Thou, thee, thy, ye and all that well met and ’tis meet…

My pet peeve, maybe even my biggest peeve, as a reader, writer, and especially as a linguist, is the improper use of the English informal. Just because “Wither goest thou?” is archaic, unless you are taking a poetry class in Scotland, in which case, everyone probably says it, does not make it formal. We English speakers have forgotten how to use the informal and when it is proper and improper to do so. (Take a German class or three or even a Spanish class, if you want to understand the nuances of informal speech.) Too often authors misuse the informal and put it in places where the formal mode should be used. (Of course, I’m not talking about writers who write historical novels set in Tudor England in Modern English but those that throw around “thou” and “thee” without thinking things through.)

For example, if your character is talking to the Faerie Queen, it is okay for her to use the informal with your peasant human character, or even with your wizard human character, but it is not okay for the peasant or wizard to use the informal back unless they wish to give insult. (Beware, Faerie Queens are not thick skinned.) After all, unless the wizard is also a king, there is a large disparity in rank. The peasant or wizard should use the formal, that is, “you”. Even Hamlet uses the formal with Queen Gertrude, his mother.


[Gertrude slaps him across the face, brutally hard, almost knocking him over.]

HAMLET [After recovering.]
Now, mother, what’s the matter?

Hamlet, thou hast thy father [i.e. Claudius] much offended.

Mother, you have my father [i.e. King Hamlet] much offended.

Here Hamlet corrects/contradicts his mother and at the same time switches the conversation from the informal to formal. Parents would often use the informal with children and children, as a sign of respect, would use the formal. However, it is very telling that Gertrude now switches to the formal, “you”, perhaps to put some distance between them or rather perhaps to take the conversation from the realm of mother to child to the realm of sovereign to prince. And the conversation does not get any more cordial.

Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.

Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.

Why, how [what] now, Hamlet?

What’s the matter now?

Have you forgot me?

No, by the rood [cross], not so:
You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife;
And–would it were not so!–you are my mother.

As you can see, this is a big deal for Gertrude to switch from the informal [thou] to the formal [you]. She doesn’t do it casually. And this brings us to another part of my peeve, writers who establish atmosphere by using “thou, thee, thy and ye” but abandon it and go back to the formal without motivation. It’s as if the writer is saying, “Look! I gave you a little (fairy/historical/magical) flavor, now I’m going to switch back to my native, modern tongue.” This ploy is used often in movies. For about three lines of dialog, everyone speaks (poorly accented) Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French etc., with subtitles, and then magically everyone switches to English. Ta da! Novel writers make a bigger mistake. Many times writers mistakenly use “thou” to connote formality or a formal setting or think it is the proper language to use with a king and it just ain’t so! It does not and should not denote or connote formality because it is the informal mode. Just because it is archaic, or nearly so, does not make it formal.

Such misunderstandings and incorrect usages leed to awkward dialog, especially given the context. This is especially egregious with the Fair Folk since they are sticklers for language. In other words, just because your character is an elf does not mean he has to “thou” and “thee” us to death. 🙂 (By the way, I am well aware that originally “egregious” meant “remarkably good” from Latin egregius ‘illustrious’.)

Now, “thou” verses “ye”. “ye” is the informal nominative plural. If you use “ye” you are addressing more than one person. The plural of the objective case “thee” is “you”. The plural of the possessive “thy” is “your”, at least in Early Modern English, also known as Elizabethan English. It all depends on what language your characters are speaking and that depends on what century they are in!

Some people will tell you that “thou, thee, thy” are not archaic because you can understand them. But I wouldn’t believe those people. The informal isn’t in use today in the spoken language. We can understand it because we have had exposure to Shakespeare but you won’t hear anyone using the informal outside of quoting poetry. And that brings me to another peeve, and indeed, even Mark Twain was guilty of this one. The use of “thou” is not that old. It’s Elizabethan English, NOT Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon. (If you’ve read the article I reference above, let me clarify a mistake the author made, Chaucer did not write in Old English but Middle English. Big difference.) So, no, King Arthur would not be throwing around “thou, thee, thy” because he lived in the 5th Century, when Old English was spoken. And believe it or not, King Arthur would not be speaking Old English either because, if he existed, he would have been Welsh. He would have been speaking the Welsh of the time. (Make sure you have your history AND your mythology straight if you write about Camelot or really 5th Century anything.)

Back to “ye”. In Old English, “thu” and “ye” started out as singular and plural without an informal/formal distinction. Eventually, “ye” became the formal plural while “you” was singular. “you” eventually replaced “ye”. Now, let’s look at a sample of Old English, aka Anglo-Saxon:

Ēac swylċe ðā nȳtenu of eallum cynne and eallum fugolcynne cōmon tō Noe, intō ðām arce, swā swā God bebēad.
[Also the beasts of each species and (of) each species of bird came to Noah, into the ark, as God commanded.]

That looks like another language, not English, and especially not Modern English. The vowels are different. The grammar, case, vocabulary, pronunciation, you name it, are not Modern English. (Though some similarities exist, they are mostly holdovers in the pronounces, names and place names.) Modern English and Old English are about as mutually intelligible as Modern English and German. (By the way, the above example is just one of the allowed word orders in Old English, which just so happens is the same as Modern English, SV (subject verb).) In Modern English, we have lost much of our case markings but they are still there in the pronounces, Nominative, Dative, Genitive, Demonstrative, etc. For more on Old English pronouns, click here. Here’s a wiki article that goes into a little more depth about the history of the informal vs. formal pronouns in English.

So, think twice before using the informal in Early Modern (Elizabethan) English or as randomly placed atmosphere in your fantasy dialog.

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