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When going through old English literature, especially stories and poems, we can see they have been full of words like "thou" and "thee" etc.

Some of my English teachers told me that they were used to stress the respect of the person being identified. What was the reason for their disappearance in modern English?

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    Have a look at this question :) – oerkelens Apr 5 '14 at 8:03
  • I read about "Quakers" there, and seems convincing. For some reasons, in western countries, because of wild competition among people they might not like to give "special" rank based respect to each other. At least not by communication.(however words like "sir" are used). In non-west countries, where people are "extremely" social, such words still have a lot of significance. Not using them, for people higher in ranks (even in families), status are considered near to sin. And it seems, possibly bcoz of globalization and huge western effect all over the world, such words will come to extinction. – Vishwas G Apr 6 '14 at 7:39
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    Not all western countries use English. In France you should never use tu when vous is expected, and in Germany that goes for du anmd Sie. – oerkelens Apr 6 '14 at 11:47
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English has been steadily losing many of its grammatical "complexities" (or beauty, depending on how much one enjoys grammar).

Thou and thee did not stress respect, to my knowledge. Whoever informed you as such probably felt that way due to associations between those particular pronouns and the King James Bible, which is probably where those pronouns are most associated with today.

Thou was the second-person nominative-cased pronoun. Simply put, it was the second-person form of "he" (subject). Its roots go very far back, but in Old English it was rendered þū.

Thee, on the other hand, was the second-person accusative-cased pronoun (analogous to our third-person "him"). In OE this was þē or þēc. Note that 'þ' is pronounced as a voiceless 'th', like the 'th' in thick.

You also has a similar storied past. It was simply the plural dative-cased second-person pronoun ēow (Old English had different pronouns for singular second person, when you're speaking to one person, versus plural second person, which we render as "you guys"). In modern English we form the dative case of nouns by putting it into a prepositional phrase like 'to you'. This was a single-word form of that.

English has lost many of its grammatical rules regarding case agreement. In concert with that, we've also lost having two sets of second person pronouns. For reasons mysterious, the language evolved this way. According to Google, in the 14th century 'you' began replacing 'ye', 'thee', and 'thou', and by the 17th century 'you' was the primary second-person pronoun for both accusative and nominative cases. Remember we still have the genitive your, which was also from the second-person plural genitive pronoun ēower.

References:

  • The interesting question here is why the thee / thou forms are used in the KJV, and why they are so often still used in Christian contexts. Was the plural / respectful form you considered inappropriate for theological reasons (because the God of the KJV is very much a singular, not a plural)? – outis nihil Jun 24 '14 at 15:53
  • What of the verb conjugations associated with "thou"? If one is using "thou" as a subject, would grammar demand the use of what would otherwise be considered antiquated verb forms? – supercat Oct 10 '14 at 16:25
  • @supercat I believe so. Generally when "Thou" is used, the form that usually ends in "-st" is used. "Thou art," "Thou hast," etc. It corresponds quite closely to what the 'þū' conjugation looked like in OE: wesan, OE to be. 2p singular: eart (compare with art) vs plural: earon (are) – atanamir Oct 13 '14 at 18:14
  • They are not completely lost. There are some parts of England where they are still used in dialect, with their verb forms. Read D.H.Lawrence. – WS2 Jan 12 '16 at 1:00
  • In Danish (and the other Scandinavian languages), the equivalent to "thou" is retained in "du" (I would pronounce þū pretty much the same, with a thick danish accent) but "you" ("De" -- capital-d) is mostly only used by foreigners because they think it's important to be formal. Sometimes, when you speak to the Queen, you might use "De", but people do so less and less. – Clearer Jan 26 '18 at 13:29
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Thou/thee were originally forms of second person singular pronouns; You being the (polite) second person plural (not unlike the french Vous/ Tu dichotomy).

According to this article, they basically both just fell into disuse

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    No, they were not the polite forms. On the contrary, you was the polite form. See also here where it is very well explained :) – oerkelens Apr 5 '14 at 8:01
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    Yousands have made it. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 5 '14 at 9:10
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    @Mari-Lou A I was just being flippant. The C15 pragmatic implications seem complex : · You came to be associated with respect and formality in its appropriate public setting; but … · You could signify distance even coldness in emotional terms if used inappropriately or unexpectedly. · Thou was used to address one's social inferiors, but… · Thou was also used reciprocally between equals in a private setting. So it became established as a marker of familiarity or intimacy. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 5 '14 at 14:53
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    ... By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the system was becoming unstable, increasingly vulnerable to pragmatically subtle manipulation. In addition to pragmatic factors, the choice of pronoun was also subject to a degree of grammatical conditioning, so that thou seems to have been favoured as the subject of auxiliaries (can, may, shall, will) while you was preferred with lexical verbs (want, think, do, prepare). ... From the end of C17, thou appears to recede more and more, especially in the spoken language, while you increasingly comes to be the normal mode of pronominal address. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 5 '14 at 14:58
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    There's the famous example in Shakespeare of how by the early 17th c. the 'thou' usage could sound over-familiar, and even rude if used to someone you didn't know well. In 'Twelfth Night' when someone is writing a deliberately insulting letter to another man, he's advised "if thou thou'st him some thrice, it shall not be amiss." The implication is that using 'thou' to someone with whom you are not on intimate terms is being bad-mannered, high-handed, addressing him as an inferior. – slam Apr 5 '14 at 15:47
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An interesting question. Albert C. Baugh in his A History of the English Language has in paragraph 182 a relatively short passage on the disappearance of the familiar personal pronouns thou, thee, thine, which are related with German du, dich, dein.

Baugh is relatively vague about the cause for the disappearance of thou. He hints at French influence. He only says that by the sixteenth century the familiar singular forms of the second person had all but disappeared from polite speech and are in ordinary use today only among Quakers.

Actually it is astonishing that such a radical change in the grammatical system can't be explained better.

  • It's actually not that astonishing. Languages are complex systems that evolve in a Darwinian way, with changes being the result of multiple competing factors. If anything, it would be astonishing if you COULD attribute the change to one specific factor. – Neil Coffey Apr 5 '14 at 15:35
  • I find it astonishing in so far that English is the only language that abandoned the personal pronoun of the second person singular whereas Italian, French, German, Dutch etc still have this pronoun. – rogermue Apr 5 '14 at 18:06
  • True, but among languages such as these that make a T/V distinction, there is considerable variation. (Indeed, there can be within the same "language", e.g. in some varieties of Spanish, "usted" is actually comparatively rare, whereas other varieties have at least a 3-way formality distinction...) One way of seeing things is that the distinction disappearing completely is simply "one end of the spectrum". – Neil Coffey Apr 6 '14 at 6:13
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An explanation I've heard, but can't cite research on, is that the archaic letter þ thorn (th sound) as used in þe ("the", pronounced "thuh", pretend the e is a schwa) and þee ("thee", the "ee" is actually a long e, with macron) and þou ("thou", with an elevated "ou"). Over time þ lost its ascender and came to look very much like a "y", but still pronounced as "th".

When movable type was introduced to England from continental Europe, there was no þ or wynn. A "y" was the closest match in the type set, so it was substituted by printers, giving us "ye" (with schwa or long e, eventually the or thee as the vowels dropped to the baseline) and "you" (thou). Over time, ye as an article became the, thee as a pronoun pretty much disappeared, and thou became you (and the pronunciation shifted to the y sound).

Can anyone confirm or definitely refute this?

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