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Does English use the word thou in situations nowadays? For example, to humiliate an opponent by being overly familiar?

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    Apart from very specific (and rare) essays into verbal humor, the only use case these days is in recitations of plays or biblical passages from hundreds of years ago.
    – Robusto
    Mar 3, 2020 at 14:23
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    Being deliberately obtuse: sure, the unvoiced variant is used casually in phrases like "It only cost me a couple thou".
    – Jim Mack
    Mar 3, 2020 at 15:33
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    Authors of fantasy and historical fiction sometimes use it in dialog, but that is a very specialized use case and even there most authors use modern language instead (and many fantasy authors use it incorrectly). Mar 3, 2020 at 22:08
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    To add to the previous answers and comments: the adjective "holier-than-thou" (which means "sanctimonious, hypocritically pious") is sometimes written without the hyphens. I suppose such use might count as a situation where English technically does still use the word thou - even if, in this context, it isn't really an independent word. Mar 3, 2020 at 23:28
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    As a regular pronoun, it is so unused that the vast majority of English speakers have no idea how to conjugate verbs for it. I’ve both seen and heard forms like “thou is”, “thou doth” and “thou think” (should be thou art, thou dost and thou thinkest). I even heard someone say “thou ist” once, which seems to be an odd mixture of art and is, with a bit of German thrown in for good measure. In other words: thou is dead, except in very, very specific contexts. Mar 4, 2020 at 0:17

12 Answers 12

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The Only thing I can think of is if a suitor were being extremely formal in a proposal of marriage: Wouldst thou do me the honor....

It might also be used in a light teasing manner, pretending to be formal. For instance, asking someone to dance. Pretty much all personal instances I can think of using thou have been teasing or joking. Example, shouting 'Thou hast brought dishonor upon this family!' at your brother for spilling the orange juice.

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    Note that when both were common (and in current dialects where both are common) "thou" was actually less formal than "you" (where only one person is being addressed). Your hypothetical suitor might be attempting to be extremely formal, but the actual effect is quite the opposite. Mar 4, 2020 at 9:41
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    Actually, the effect is likely to be exactly as desired, unless the person being proposed to happens to be an expert in historical linguistics. Mar 4, 2020 at 11:07
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    This is true in most dialects, but in some places the words do still exist as part of everyday language - see the other answers and comments on them.
    – N. Virgo
    Mar 4, 2020 at 14:54
  • @MattHollands: I'm not an expert in historical anything, but I do have a passing interest in history, and would immediately recognize, and ridicule, any attempt at being formal by using "thou". (I also make it a point to pronounce the 'e' at the end of shoppe.)
    – Marthaª
    Mar 4, 2020 at 15:43
  • @MattHollands You mean the effect may be perceived exactly as desired, which is not the same thing. However, I'm certainly no expert in historical linguistics, and I'd expect a fair number of other people to recognise that this perception is wrong. There are lots of works written when this distinction was made which are still very widely read, and the significance of "thou" in older versions of Christian liturgy is well known by those who use it. Mar 10, 2020 at 10:21
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Thou/thee/thy/thine still exist in some dialects in British English. However, unless you are one of those who speak the dialect, it is not used in general spoken and written English.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thou The word thou (/ðaʊ/) is a second-person singular pronoun in English. It is now largely archaic, having been replaced in most contexts by you. It is used in parts of Northern England and in Scots (/ðu/), and also in rural parts of Newfoundland, albeit as a recessive feature.

[...] In standard modern English, thou continues to be used in formal religious contexts, in literature that seeks to reproduce archaic language, and in certain fixed phrases such as "fare thee well". For this reason, many associate the pronoun with solemnity or formality.

