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I have somehow picked up the use of the two different forms "thy/thine" from the KJV Bible, and I thought I knew the rule. Use thy before consonants and thine before vowels or before words starting with the sound [h].

There are plenty of instances of thine heart or thine hands in the KJV for example, and while doing a translation from Greek into KJV style English, I almost went along with thine whole heart, since whole, just like hand and heart, starts with the same sound. Right? Well, on second thought I just thought I'd check to see if I find any instances of it, and I was surprised to find:

If thy whole body therefore be full of light, having no part dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth give thee light. KJV

I disagree with sites that say

** "Thy" and "thine" are archaic forms corresponding to "your" and "yours" respectively. Use "thy" where you would use "your" (but see note at end of answer) and "thine" where you would use "yours".

because it is very clear to me that thine can definitely mean both your and yours. One answer to this question from the ELU agrees with me, but it does not fully address the phonetic problem of words starting with the sound [h].

Does anyone know the rule? Is it actually a phonetic rule, or an orthographic one?

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    It's a phonetic rule, but the phonetics may have changed between the original writing and the present - for example, at the time of writing, "heart" may not have had the initial aspiration (h), and a modern ear may well have heard "art". – Jeff Zeitlin Jun 4 at 19:09
  • So no difference in pronunciation between thine heart and thine art? – fev Jun 4 at 19:11
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    (It also may not be temporally variant, but geographically - even today, there are places where you'll hear words starting with an h pronounced without the h and/or with a glottal stop.) – Jeff Zeitlin Jun 4 at 19:12
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    @supercat: Rather doubtful, since you can find instances both of thine heart and of thy heart in the KJV. – fev Jun 5 at 17:44
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    Aside: this feels suspiciously related to why some people still insist on needing an history lesson, despite that many modern English speakers feel that's a historic anachronism, and a strange one at that. – Matthew Jun 6 at 3:27
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As pointed out by @Jeff Zeitlin, the rule was phonetic, it's just that initial h's are highly prone to elision/deletion. The Wikipedia article on thou says that thine was used before nouns beginning with a vowel (sound), or ‘before nouns beginning in the letter h, which was usually silent’. The article also gives an example where the h is silent in 'heart':

thine eyes and mine heart, which was pronounced as mine art

In KJV, we also find thine house, so it seems the use of thy/thine with words beginning with h was pretty irregular.


According to English Historical Linguistics by De Gruyter Mouton (edited by Laurel J. Brinton et al), ‘at the beginning of the period in 1500’, thy was used before consonants and thine before a vowel or <h> + vowel. It goes on to say that ‘[i]n case of silent word-initial <h>, as in honour, host or habit, we find mine/thine, and also before a pause.’

It further adds:

This usage changes in the 16th century. “By 1600, my and thy are almost without exception the forms used before consonants, while before vowels my and mine are in free variation [in simple words, interchangeable], as are thy and thine: Shakespeare has both thine eyes and thy eye, both mine own and my own [emphasis mine] (Barber 1997: 152). The following [example] (4) [...] from Shakespeare’s plays (see Busse 2002: 224) underline[s] this seemingly random patterning of variants within a single line of text, as they defy the neat distribution usually given in reference works:

(4) In thine own person answer thy abuse (1590/91 The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth II.i.40)

(p735)

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  • Your answer makes sense, just as @JeffZeitlin's comments seemed to elucidate the mystery pretty well. Yet occurrences of both "thine heart" and "thy heart" in the KJV seem to leave me into a slight confusion. However, while using myself this language, I will probably use the rule you mentioned... – fev Jun 4 at 20:35
  • Your confusion should be accepted as entirely natural as clearly the writers of KJV suffered from the same confusion... – Greybeard Jun 5 at 9:40
  • @fev KJV was commissioned in 1604 and published in 1611. It's entirely reasonable that it should be subject to "free variation" as it was written in the vernacular of the time. – Andrew Leach Jun 5 at 11:58
  • Try reading "In thine own person answer thy abuse" aloud. (and as if you are speaking in the middle of a raging argument that is going to end in a fight.) Then try the other permutations of "thy" and "thine". If you still don't know why Shakespeare wrote what he wrote, you don't understand how speech rhythms work. – alephzero Jun 6 at 1:33
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I'm not sure of the explanation for "thy whole body".

The KJV (at least, the version indexed at the website that you linked to) uses both my, thy, a and mine, thine, an before words starting with /h/. Here are some examples of thy heart and my heart. Likewise, we find both thy head and thine head, a house and an house.

So the presence or absence of /n/ in these determiners apparently does not simply follow a consistent rule according to the current pronunciation of words starting with the sound /h/.

I have not found any rule for when to use one form versus the other. My guess is that it was originally non-standardized, and unlike other parts of the spelling and grammar of the King James Version, never ended up being regularized.

I think there is probably not always a one-to-one correspondence between the use of n spellings in the KJV and whether the writer would have pronounced the word with [h] or not (that is, I don't think we can definitely conclude that whenever a/my/thy house/head/heart... etc. is written, the writer was intending to represent a pronunciation with [h], and whenever an/mine/thine house/head/heart... etc. as written, the author was intending to represent a pronunciation without [h]). Actually, although vowel-initial words seem to greatly prefer n spellings, there are a few instances in the KJV where vowel-initial words seem to take the n-less spelling, such as Deuteronomy 12:17 ("thy oil") or Leviticus 27:6 ("thy estimation"). Unless these are just accidents/misprints, this suggests to me that the usage of n forms was not based solely on pronunciation, since I doubt thy oil or thy estimation was pronounced with [h] or any other consonant sound at the start of the second word.

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  • You are actually right, I checked in my BibleWorks program and indeed, it says "thy heart"! That discourages my attempts to get a good grip of the rule :( – fev Jun 4 at 20:31
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    I regret I can't accept two answers. Both complement each other and I appreciate the information provided very much. I had no idea that it was so flexible, but then it confirms my intuition of the "fluidity" of the English language. This is one virtue my logical mind had to get accustomed with when I came to the UK. I find it fascinating. Thank you both! – fev Jun 5 at 8:36
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I appreciated both answers to this questions, but I somehow wanted to find evidence or some record of this "irregularity" of use of thy/thine. I have found a source that seems to know what it is talking about, so I thought to add it as an answer:

In a deliberately archaic style, the possessive forms are used as the genitive before words beginning with a vowel sound (for example, thine eyes) similar to how an is used instead of a in an eye. This practice is followed irregularly in the King James Bible but is more regular in earlier literature, such as the Middle English texts of Geoffrey Chaucer. (source: History of English and tagged wiki) - probably the first source quoted the second here.

Another site adds to this quotation:

it may have emerged as a later nicety.

A private site made this interesting observation:

Thy is used before a word beginning with a consonant, and thine before a word beginning with a vowel. Either form is acceptable for words beginning with the letter “h”; thine is generally more common for h-words in the Bible, but both forms are used, sometimes even in the same verse (for example, Numbers 5:20 includes both “thy husband” and “thine husband”).

On Google Books (in a book with the title Linguistic Variation in the Shakespeare Corpus) I found this:

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So it makes sense that people who studied the history of this language were aware of this irregularity around towards the end of the 16th century, but no one investigated its causes. Guess it will remain a mystery.

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