Is "thee" a more respectful way to refer to the person that the speaker is addressing?

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For instance in text books -more precisely audiobooks- like Uncle Tom's Cabin, and some others that I can't recall now, I've heard the word "thee" when the speaker meant to say "you".

I wonder if this is a more respectful way of saying "you", something like "usted" in Spanish vs "tú"?

rraallvv

Posted 2015-04-05T05:01:49.777

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It used to be... but it's no longer used in everyday speech... actually, I don't think it's used outside of Renaissance Festivals and old plays any more... maybe LARPing? – Catija – 2015-04-05T05:31:12.197

1Thee is the direct object or objective form of thou, which used to be the second person singular pronoun. (With this ring I thee wed.) We now use you for both singular and plural. While thou can still be found in some rare places like book titles, thee is now even more rare and probably found mostly in old forms of prayers: We thank Thee, O God, for... In this sense it is more respectful, but only because of the direct object. – None – 2015-04-05T05:43:07.620

@δοῦλος Thanks for your comments, interestingly enough google says that it’s been used more and more since 1995, at least in written english.

– rraallvv – 2015-04-05T05:47:49.710

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You can't really just look at it in a vacuum like that... the numbers there are pitifully small and you're looking at written works, not spoken... which just means people are writing more period novels. It doesn't mean it's used in modern... see it compared to you.

– Catija – 2015-04-05T05:53:03.807

2Even more surprisingly, I added you to that Ngram chart, and found that you has been steadily increasingly used since 1966! (PS. Please don't take this message seriously. :-) – Damkerng T. – 2015-04-05T05:55:35.110

2I should add that thee is also for indirect object. As far as a trend upward in usage, if that is true, meh, it's when people want to sound a bit different, because they lack imagination. The word is certainly not going to come back into everyday use! – None – 2015-04-05T05:56:16.133

1It's been in everyday use in Northern UK since time immemorial, though in speech it's now been reduced to an almost generic "tha" or "thi" sound replacing thee thou or thy. "Tha'll attu get thi booits on before tha go's out in't rain, lad!" (Wow, that was a fight against auto-correct ;-) – gone fishin' again. – 2015-04-05T10:52:17.157

1Traditionalist members of the religious Society of Friends (sometimes called Quakers) also use thou/thee. But in modern mainstream English you has supplanted these forms. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-04-05T16:39:49.157

It was more formal, but was not necessarily more respectful. As @Catija points out, it's simply no longer used except in highly-specific vernaculars. – Superstringcheese – 2015-04-05T18:23:06.280

"thee" is and old way of saying "you". It is almost never used in modern english. – Jojodmo – 2015-04-05T22:47:34.620

@Superstringcheese: Indeed, since thou is the familiar form, in many cases it was less respectful. In Shakespeare you generally see people addressing their superiors as you and their inferiors (or superiors whom they wish to insult) as thou. – Nate Eldredge – 2015-04-06T03:12:56.017

The reason why some Quakers still refer to each other as thee is because they refuse to recognize worldly distinctions between men (no "hat honour"). – J. LS – 2015-04-06T12:03:03.957

Long term, learning a language from grammar books and a dictionary is the greatest disservice you can inflict on yourself. Even basic grammar books contain constructs that are never used and ones that are used every day, with no indication to the learner which is which. As soon as possible you should switch to learning 80% to 90% by usage, or at least by just listening to the language. You would know then that thee is never used these days. – None – 2015-04-05T15:54:47.837

Answers

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No.

Firstly, "thou"/"thee" is not modern English outside of dialectal usages (which I believe is its context in Uncle Tom's Cabin).

Secondly, you're right about the parallels to the two pronouns in Spanish, but "you" is the polite, formal option. Actually, Spanish is a bit more complicated, because it has (I understand) familiar and formal versions for both singular and plural. English is more similar to French; in both languages, the singular ("thou", "tu") is also the familiar, and you would use the plural ("you", "vous") to an individual if you wanted to be formal.

(Related reading: "T-V distinction".)