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    In the Yorkshire dialect, you'll often hear "tha" to mean "you"; I would wonder if this is related to "thou"
    – Dancrumb
    Mar 3, 2020 at 21:59
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    @Dancrumb Yes, "tha' " is the Yorkshire pronunciation of "thou".
    – Greybeard
    Mar 3, 2020 at 22:21
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    Many Yorkshire people (I am proud to be one) use thee and thou every day when speaking to friends and family. They do not use it when strangers are about, because it is not appropriate and because they would laugh. In school we were punished for using thou, as it was considered cheeky.
    – RedSonja
    Mar 4, 2020 at 11:58
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    @RedSonja it is indeed cheeky, as "thee/thou" it is the familiar form, like "tu/toi" in French. The teacher may "thou" you, but you may not "thou" the teacher.
    – Ben
    Mar 4, 2020 at 14:33
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    A point to note with this though is that you will never hear it said "thou", only ever "tha'". A northerner hearing "thou" with a non-northern accent would literally not consider it the same word as the colloquial "tha'" - the context for "thou" is entirely as an archaic word used for comedy value as @mtugglet's answer says. "Thee" on the other hand would still be recognisable, although if used by someone with a non-northern accent would sound more like they're mocking the northern accent by mispronouncing it.
    – Graham
    Mar 4, 2020 at 17:29
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To the great majority of English speakers, 'thou' only sounds like quasi-theatrical, Shakespearean, or Biblical speech. Currently, it is not recognized grammatically as anything other than an archaic version of 'you'. It was falling out of favor in late Middle English, and used only as a deliberate archaism by the early Romantic poets (Coleridge, Shelley, etc). Sure, some small communities may use it (northern England, Quakers), and sometimes in Christian study when addressing God. But this is well outside the mainstream.

To your direct question, there is no connotation of familiarity, informality, or subordination to 'thou' at all, and therefore no possible inferred humiliation. If used in an adversarial situation, it would be laughed at as prissy affectation. (I don't know what the connotation might be in parts of Northern England).

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    Yorkshire Dialect it is used as the 'T' in the T-V distinction. Kaiser Chiefs use it in their song 'I Predict a Riot' to emphasise familiarity.
    – AER
    Mar 4, 2020 at 1:05
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    To add for clarity "the T-V distinction" is "the distinction that is made by French speakers between "tu" (second person singular only) and "vous" (second person singular and plural.)
    – Greybeard
    Mar 4, 2020 at 9:14
  • Upvoting this. In fact, in those few contexts where someone attempts to use it today, its vanishingly rare that they use it correctly.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 4, 2020 at 14:30
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    I think this answer is mostly right, but is unnecessarily dismissive of "northern England" as a "small community" - there are over 5 million people in Yorkshire, so if even a significant minority of them use "thou", you're talking about a large number of people.
    – IMSoP
    Mar 4, 2020 at 15:45
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The term "holier-than-thou" remains in somewhat common usage, probably explicitly because the "thou" sounds both antiquated and Biblical.

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Regarding the idea of using thou to, as you put it, humiliate an opponent by being overly familiar, that would not work in English because most English speakers don't know that thou used to be the informal, familiar form of you. They just think (correctly) that it's old fashioned.

Incidentally, in the past Quakers always used thou because they wanted to treat everyone equally, but what ended up happening instead over time is that everyone else started treating everyone equally (at least in terms of the second person pronoun) by using you all the time.

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    Tolkien famously uses this when the Witchking addresses Éowen and when the Mouth of Sauron addresses Aragorn. It was meant as a forced intimacy conveying scorn and ridicule.
    – tchrist
    Mar 4, 2020 at 15:58
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It’s used to address God in some denominations' prayers, especially those that prefer the King James Version of the Bible.

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It has been in the title of a movie, released in 2000. O brother, where art thou

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As @Greybeard says, it does still exist in some dialects, though in Yorkshire (where I live) I've generally heard it pronounced thi (i.e. with a shorter vowel), and thou has become tha. It isn't that unusual to hear it among friends - "is tha coming down t'pub?". There is a phrase I have come across (though never heard used) which uses it in a more hostile way, however: "Don't thee thou me, thee," i.e. "you are being overfamiliar".

