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In some eastern Indo-European languages like Persian specially in its northern accent Gilaki, the words "thou", "thee", "thy",... have a same meaning and pronunciation as English. But there is a difference. In these languages the usage of "thou" is much more frequent than English. They have no "you" (in singular forms) and they use "thou" everywhere. My question is about this ancient word.

Question: What are the main differences between the words "you" and "thou" in English language in usage, grammar, etc? Is there any difference in meanings of "thou" and "you" up to special circumstances? Can one use "thou" instead of "you" everywhere?

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    The main difference between the words "you" and "thou" in modern English is that 'you' is used. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 23 '13 at 20:42
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    @Edwin; See english.stackexchange.com/q/25288/8019 – TimLymington Nov 23 '13 at 21:22
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    You've stated it clearly but I find it hard to believe...are you saying that in Gilaki, the second person singular nominative, accusative, possessive all sound just like the Middle English 'thou', 'thee', 'thy'? Also are you saying that there is no second person plural nominative in Gilaki? – Mitch Nov 23 '13 at 21:24
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    @Mitch I assume they meant that Gilaki's second-person singular pronouns (which google suggests are tu, təra & ti) are clearly similar to English thou, French tu, Greek εσύ, Irish and Sanskrit twa-m. As thou declined in Late Modern English, it did indeed make English unusual in this regard as Indo-European languages go. – Jon Hanna Nov 23 '13 at 22:07
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    @TimLymington: The last person known to use such words surely died trying to rescue a feckless hat-avoider on Ilkley Moor? – Edwin Ashworth Nov 24 '13 at 14:43
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There are two important distinctions.

The first is that thou (and thy, thine, thyself) is second-person singular. Ye is second-person plural. You is second-person of either singular and plural (originally only a case of plural).

As such, you can use thou only of one person. Ye would generally be used for either the plural, but due to the "T-V distinction" (named for the Latin tu and vos) ye would also be used as a formal form of the singular second person, with thou generally only for the either social inferiors or intimates, and it being impolite or downright insulting to use it for a superior or someone of equal social rank with whom you weren't close:

I thou thee thou traitor! - Sir Edward Coke to Sir Walter Raleigh, as a deliberate insult.

Don't thou those as thou thee. - Yorkshire proverb, advising young people in particular against being overly familiar with their betters.

An interesting exception though, is that thou is used of deities, most particularly (given the history of the English) of the Christian god, though also of others:

After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Matthew 6:9 (KJV)

The second important distinction, is that we don't use thou any more. By the early 20th Century it was restricted to a few dialects in everyday use (one can find it in the Nottinghamshire dialect used in D. H. Lawrence's novels, but at that point the use would have marked the dialogue as regional), and now it's pretty much dead just about everywhere, bar a few older speakers in some parts and some small communities with a particular religious focus for reasons made obvious in what follows. Edit: Including Quakers, but only among themselves, as when they revived it in the 1600s but ignored the T-V distinction because they don't believe in distinction of social rank, people often reacted violently.

The main remaining use is in religious contexts, because people are often conservative about their scripture and liturgy, and having learnt their Pater Noster using thy they resisted changing to you. Even in religious use, revisions of bibles and prayer-books are making it less common.

Non-Christian religious use often leans toward it, whether in translation or creation:

Immortal Aphrodite of the broidered throne, daughter of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I pray thee break not my spirit with anguish and distress, O Queen. - Wharton's translation of Sappho's "Hymn to Aphrodite".

And thou who thinkest to seek Me, know thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not unless thou knowest the mystery; that if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, then thou wilt never find it without thee. - "Charge of the Goddess", Doreen Valiente's revision.

Even here though, contemporary use is moving away from thou, and there are versions of all three religious texts I quoted above using you.

Can one use "thou" instead of "you" everywhere?

Due to the above, one uses thou pretty much nowhere in contemporary English.

In poetic use, then it must be singular, and intimate, and really requires a deeper knowledge than the above to use well; as per any bending of the rules, one needs to know them particularly well.

If you are using it in historical fiction, you'll need to research the etiquette rules in effect at the time, as they changed a bit over the period concerned.

Incidentally, the converse form ye as the plural and formal singular form still exists in some dialects (it's found in parts of Ireland, for example), but generally only as a plural form, not with any nuance of formal address.

  • I wonder (idly, since I am neither religious nor interested in religion beyond a most superficial curiosity in its effects on society, language, and people) whether the contemporary move away from thou is slowly extending to even the Lord’s Prayer. Even as someone who has (as far as I can recall) never uttered it, it just seems so wrong to say, “Our Father, who are in Heaven: hallowed be your name; your Kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”—but that version does give some hits in Google! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 23 '13 at 22:06
  • @JanusBahsJacquet it is indeed. My partner's denomination has two official texts, with different parishes choosing between them, and one uses thy where the other uses you. Hers retains the thy, and as someone who favours the thou form of the Charge of the Goddess, I'm of like mind in terms of language if not of creed! – Jon Hanna Nov 23 '13 at 22:11
  • You was the oblique case of 2nd person plural only. Thee was the 2nd person singular pronoun for the oblique case. Yes, now it's both singular and plural, but the nominative case was thou/ye for singular and plural pronouns respectively. A better question would be why you came to be favored and how it replaced both ye and thou? – Giambattista Nov 23 '13 at 22:14
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    No, it's not restricted to the old, thought I doubt if many young people use it much. I don't think there are many people who invariably, or even regularly, use it. It's a register available to many people, and I think it's particularly in a context of friendliness. – Colin Fine Nov 24 '13 at 22:21
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    Incidentally, the dialect reproduced by D.H.Lawrence was not Yorkshire, but the East Midlands Nottingham/Derby one. He was born and brought up in the mining village of Eastwood. – WS2 Nov 25 '13 at 8:19
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To summarize @Jon Hanna: "Thee", "thou", "thine", "thy", &c, are all archaic forms no longer used in standard English. Some communities, such as the Amish and Quakers, may still use them.

If you were to ask someone "How art thou feeling?", he would probably wonder what was going on.

As an aside, it's one of the main disappointments of the English language that we have no plural form for "you". So we sometimes have to back up and explain "and by 'you' I mean all of you...".

In the Southern part of the U.S., a common form was "y'all" - a contraction of "you all", but that's not much used, either.

  • And in the 17th Century if someone was asked "how art thou feeling?" they might punch the asker, as did happen a few times when Quakers used the term. It occurs to me now that Quakers do sometimes use it, but only among themselves; keeping to their revival of it, but avoiding the offence they were causing when they revived it, but deliberately ignored the T-V distinction. – Jon Hanna Nov 24 '13 at 9:54
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    Contrary what may have been implied here, 'thee', 'thou', and 'thy' are still used in some parts of Britain. – WS2 Nov 25 '13 at 8:22
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    Y’all is not much used in the South anymore either? Eh? Seems fairly common (and much more widespread than just the South) to me. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 26 '15 at 10:19
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"thou, thee, thy, thine" were replaced by "you, your, yours" between 1600 and 1700. You still find thou and the connected forms in the Bible and in Shakespeare (around 1600). You would produce a very queer effect if you used "thou" in today's language.

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