Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Whatever Happened to "Thou"?

Episode Summary

Where’d "thou" go? And will it ever make a comeback?

Episode Notes

In an age when eels were sometimes used as currency and castles pierced the sky, “thou” was all the rage. But over time, it disappeared from use. Where did it go? And will it ever make a comeback?

This week, we're sharing an episode of Curious State, a brand new podcast from Quick and Dirty Tips. Listen and subscribe to Curious State on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, or wherever you're listening to Grammar Girl.

Transcript: https://grammar-girl.simplecast.com/episodes/whatever-happened-to-thou

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Episode Transcription

The following is a rough transcript of the interview.

Mignon  Fogarty

Grammar Girl here. This week, I was a guest on our newest Quick and Dirty Tips podcast, Curious State, talking about one of my favorite subjects: why we don't say "thou" anymore. And I got to discuss it in more detail than I've ever done before, so we're playing it for you here today too. But if you like the format, go check out the rest of the Curious State episodes and subscribe to the show.

Doug describes himself as "a perpetual fan of the peculiar," and the tidbits you learn will make you the most interesting person at any dinner party.

Doug  Fraser

Welcome to 13th century France. You're standing in the fashion capital of the world, where wide sleeves and flowing dresses adorn fair maidens and men sport tunics, tight leg hose, and what very much look like elf shoes. It's an age when eels were sometimes used as currency, jousting was all the rage, and castles pierced the sky. Medieval times were steeped in culture and clad in language that has since gone the way of the dodo. Words like “thou” were part of everyday language, but today are defunct. So what happened?

Mignon  Fogarty

Often we don't, we don't know why language changes. It's natural and normal and happens whether we like it or not. But with “thou,” we actually know why.

Doug  Fraser

That's Mignon Fogarty, better known by her millions of fans as Grammar Girl, she's gonna help us parse through the grammatical treasures of yore and crown our noggins with historical wisdom. I'm Doug Fraser, and thou art listening to Curious State.

Mignon  Fogarty

It started in the 13th century, in the French court that English people were sort of emulating the way things were happening in the French aristocrats where they started using the plural “you” to refer to high status individuals, they would refer to the king or queen or aristocrats, as “you” instead of “thou,” using the plural and giving the plural form this sense of status and formality. So they think that's how it started.

Doug  Fraser

Fast forward a couple hundred years to the 15th century, and “you” had become a widespread status pronoun, while “thou” was reserved for those of low status, away from the squalor of the streets and inside the home. “Thou” reversed its role, instead of being demeaning. It had a sense of intimacy.

Mignon  Fogarty

So a wife might refer to her husband as “you” in public to show, you know, formality to reflect his status that he's an important person, my husband there, you know, but at home, when they're more intimate and just having dinner or whatever, she might refer to him as “thou.”

Doug  Fraser

You wouldn't want to get those mixed up. Can you imagine the horrors of demeaning your husband in public by referring to him as “thou”? What fair hands! It gets pretty tricky when you're associating “thou” with class status. So of course, people started using “thou” sarcastically and that orchard of possibility is rife with insults.

Mignon  Fogarty

I love this. So there's a famous example: there's a court case where Sir Walter Rally was on trial. And it was in the early 1600s. Silence in the court. And the prosecutor tried to insult him by saying, “I ‘thou’ thee, thou traitor,” which means I referred to you as “thou,” you traitor. And that was a deep insult. That stings! Horrible, you don't want to “thou” someone, it took on this meaning as a verb: “dude, I “thou” thee,” it was a verb that meant to call someone thou.

Doug  Fraser

Now that I think about it, actually, it makes me look at Shakespeare in a whole new light.

Mignon  Fogarty

Shakespeare’s really interesting, because he did “you”–he didn't do it all the time. He was writing during a time when this was very much in flux. But you can kind of see that he used “thou” in dialogue when people were speaking to an intimate or an inferior or when they were giving an insult. So you can't look at it and say he always did it this way or he always did it that way. But, there are trends and he did still use it in those ways.

Doug  Fraser

Outdated insults are the best. So let's take a stroll down insult Memory Lane, where the words are sharp, and the cuts are deep, but also hilarious. Take this example from the 1530 play titled Hick’s corner: Dust thou “thou” me? I am come have good kin!” or this insult from George Fox’s journal, circa 1660: “What you ill bred clown? Do you “thou” me?” And who can forget this classic insult from the noble royalty of insults himself: Shakespeare. This sharp nugget comes from the Tempest: “Thou liest, thou lying monkey thou.”

Mignon  Fogarty

the Quakers were some of the last people to use “thou,” they believed in plain speaking and that in a level society that no one was better than anyone else. So they really objected to this idea of high status and low status people. And so they refused to refer to anyone as “you.” They called everyone “thou.” And so when they went in–first of all, they were insulting people all the time because they were calling high status people “thou,” which the high status people didn't like. But then if they had to go to court for anything, they refused to refer to the judge as “you” or “your honor,” no status markers at all. And this really ticked off judges who felt like they deserved respect and weren't getting it from the Quakers. So it caused them legal problems as well, when they would go to court.

Doug  Fraser

I can't imagine the chaos in those courtrooms. It feels so, just tense, just talking about it, like, you see, okay, someone who is a Quaker is walking in the courtroom and people have probably seen this before, and they're like, oh boy, here he comes.

Mignon  Fogarty

And I mean, I guess it would be the modern equivalent of going into court and insisting on calling the judge “you jerk” or something like that. It was very offensive. You're not gonna do well in your case.

