain plural second person pronoun replacements such as you all in parts of the United States and youse in Northern England [Wales, 16-17] and parts of Canada).

In some of the dialects where thee/thou is still used, the two pronouns are pronounced ‘correctly’. However there were several variations, particularly of the pronunciation of thou, often with a reduction of the voiced ‘th’ to an unvoiced ‘t’ and an alteration of the vowel, sometimes with the result of ‘ta’ (e.g., in Yorkshire: “Wilt ta cum wi ma?”) (Wright, V.6,100). Variations in pronunciation within a given dialect could indicate whether thee or thou are stressed in a given sentence (ibid.). In addition, thee is often used ‘incorrectly’ in the nominative as well as the accusative case and thou is occasionally used ‘incorrectly’ in the accusative case.

The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, was founded in England in the mid-seventeenth century (Powell), when the T-V distinctions between thee/thou and you were still being used in Standard English, though they were rapidly falling out of favour. The Quakers adopted what was known as “plain speech”, one of the most noticeable aspects of which being the use of thee/thou in all situations, when addressing all people, regardless of the addressee’s rank or relation to the addresser. This use of thee/thou was employed, in part, as a means of expressing the Quaker belief in the equality of all people (Birch 40-41).

To escape religious persecution and to create a Quaker community, many Quakers moved to the United States in the late seventeenth century (Powell) where the use of thee/thou in Quaker plain speech persisted well into the twentieth century and may occasionally still be heard, especially amongst Quaker elders. When asked if she remembers Quakers “thee and thouing” people in her childhood, Selma Sheldon[2], born in 1942 and raised in a well-established Quaker family in New York State, wrote,


Yes – particularly within their families. It was quite common. Ann Lane, who was my grade 3 teacher, ended up in her senior years living across the hall from Grandma  down at Friend’s Homes [a Quaker retirement community in North Carolina]. Whenever she saw me, right up until her death less than 10 years ago, she used the thee/thou form of address. I’m almost positive that you could find people at Friend’s Homes using it today. (personal communication)


Don Badgley, Sheldon’s cousin, confirms that Quaker seniors today still use thee/thou: “Some Quakers still use the thee and thou especially around Philly in the octogenarian set” (personal communication)[3].

As in other dialects, thee came to be used by many Quakers, at least in the New York State area, in both the nominative and the accusative cases[4].

Thee is supposed to be the object form of the word, and yet Quakers in my day have always used it as subject as well. Thus, “Thee is looking lovely today.” I never heard plain friends (as we call the theeing folk) use the word ‘thou’. (Sheldon, personal communication)


It is likely, however, that this use of thee in both nominative and accusative cases is a later development.

As stated above, the Quaker use of thee/thou was initially adopted as a means of expressing a belief in the equality of all people. This is the understanding most Quakers have today of their religion’s use of thee/thou and was what I, raised Quaker, was taught in First Day School (i.e., Sunday School) as were the generations before me. Says Sheldon

The story I learned as a Quaker kid is that ‘you’ was used in addressing your ‘betters’, and because Quakers didn’t believe a peer or landed person or whatever was any better than anyone else, they took to addressing everyone with thee and thou – the same reason they didn’t use titles like Mr. or Mrs., or whatever. They simply called a person by their name. Thee/thou was the more intimate/familiar form of address. (personal communication)


With the eventual demise of the T-V system of address, “The forces of language change,” says B.M. Birch in her essay, “Quaker Plain Speech”, “had accomplished what George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, had desired: equality and democracy in the use of pronouns” (44). This effectively rendered the initial intent of Quaker plain speech archaic which probably is a large contributing factor to the erosion of its use.

            Ironically, the surviving use of thee/thou amongst Quakers closely resembles its surviving uses in other dialects in which it is used to imply intimacy, familiar relations, and even mild contempt. Says Birch, “thee is reserved for Quaker members of the immediate family, the extended family, or husband and wife...” (46) and “mild eldering (criticism)” (47). It could be argued that thee/thou is now used amongst Quakers very much like the T-V system they first meant to protest.

            It seems that many Quakers are no longer aware of some of the other influences leading to the initial adoption of Quaker plain speech. One of these influences was the general respect accorded the Authorized Version of the Bible (Wales, 15). The high regard for what Roger Lass refers to as “the double-barreled influence of the great Elizabethan and Jacobean poets and the Authorized Version” (153) may be what led many poets to continue to use thee/thou until about the mid-twentieth century (Wales, 77). The 1989 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary reports that thee/thou is still used in “poetry, apostrophe, and elevated prose”. While this entry in the OED may not yet have been updated and the information may already have been inaccurate in 1989, Wales does point out that, “Thou-forms occasionally appear in contemporary popular songs, if only for rhyme: e.g. ‘Respectfully/ I say to thee/ you’re turning me/ upside down’ (Diana Ross, 1980)” (77). I would argue that those who see thee/thou as an acceptable option in lyric writing are probably somewhat influenced by its relatively recent use in poetry.

