Now You Know

No, by the grace of God, you will NOT plead ignorance. You will NOT testify that you never knew any better because no one ever taught you anything better. You will not plead that you were never told.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Ye, Thou, You -- The Second Person and Its Crew

Following on the heels of my immensely popular and educationally significant previous posts, here is a lesson in one of the by-gone glories of the English language that can help you to understand works in Early Modern English a little better. It's as simple as understanding the differences between the words ye, thou and you. Yes, there are differences in the meaning of each of those words.

In the English of the King James Bible and William Shakespeare, there were three separate ways of expressing that which we now express only by the word you. Each of the three words to which I am referring had its own specialization. [Pay attention! This knowledge will help make you enormously popular at parties, increase your sex appeal, get you high paying jobs and even higher paying promotions and extend your youth and lifespan! Ok, maybe not, but it will add to your knowledge, help improve your mind and even help you understand some foreign languages better. Truly.] In other words the three words for expressing "you"(i.e. the second person) did not all express exactly the same thing.

Of the three, let's start with the one word that we have kept in modern usage. "You" was (and still is) the subject pronoun used to express the second person, singular. However, "you" once also served a function which it has now lost. That function was to express formality, politeness, when addressing someone. Of the three words for expressing the second person, "you" was the one used when addressing strangers or one's superiors. "You" implied a figurative distance between the speaker and the person being addressed. Using "you" to address someone was roughly analagous to today's practice of addressing someone whom you do not know well or who is your superior by "Mr." or "Mrs." and their last name. See how our use of honorifics or titles is more formal, less familiar than addressing a person by his first name? "You" signified this more formal, less familiar relationship with the person that one was addressing as "you."

So, what purpose do you suppose "thou" served? "Thou" was used to express familiarity with the person whom one was addressing. "Thou" was always singular and used for addressing a peer, a friend, a close family member, or a loved one. "Thou" expressed a closeness between the speaker and the one being addressed by that term. It would be somewhat analogous to calling someone by their first name today or by a nickname. N.B. (nota bene, or pay attention) If there was no such closeness or familiarity between the speaker and the addressee, "thou" was being used ironically as an insult, similar to calling a virtual stranger "honey" or "hey, you!" It would be like addressing her majesty Queen Elizabeth II as "Lizzie, baby!" or President Bush as "Yo! Georgie!"

If you wonder why the translators of the KJV Bible chose the "thou" form when translating Christ's words, "Get thee behind me, Satan. . ." [Matthew 16:23, Mark 8:33] it is to show that Christ was saying, "you are not greater than I." It is a demonstration of scorn.

According to the 18th century French writer Voltaire in his Lettres philosophiques, an judge in England had George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, thrown in jail for addressing him as "thou." The Quakers used (and still use!) "thou" for addressing everyone because they felt that no person was more important or more deserving of respect than any other. Thus they chose "thou," the familiar form, as a leveler to eliminate the appearance of special treatment based on social class or distinction.

The last of the three forms of "you" was "ye." It was used to express the second person, plural. Whether one was addressing people who would normally be called "you" (i.e. singular and formal, polite) or "thou" (i.e. singular and informal, familiar), if one was addressing more than one of them, the word to use was "ye."

Because English has long since discarded this form, it is constantly searching for innovative ways to express plurality in the second person. Athough in Modern English "you" correctly expresses the singular or the plural, people are constantly trying to add something to distinguish between whether they mean "you" singular or "you" plural. A perfect example is the use in the southern part of the U.S. of "y'all" (i.e. you all). I've even heard and seen in writing the abominable use of "you'uns" (i.e. you ones) or "youse" (i.e. an attempt to make "you" plural by sticking an "s" on the end). All of these would at one time have been "ye" as in "O Ye of little faith!"

N.B. (yes, again with the nota bene): The "Ye" of such phrases as "Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe" has absolutely nothing to do whatsoever with the word "ye" that was just explained. In fact, the "Ye" of "Ye Olde . . ." isn't even supposed to be pronounced "ye." It is the word "the." The confusion for modern readers is due to there once being a printer's symbol to abbreviate the "Th" sound and that symbol resembled somewhat a capital letter "Y," but it was not pronounced nor was it intended to be pronounced "y" but rather "th." The same thing applies to when this symbol was used on signs of businesses or other establishments.

You are now permitted to lapse into a coma from boredom.

Ye have been told and now ye know. Thou hast been told and now thou knowest. You've been told and NOW YOU KNOW.