Doug  Fraser

Poor Quakers. If only they knew their linguistic wishes would one day come true. While “thou” sat comfortably on the menu, a popular language change was bubbling. A new cultural chef was in town, and he had big changes to the menu. The end of “thou” was nigh. “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” Is that insulting? Or is it sweetly ironic, all of this “thou”-ing and Shakespearean scribbles. But nothing can last forever. The linguistic menu was about to get up-ended. And spoiler alert, “thou” gets the boot.

Mignon  Fogarty

 I think the reason that “thou” eventually lost the language popularity contest is that, in, in England, during these times, the middle class was emerging. And, that hadn't really existed before and so it got to the point where you couldn't be sure who was your superior, who was your inferior, just by looking at them or maybe knowing them. People were shifting around, and so there was a great risk of insulting people by accidentally calling them “thou.”

Doug  Fraser

“Thou” eventually lost its status as an insult. Today, we think of “thou” as being formal, it's elevated language that's nearly defunct, except for a few places. One of them is the Bible.

Mignon  Fogarty

And that's interesting, too, because at the time, the Bible was written in English, translated, “thou” was already kind of archaic, like at the time it was, it wasn't like the common thing. But the translators, one, were very conservative linguistically and they were also–they were trying to keep the singular and plural distinction that they found in the Greek and Hebrew that they were translating from. You know, other languages, they have these formal and informal singular and plural pronouns, and Greek and Hebrew did, and they were trying to preserve that, so they kept “thou.” And so then, you know, things like Bible translations, they don't change very often. So it wasn't until sort of the late 1940s, early 1950s, that the Bible got updated.

Doug  Fraser

In the King James Version, they took out most instances of “thou.”

Mignon  Fogarty

Except they kept it when they're referring to God, they kept “thou” for, for God. For some reason, it's not entirely clear to me why they did it. But it seems like it was to keep maybe that level, like we want that intimacy with God, that close relationship, which is what “thou” indicated, or it could be that they thought it was a sign of respect. I'm not 100% sure about that.

Doug  Fraser

Outside Holy Scripture, “thou” creeps out of the shadows from time to time in everyday language. Occasionally, a select few Quakers use it. And so do some folks in northern England and parts of Scotland,

Mignon  Fogarty

Especially in the rural and working class areas. People still use “thou,” and it can have different pronunciations. So it can be pronounced “thoo,” “the,” “D,” “Da”, but it's “thou” and it still exists. And they use it almost as a form of pride of their local dialect in these regions. And sometimes I hear they will use “you” when speaking to outsiders, as a way of showing, like, you're an outsider. It's the more formal or they use “thou” like with each other as sort of their intimate, we're-all-part-of-the-group pronoun. And language is about that. It's about showing what-what group you belong to. We use language a lot that way.

Doug  Fraser

Do you think “thou” would ever make a comeback?

Mignon  Fogarty

I don't. I don't, because I think the drive is almost always to simplify language. So I don't, you know, I think that that leveling, that bringing everything you know, from “thou,” and “thee” and “ye” and all that down to the all “you” for almost all of them, is how language tends to work. It gets simpler over time. I mean, what's fascinating is that this change, this loss of “thou” also led to us losing the more complicated endings on verbs, because there were different verbs that went with “thou,” and “you.” So it would be “thou thinkest,” for example, had those “e-s-t” endings, “thou thinkest,” but “you think,” and so when people stopped saying “thou,” we also lost “thinkest” and “doest” and “goest” and all those “e-s-t” verbs. And it's so funny because language change at the time, nobody is, there's always someone who doesn't like it, right? So, Alexander Pope, who is this famous writer, in the, you know, I think it was the 1600s. He hated this, he did not like that we lost these different verbs to distinguish between singular and plural. So he insisted on saying “you was,” for a while. He tried to keep the verbs separate for, for “you singular” and “you plural.” You can see it in his private letters. So he was visiting a friend, trying to visit a friend who was sick, and he ended up speaking with the servants and the servants told them that the sick friend was fine. And so he wrote to his friend, and he said, “he was relieved to hear that you was fine.” Instead of “you were fine.” And he kept that up for a while, but the writings say that his friends, his contemporaries didn't like it. They thought it was ridiculous and vulgar. So he was essentially peer pressured into not doing it anymore.

Doug  Fraser

Words enter the collective menu of culture like ingredients for expression. Over time, our tastes change and recipes shift to meet the moment, new flavors arrive sweet on the tongue, others quickly stale and are discarded, though not always forever. Some words rise like the phoenix and find new life. Most however, go the way of “thou” becoming timestamps of days gone. Distant signals from the past, reminding us that, like ourselves, our words also have an expiration. But that's not stopping Mignon from trying to resurrect one of her favorite words of days gone by.

Mignon  Fogarty

“Mubble Fubbles.” So, “mubble fubbles” used to be a word for being depressed or melancholy. So they would say, Ah, he has the “mubble fubbles.” And I think we should bring that one back. That's great.

Doug  Fraser

It cheers you up instantly when you say it! You can't be down when you say that word. Check out Mignon’s incredible Grammar Girl resources, including her books and online courses, and subscribe to the Grammar Girl podcast wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any questions, comments or ideas for future episodes, email me at Curious@quickanddirtytips.com. If you prefer talking over typing, leave me a voicemail at 757-541-8471. For more information about the show and where you can find this across the internet, check out our show notes or visit quickanddirtytips.com. Special thanks to the Quick and Dirty Tips team. Adam Cecil, our audience development and podcast manager, Morgan Christiansen, podcast and advertising operations specialist, Davina Tomlin, marketing and publicity assistant, and our trusty intern Brendon Picha. Curious State is hosted and produced by me, Doug Fraser, for the Quick and Dirty Tips Network, which is a division of Macmillan Publishers, in partnership with Mignon Fogarty Inc. Until next time, stay curious.