Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thee, or Thou?

A few years ago I met a Quaker man from Atlanta at a historical event, who said something like, "Thee is well?" I thought he was just being quaint and had no idea about grammar. Since then, I've heard other people use "Thee is" - which is grammatically like saying "Me am going to the store." I've heard it in movies, and I just read a historian who wrote that thee replaced thou in America by the end of the 18th century.

But it didn't, in my part of the Quaker world.

In my and my parents' generation, we have used "you" in everyday conversation. I didn't realize until I grew up and moved away, and someone asked me to say the blessing before a meal, that we still used "thou" in all of our prayers. Daily prayers, Sunday morning prayers and the prevalence of the King James Bible were enough for us to absorb the correct grammar, including "thou art." It's not just my family. Last year a Quaker friend of mine from another N.C. county used thou and thee for a full 10 minutes of conversation, just for fun.

So, I'm confused. Even non-Quakers know "Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not ..." etc. Why would a group of people who read the King James Bible - like everybody else until the late 20th century - throw out both biblical and secular grammar and make up their own? Is it regional? Are we in Piedmont North Carolina the only Quakers who kept correct grammar? Or is it just a myth, a bad stereotype, that anybody uses "thee is"?

I'd really like to hear from people who grew up with thee or thou, even if you heard it from your grandparents or an old pastor or neighbor. Please include the region where you lived.

Note: "Thee" is correct as an object, just like "me." If people speak correct grammar, you'll hear both thou (a subject, like I) and thee (object, like me). The incorrect grammar is to use thee for every use.


A rootdigger said...

Whatyou say is interesting. I never had the privilidge that I remember. In Wi. we are near amish, but I rarely see or hear them. the same for the menonite few who shop aroud the town now and then.

My own interest has been the tones of speech or the way something is said.

And I have yet had my questions answered about translators and low dutch german language. lol.

Micah Bales said...

The King James Bible was written in the English of the royal court; "thou art" is reflective of that royal dialect. My understanding is that folks in the North of England in the mid-1600s would have said, "thee is." Since Friends were strongest in the North, it makes sense to me that their linguistic norms would have prevailed in the community.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you both for your comments.
Micah, I've been researching 1650s to 1750s Quaker writings (G.Fox's journal and meeting minutes), and they used thou. The royal dialect had become you (KJV was written a century before Quakers). The historian I referred to said thou was prevalent until late 1700s (in America?). My confusion was that, in my region, it never went away. Have you heard either, in modern times?

Micah Bales said...


Few Friends today use plain speech, as it's called. However, those who do say "thee is."

Fox himself was from the Midlands, not from the North. Perhaps that is an explanation for why he did not use the same grammatical form which later became standard for Friends.

kibbles said...

I didn't grow up around it, but when I do see it/hear it, I see thee, and not thou. I saw more thous growing up Catholic in Brooklyn, actually.