            Again, because of the prestige of the Authorized Version of the Bible, as well as the continued influence of 1549 Book of common prayer (Wales, 76), thee/thou persists most vibrantly in liturgical settings (OED; Denison, 314). This survival too is degrading with the introduction of new prayer books such as the “Alternative Service” Book in England (Wales, 15) and Celebrate God’s Presence: A Book of Services for the United Church of Canada in Canada (Bristow, personal communication) which do not use thee/thou. The increasing use of modern translations of the Bible, such as The Good News Bible, which drop the use of thee/thou also influences the decline of the use of thee/thou in liturgical settings. However, even with the reduced influence of the Authorized Version, says Rev. Ted Bristow, of the United Church of Canada, “Many, many prayers survive in thee and thou form... for familiarity” (personal communication). Because, speculates Bristow, most people memorized prayers such as “The Lord’s Prayer” using the thee/thou form, they prefer to continue to use this translation of the prayer though new translations are available.

            Thee/thou is often still used as “a special or marked form for addressing God [or Christ] in a special or marked register” (Wales, 77; OED). Though it could still retain a sense of intimacy – the intimacy of the Christian with Christ or God it connoted in the Authorized Version  that it once held in general use, it is more likely being used to connote the inferior status of the person addressing God. Says Bristow, ‘theeing’ God is, “a handy distinction between divine thee’s and human you’s and thereby an honouring the THEE as special, not to be taken for granted as just another person” (personal communication). It is, says Bristow, “a different form of address [that] allows that difference to be underlined” (personal communication) though he admits that he does not himself use this form of address. The irony here is that, in this context, thee/thou has taken the V form of respect that was once filled by you.

            It seems that in virtually every instance where thee/thou is still being used –whether in dialects, liturgy, or Quakerism – it is most often used by the elders in that setting. My own hypothesis is that thee/thou will continue its progression toward obsolescence, though it will probably survive longest in liturgical environments. Its tenacity and the specific uses for which it has survived suggests that some English speakers may have a lingering desire for more subtle variations in forms of pronomial address, particularly as a means of expressing some of the stronger emotions of love, respect, and intimacy.


Works Consulted


Abrams, M.H.. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2, 5th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986.


Badgley, Don. <> “thee/thou” Personal email to Cheratra Yaswen. 6 March, 2003.


Birch, Barbara M. “Quaker Speech: a policy of linguistic divergence.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 116 (1995): 39-59.


Blake, Norman. “The Literary Language.” The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 2: 1066-1476. Ed. Norman Blake. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.


Bristow, Ted. <> “thee/thou” Personal email to Cheratra Yaswen. 14 Feb. 2003.


-- <> “thee/thou yet again” Personal email to Cheratra Yaswen. 9 May 2003.


Denison, David. “Syntax.” The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 4. Ed. Suzanne Romaine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


Graveson, Caroline C.. The Farthing Family: The Story of a London Family in The 17th Century. London: The Bennisdale Press, 1950.


Lass, Roger. “Phonology and morphology.” The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 2: 1066-1476. Ed. Norman Blake. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.


-- “Phonology and morphology.” The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 3: 1476-1776. Ed. Roger Lass. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


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Powell, Jim. “William Penn.” <> 13 May 2003.


Richards, Jack C., John Platt, Heidi Platt, eds. Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Malaysia: Longman, 1992.


Sheldon, Selma. <> “thee/thou” Personal communication to Cheratra Yaswen. 14 Feb. 2003.


-- <> “thee/thou yet again” Personal communication to Cheratra Yaswen. 9 May, 2003.


Wales, Katie. Personal Pronouns in Present-Day English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.


Walker, Terry. “The choice of second person singular in pronouns in authentic and constructed dialogue in late sixteenth century English.” Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory: Papers from the Twentieth International Conference on English Language Reaseach on Computerized Corpora. Eds. Christian Mair and Marianne Hundt. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.


Wright, Joseph. Ed. The English Dialect Dictionary, Volume 6. London: Oxford University Press, 1898-1905.


[1] The English Dialect Dictionary, to which I referred for my regional information about the nineteenth century, did not outline dialects outside of England but one may infer that, if thee/thou is extant in Newfoundland today, it was also extant in the nineteenth century.

[2] In the interests of “full disclosure”, I must state that I have close relations with some of my valuable sources. Selma Sheldon is my mother. Thus, when she refers to “Grandma”, she is referring to her own mother, my grandmother. Friend’s Homes, the Quaker retirement home to which she refers is run by her brother, my uncle, also a Quaker. Don Badgley, whose father is a prominent Quaker elder in Poughkeepsie, New York, is her cousin. I was also raised as a Quaker. My mother became a United Church minister in 1987 and is now married to Rev. Ted Bristow whom I use as a source for information about modern liturgical uses of thee/thou.

[3] Philadelphia is in Pennsylvania, the region specifically set aside for William Penn, a founding Quaker, in the late seventeenth century. The goal was to create a Quaker colony (Powell). The area remains more strongly influenced by Quakers than many other areas.

[4] Some Quakers still refer to “theeing and thouing” even in areas where thou has not been used for some time. This may be a reflection either of the persistence of idioms even after the grammar they reflect is no longer used, or of the influence of the many older Quaker stories (written when the thee/thou distinction was still used correctly) read by Quakers. (See, for example, The Farthing Family, by Caroline C. Graveson.)