Thou, thee, you, and ye

Ever wonder what the rules were for when to use thou, thee, ye, or you in Shakespeare or the King James Bible?

For example, the inscription on front of the Main Building at The University of Texas says

Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.

Why ye at the beginning and you at the end?

The latest episode of The History of English Podcast explains what the rules were and how they came to be. Regarding the UT inscription, ye was the subject form of the second person plural and you was the object form. Eventually you became used for subject and object, singular and plural.

The singular subject form was thou and the singular object form was thee. For example, the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Originally the singular forms were intimate and the plural forms were formal. Only later did thee and thou take on an air of reverence or formality.

14 thoughts on “Thou, thee, you, and ye

  1. “The singular subject form was thou and the singular subject form was thee.” The second should say object.

    I think I’m going to start using these in formal communication. I’ve always hated using the same word for singular and plural.

  2. The loss of distinct singular and plural 2nd person seems weird to me. They’re so useful. Many non-standard English dialects have replacements: y’all, youse and others.

  3. I cringe when I hear “thee” or “thou” used as if it were a “God pronoun,” a notion that was unfortunately bolstered by the first version of the NASB, which maintained these pronouns when God was being addressed.

    It seems implausible that Biblical and language scholars could have been ignorant of the meanings of these pronouns when this work was being done in the 1960s, and as they were, after all, translating greek and hebrew words, not updating the King James Bible. Most likely this was a business decision, that the raw pronouns would not sound appropriately reverent enough to sell. Fortunately, this was fixed with the update in 1995.

    Not the last time that money would dictate pronoun choices in Bible translation …

  4. Swedish still uses different forms for these. It also has separate forms for possessives when the possessor is singular or plural as well as when the possessed thing is. Oh, and the forms change depending on what kind of noun the possessed thing is categorized as, and the noun form itself changes depending on if they’re singular or plural, and in different ways depending on the noun.

    My wife is studying Swedish and she sometimes looks ready to throw the grammar book at me. I try to stay away at those times.

  5. It may be useful to compare with German

    Thou – du ( singular subject)
    Thee – dir/dich (singular object)
    Ye – ihr (plural subject,pronounced similar to “eer” or maybe “yer”)

  6. Knowing Dutch sometimes feels like cheating at English etymology:

    ye – je
    you – jou

    In fact you can almost translate the whole thing word-for-word: “je zal de waarheid weten en de waarheid zal jou vrij maken”.

  7. And there were also posessive forms for the 2nd person singular, “thy” and “thine”.

    My understanding is that “thy” was the more common (as in “take up thy bed and walk”).

    “Thine” tended to be used when the next word began with a vowel (“drink to me only with thine eyes).

    But I understand that it could also be used when there was no following noun (“it is thine”).

    BTW, my understanding is that the letter “y” was used as an abbreviation for “th”, so that “ye inn” would have been pronounced much as it is today.

  8. I’ve read at several sites that “thou” is used as subject and “thee” as object. However, I’ve seen both words used in direct address. Example:
    “Dolley, thou hast tricked thy brother…”
    but
    “Thee’ve got no business here.”
    and
    “What’d thee see?”

    I’ve seen “thou art” and “thee are.” What’s the deal?

  9. If I was in England in 1629 and used “modern day” American English; using correct grammar and articulation of course would they be able to understand me or would they be as confused as us reading works of other renaissance writers?

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