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  • That's because thee and thou are both normally pronounced with falling diphthongs, so when you clip off their ends, you’re left with what you report hearing.
    – tchrist
    Mar 4, 2020 at 16:22
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    The thou/you distinction was current at least well into the early 1900s: "Who told thee to do that?" "Why, thou didst!", "Don't thee thou me, lad!" Source: My grandfather, who was the lad in about 1920.
    – Ben
    Mar 14, 2020 at 11:03
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    This answer shows that as well as a pronoun, "thou" can be a verb! So we have a translation for French tutoyer, Spanish tutear, German duzen and so on.
    – Ed Avis
    Mar 16, 2020 at 11:03
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You may sometimes use thou to translate something from another language that does have a distinction between informal and formal pronouns, where you want to make that explicit. For example in a translation by H. T. Lowe-Porter of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain:

She heard it, and retorted by calling him a turkey-cock and bidding him keep his filthy jokes to himself. With the licence of the season she addressed him, Herr Settembrini, with the thou. But indeed this familiarity had become quite general during the meal.

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My "Concise Oxford Dictionary" 1992 edition has

thou (thee, thy, thine): Second person singular pronoun, now replaced by you except in some formal, liturgical, dialect, and poetic uses.

Obviously the word will be used today when reading or quoting extant works where the word was used originally, but other than that:

  • Liturgical: I.e. in Churches and religeous ceremonies
  • Dialect: As others have noted, there are still places where the distinction between the informal "thou" vs. formal "you" is still maintained.
  • Poetic, and literary: When writing historical literature, it's necessary to use "thou" because that's how people spoke then. If writing fantasy, or when wanting to invoke that sort of distant and ancient atmosphere, the writer will do the same.

But could you start calling someone "thou" and expect them to understand you were being deliberately rude?

Not unless they were a professor of English Literature.

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While I do not have real life experience of this, some Amish and/or Mennonite sects in United States are depicted, on screen, as using thee and thou in everyday language.

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    I'm not sure that "on screen" is an entirely reliable source. Screenwriters often fail to do even basic research and will always go with what suits the scene over what's correct. Mar 5, 2020 at 6:00
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In a very specific technical usage, yes. "thou" is a jargon abbreviation for "one thousandth of an inch" and crops up in machining. Also, automotive industry has to measure fine tolerances, so older petrol engines may have their spark plug gaps measured in inches and be stated as "50 thou" or similar, and pistons may have tolerances in thou.

Any workshop engineer using lathes and fitting parts together closely would be familiar with this term even in metric countries. Modern CNC workshops are much more likely to work in metric. The exception would be Americans who end up working in both measurement systems.

Aside, in this context "tenth" means "tenth of a thousandth of an inch" and not "tenth of an inch" It is never said as "ten-thousandth of an inch" because that could be misheard for "ten x thousandths of an inch" (ie a hundredth of an inch) in a noisy machine workshop.

The metric equivalent would be microns or micrometres, where "1 thou equals 25.4 microns equals 25.4 micrometres"

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    This is Not An Answer because that's not the same word at all; it isn't even pronounced the same way! And pretty-please-with-sugar-on-it don't use code markdown here, especially for noncode.
    – tchrist
    Mar 4, 2020 at 3:18
  • @tchrist fair enough - I couldn't hear a difference between thou and thou as written. Edited now. Also, this does address the question in the title as asked.
    – Criggie
    Mar 4, 2020 at 7:38
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    There's a difference between the voiced and unvoiced th. And the same remark is made in comments on the question, as a joke, referring to thou as an abbreviation of thousand. As @tchrist says, it's a completely different and unrelated word.
    – TRiG
    Mar 4, 2020 at 10:28
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    @tchrist - You'd know the site standards better than I, but I think there's an important disctinction between a post that is Not An Answer, and a post that is a wrong answer (this post being one of the latter).
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 4, 2020 at 14:33
  • @T.E.D. You're right. It has to do with what a "word" "is", two rather challenging things to pin down. The asker wanted to know about the pronoun thou, which begins with the same consonant /ð/ as in this and that and there and other such purely grammatical/functional words, not with the same /θ/ as begin lexical/non-grammatical words like thirty and thousand and thistle. They aren’t the same word unless by "word" you mean space-separated lexeme in print rather than something someone says, and by "consonant" you mean individual grapheme in print again rather than a spoken sound.
    – tchrist
    Mar 4, 2020 at 15:51

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