Whatever happened to the English equivalent of “tu?”

The English pronoun, thou, pronounced like how, is the English familiar pronoun.  It is no longer used but it still exists.  Any student who has read (or tried to read) Shakespeare knows that he frequently used it… as well as its possessive form, thy, and its object form, thee.  In modern English it is mostly restricted to religious usages.  The Ten Commandments start with “Thou shalt…”.

It was usually conjugated with “-est;”

–       to know: thou knowest, thou knewest

–       to drive: thou drivest, thou drovest

–       to make: thou makest, thou madest

–       to love: thou lovest, thou lovedst

Or “-st;”

–       will: thou wilst

–       can: thou canst

–       could: thou couldst

–       to have: thou hast, thou hadst

–       to do: thou dost (or thou doest in non-auxiliary use) and thou didst

However, the infinitive, to be, was conjugated like shall with a “t;”

–       Thou shalt…You shall

–       Thou art…You are

Originally thou was used to refer to a singular person and you was for more than one person, but the Norman invasion brought the French language to the England, which heavily influenced the English language.  Like in French, the practice of addressing kings and other aristocrats in the plural was adopted into English. Eventually, this was generalized to include addressing any social superior or stranger with a plural pronoun.  Thou like the French tu was considered either intimate or condescending, and the plural form, you, like vous was used in formal situation.

However, in Early Modern English, you became more and more common.  It was safer to use you if you were uncertain about the social standard of a person, and in London, people from the country were reinventing themselves.  Thou sounded too rustic.  Also, it was considered insulting to the lower classes who aspired to move up economically.

Eventually thou was replaced by you, which is now used to refer to one person or to more than one person.  Thou more or less disappeared except for students of early English literature, especially Shakespeare and Chaucer, but because the early translations of the bible used it, it still has a modern use.  It has been preserved in the church.  Many people use Thou when praying.  Ironically it has lost the sense of familiarity that it had before and now has obtained a sense of reverence.  It is now considered the divine pronoun.


Written by Mike Dean Alger for Aston School

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