Thirdly, having said "no", let me now change it to "no, except when it is". Thanks to "thou" falling out of usage, most people are only familiar with it in old works, especially the King James Bible and Shakespeare's plays (both Early Modern English, from around 1600). The former, in particular, has caused "thou"/"thee" to be associated with formal situations, because God is addressed as "thee" (because it's singular, not because it's familiar).

However, that only applies to people affecting old-fashioned usage. They are quite likely to use "thou"/"thee" as a formal pronoun. People who use them because it's part of their dialect will, I'm sure, be using them with their original (singular and familiar) meaning.

Tim Pederick

Posted 2015-04-05T05:01:49.777

Reputation: 6 267

To put it simply, English "thou" and Spanish "tú" are cognates, and "thou" once served a similar role that "tú" does. – 200_success – 2015-04-05T08:39:51.413

I'm not too sure about that last paragraph. Maybe things are different in AmE. We still have a few (mainly older) BrE dialectal speakers who use thee/thou/thy naturally, but I'd have thought everyone else (and indeed some of those very speakers), would accord the usage negative status in all other contexts (except where there's the redeeming quality of humour in appropriate facetious usages). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-04-05T12:40:47.397

For what it's worth, I believe God is usually "tu" in French and Spanish as well. – Casey – 2015-04-05T18:16:40.423

1Epic answer! But a question: I had thought the use of "thee" in religious works around 1600 was not incidental, but theological; I was under the impression that it was a deliberate choice to express the idea of an intimate relationship with a personal God, something which was very much what the Protestant Reformation was about, closely wedded to the idea of translating the Bible into the vernacular in the first place -- to disintermediate lay people's relationship with scripture and God. Am I mistaken about that? – Codeswitcher – 2015-04-06T07:31:12.947

'English is more similar to French; the singular ("thou", "tu") is also the familiar, and the plural ("you", "vous") is also the formal.' That sentence is rather confusing. In current French, 'tu' is singular familiar, and 'vous' is singular formal and plural familiar and formal. – David Richerby – 2015-04-06T13:05:02.000

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@Codeswitcher: I'm not an expert, but I suspect not. The Catholic Douay-Rheims translation used "thou" as well.

– Tim Pederick – 2015-04-06T13:09:37.910

@DavidRicherby: I've edited that sentence, hopefully making it clearer. What you said is exactly what I was trying to say. – Tim Pederick – 2015-04-06T13:12:06.587

@FumbleFingers: I don't know enough to make any comment on status, if by that you mean the listener's appraisal of the speaker based on dialect. (Mine is Australian English, so no "thou"-using dialects here to speak of.) I'm only commenting on the inferred familiarity of the addressee to the speaker. A person whose dialect continues to include "thou" would, I assume, only use it when being familiar, and continue to use "you" to address a person formally. But assumptions are dangerous... – Tim Pederick – 2015-04-06T13:16:09.747

@Tim: My 95-year-old father grew up with the usage in a tiny Lancashire pit village, but made a conscious effort to avoid it when he signed up for the war - even then it was seen as rustic/uneducated. I've seen him revert at family gatherings decades later (to express "cultural/linguistic solidarity" with older relatives who still used it), but they're all long gone now anyway, and I doubt he's used it for at least the last 30 years. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-04-07T16:42:13.920

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Thee and thou were once forms of address which were non-formal and intimate, hence the usage in the Bible and in wedding vows, so they would not originally have been used to denote respect to, say, strangers. However, they came to be used in literary works to indicate that the speaker is ill-educated and doesn't know when to use the correct form for the social situation; they are "overly-familiar", often due to being good-natured. This latter is probably the intent for at least some of the uses in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The words can also be used in an insulting way, to suggest that the object is not worth a formal address.

As the words fell out of usage they became associated with old-fashioned speech and, as often happens, old-fashioned speech was itself associated with stiffness and formality. So a modern native English speaker will often have exactly the opposite understanding to the correct one - that "thee" and "thou" are especially formal instead of being friendly or relaxed pronouns for use in private situations with friends, children, and lovers.

A final complication is that regional (that is, English spoken in different parts of the UK) English contains these words even today but in my experience they are mostly used in the belittling/insulting manner but with an undertone of jokiness or teasing.

Nagora

Posted 2015-04-05T05:01:49.777

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