Sunday, May 25, 2014

Thee or thou: Which is it?

Since moving to Barnesville and joining Stillwater Friends, I have been exposed to plain speech, which involves the use of  thou, thee and thy. People will approach me, for example, and ask, "Is thee going to the movies?" At first, I was surprised, but I have come to deeply appreciate being addressed in plain speech as a sign of inclusion.

Last week, I needed to write a letter on behalf of a Quaker committee and thought it time to cross the Rubicon into using plain language. As I wrote, however, I realized I really didn't understand the grammar of thou, thee and thine. Thy is clearly the possessive form, but what of thou and thee? I looked them up on two different websites and each concurred with the other: Thou is the subject form and thee is the object. In other words, Thou gave thee a kiss, and not vice versa, if thou wants to be grammatically correct.

But that doesn't accord with what I hear, as I can't remember plain speaking Friends using "thou." It seems  that "thee" is pronoun of choice, for either subject or object: "Will thee be at the meeting?" and "Does thee have the minutes of the last meeting" are what I recall, not "will thou" and "does thou."

To make certain the websites I visited for the conjugation of thee and thou were not wrong, I looked up the marriage vows in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The vows confirmed the website: the wording is "Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife ... Wilt thou have this man..."

Here is the perplexity. Contemporary grammar tells us that grammar rules exist, but that grammar, like language, is ever evolving. Eventually, how most people speak-- most people in the dominant class-- becomes the correct grammar. So, if most plain speaking Quakers have dropped "thou" and are using "thee" as both the subject and object form of the second person singular (much as we use "you" for both subject and object in modern speech) then is "thee" correct as a subject form? (This is the equivalent of asserting "Him is going to the meeting" as grammatical--but perhaps that is OK.)

I am assuming too that I am at the center of the plain speaking Quaker universe here in Barnesville. Am I? Or are there other places outside of the Conservative (for my non-Quaker friends, this does not mean politically conservative; it is simply an appellation) Friends that use plain speech, and if so, what forms do they use? Also, is written plain speech different from spoken? In other words, would you--or thou/thee--use the "correct" form in writing but the colloquial in speaking? Further, if part of the purpose of using thee and thou is to preserve an archaic form, does a special charge exist to adhere to the formal usage? If so, should we not be using "Art thou" and "Wilt thou?"

I hope people who are more knowledgeable than I will provide answers.


Micah Bales said...

Among Friends, the usage is virtually exclusively of "thee" as both subject and object.

The Quaker formulation of plain speech, whenever I have heard it, has been "thee" followed by the third person singular conjugation of the verb (e.g. Thee is going to meeting today).

One theory I've heard is that this was the formulation that was widely used in northern England at the time of the early Quakers. But whatever the origins, I've never heard modern Friends use "thou," which would require conjugating the verb in second person singular (e.g. Seest thou that black bird?), which almost no one today is capable of doing fluently.

Marshall Massey said...

Plain speech (in the sense of Quaker peculiarities) is not something I’ve ever felt drawn to, so I haven’t looked deeply into it. I have been told, though, rightly or wrongly, that the use of “thee” rather than “thou” as the nominative form stems from Yorkshire dialect, and is related to the fact that the Quaker movement drew so many of its early followers from the north of England.

English is not an academy language like French or Spanish; in France and Spain, there is a government-established academy with the legal power to decide what is correct and enforce it with legal penalties, but we have nothing like that here. French and Spanish dictionaries show what their academies have approved; our dictionaries just show what is popularly accepted usage.

So going by the principles of our language, if you are speaking Quakerese plain speech, you might as well use “thee” because it is the popularly accepted usage. If instead you are speaking plain modern English, you might as well use “you”. The time to use “thou” would presumably be if you were speaking Elizabethan or Jacobean English.

I hope this is helpful.

Diane said...

Yes, both comments helpful and in agreement. Thanks.

Diane said...

Yes, both comments helpful and in agreement. Thanks.