What is the difference between thee and thou and how are they used?
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.
‘Thou’ is historically perceived in Yorkshire (England) as being disrespectful, or over-familiar in a formal context, e.g. if used to address a teacher, or upon greeting a stranger… However, ‘thee’ is perceived to be more respectful, as with the French usage of the words ‘vous’ and ‘tu’, of which ‘tu’ is regarded as offensive if used inappropriately (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!)
A paradigm would help here:
- I, me, my (mine) we, us, our(s)
- thou, thee, thy (thine) you, you, your(s)
- he/she, him/her, his/her(s) they, them, their(s)
A table would be better still but I don't know how to do that here.
Now all you've got to remember is that the left side of the second row is obsolete, so that both sides of that row are now the same.
If you're ever moved to try to sound archaic, as when using a rotary dial phone or having God over for tea, you can use the second row, choosing the appropriate form on the pattern of the corresponding forms in the first or third row.
There are still a lot of dialect forms heard in different places. For instance in a pub in Edinburgh I saw a sign above a urinal: NOW WASH YOUR HANDS. Under it one wag (or just a Scottish pedant) had written We Scots dinna pee on we'r hands. Perfectly good Scots - and perfectly good sense too.
I was 'brung-up reet proper' around Preston, Colne, Lytham and so on. This is now forty years ago and these forms existed then and were in common use. Thou didn't exist except in approbation. If thou don't come 'ere reet now I'll give 'ee heck.
The most common usage was Thee/Thou art. You could never tell which it was because it was always spoken as Th'art. As pointed out before thy is possessive, but it could used in place of thee/thou. If thy (or maybe tha) wants some th'ard better get a move on. I am not quite sure what verb and conjugation 'ard is.
And th'all (they-all this time) knew a brogue was a shoe. (cf. y'all Central SE USA)
Only just realised ... them there Lancashire lads also tended to pronounce words like knew with an American-ish vowel sound.