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What is the difference between thee and thou and how are they used?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 31 down vote accepted

Thee, thou, and thine (or thy) are Early Modern English second person singular pronouns. Thou is the subject form (nominative), thee is the object form, and thy/thine is the possessive form.

Before they all merged into the catch-all form you, English second person pronouns distinguished between nominative and objective, as well as between singular and plural (or formal):

thou - singular informal, subject (Thou art here. = You are here.)
thee - singular informal, object (He gave it to thee.)
ye - plural or formal, subject
you - plural or formal, object

Interestingly, when the first English translations of the Bible were being made, the informal thee and thou were used specifically in reference to God to indicate an approachable, familiar God, but as the language changed this paradoxically brought thee and thou to sound more formal to the modern English speaker.

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12  
+1. Good answer. The difference between thy and thine is that thy came before a consonant sound and thine before a vowel, e.g., 'hallowed be thy name' vs. 'thine own self'. –  J D OConal Sep 22 '10 at 0:17
    
One other thing to keep in mind is that when the language was incorporated by Tyndale (and subsequently in the King James Version) into English Bibles, the forms were already dying out. By using the archaic familiar, the translation objective was to make it both familiar and "other" –  Affable Geek Dec 16 '11 at 20:38
    
@JDOConal Another difference is that thine is a possessive pronoun, like mine. “Mine can be made ready, but thine cannot.” –  tchrist May 27 '12 at 19:34
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I wonder if the translation of Thou instead of Thee could be in some part to prevent the heresy of pantheism (there being multiple gods). Better to err on the side of informality than to allow any inference that there are plural gods/ Reference: Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed, Apostles Creed –  user61830 Jan 10 at 3:10
    
Wah, I have always thought that "thine" is like "yours" –  justhalf Mar 3 at 16:20

Great answer from keithjgrant. Put otherwise, thou is closely equivalent to the French tu or the German du, and ye is like the French vous or the German Sie.

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I don't think it quite maps correctly to the German; while "Sie" does mean "you (formal)", it doesn't mean "you (plural, informal)", which "ye" does. Germans would use "ihr" for "ye" (and "euch" for "you") in informal contexts, and use "Sie" across the board in formal contexts. –  Kosmonaut Sep 22 '10 at 14:28
    
@kosmonaut - I thought each language adopted the plural form as the polite version (hence you/sie/vous) to mimic royal use of "we". In England in the 17-18C quakers kept to the old thou to show that they regarded everyone as equal. –  mgb Mar 29 '11 at 3:21
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@mgb: German does not follow that pattern. German sie, with the same conjugation, outside of formal use, is 3rd-person plural: "they". –  Kosmonaut Mar 29 '11 at 13:04
    
deleted - how do you delete a comment? –  mgb Mar 29 '11 at 13:36
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I'll add that, originally, thou singular and ye was plural ... there was no "polite singular ye" ... This came about after the Takeover by the Norman-French and many English speakers tried to pattern the thou-ye on tu-vous which led to much befuddlement ... and eventually to thou-ye being dropped. ... Interestingly, the Quakers reintroduced thee but also used it in the nominative. –  AnWulf Feb 11 '12 at 10:00

These answers are helpful. To succinctly clarify one aspect: Thou is a more familiar or informal way to say 'you.' Thee is the more formal way to say 'you.' Dustin Hoffman, as Ben Braddock, might say "Dost thee desire tea, Mrs. Robinson?" but "Dost thou desire tea, Elaine?"

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Using “thou” and the other second-person forms (-st on verbs, etc) has an archaically intimate sound to the native ear. “How do I love thee? Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.” There are only a few native speakers today who use thou anymore, and of those, most use either it as “tha” (still in regional use), or else they (the Quakers) use “thee” as a subjective rather than an objective form. But the 2nd person forms match 1st person ones more nicely: “thee and me”, “thine and mine” will always appeal to the poet. –  tchrist May 27 '12 at 22:11

'Thou' is historically perceived in Yorkshire (England) as being disrespectful, or over-familiar in a formal context, eg; if used to address a teacher, or upon greeting a stranger... However, 'thee' is percieved to be more respectful, as with the French usage of the words 'vous' and 'tous', of which 'tous' is regarded as offensive if used in appropriately (another conversation altogether). Barnsley folk are especially well know for having the bad habit of using 'thou', including one instance I've heard of with a French teacher, who mistakenly believed it to be endearing, and quickly chastised her pupils once she was put in the picture.

A classic Yorkshire phrase, often attributed to Ossett:

Don't thee thou me, thee thou thissen, and 'ow tha likes thee thouing. (Don't you thou me, you thou yourself, and see how you like it!)

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