‘How Is Thee’: Musings on Ironies and Self Justification Among Friends

For a long time I have had a back-burner interest in the evolution of the use of thee, thou, and you, the second person singular address in English, especially among Quakers. Like most of the rest of the English-speaking world, I grew up hearing you as the universal second person singular address. It was used not only with people of all descriptions and under all conditions, but even with nonhuman life and inanimate objects. Whatever it was, if it was being addressed, it was addressed as you. Also, I knew that the first Quakers had decided to use thou and thee universally instead of what was then current practice, which was to use thou for family, friends, and inferiors, and use you in all other cases. English, like all the other European languages, had a "familiar" and a "formal" or "polite" second person address, with thou being the familiar and you being the formal. Or at least that’s what I thought the situation was. I had been told that the early Quakers decided to use the familiar address with all people because all are children of God and hence should be addressed the same way we address our family members. But then the rest of the English-speaking world quickly dropped the familiar completely, leaving the situation as it is today. It struck me as ironic that the rest of the English-speaking world had adopted a universal address, as the Quakers had advocated, but not the same one, leaving Quakers out on a linguistic limb. But I didn’t think about it much, since no one I knew said thee or thou unless they were reading from the Bible. I was unaware that some Quakers still used thee.

Then I met a friend and spent the first of two summers in Washington, D.C., so I could be near her. (And this was a good move—we’re still married after more than 45 years.) There I met Quakers who used thee, but used it only with family and other Quakers. It struck me that this was against the reasons for using thou and thee in the first place. If you called your brother thee, then you ought to call everybody thee; if you called other people you, then you ought to call your brother you as well. It also struck me as ironic that Quakers were now the only group in the English-speaking world that still used a kind of familiar address along with the usual formal address when that is exactly what the early Quakers objected to. It was as if the rest of the English-speaking world and the Quakers had switched sides. I was even bold enough to make that opinion known. Since my friend’s family always used thee with each other and often with Quakers, this made things awkward. For example, when they would say thee to each other, then turn to me and say you, it was as if a wall slammed down between us, with them on one side and me and the rest of the world on the other. Sometimes they would slip and say thee to me, and then the wall slammed down behind me, walling me in with them and away from everyone else. I didn’t like that wall, no matter where it came down. "Wow," I thought, "So that’s what the early Quakers were objecting to!"

I decided that I objected to it, too, and my interest in the subject was born. In asking not to be addressed as thee, I ended up giving some grief to current Quakers much as early Quakers gave the general populace. My reason was that to use it now went against the reasons for using it then. Ironies abounded. So did questions. Why didn’t the early Quakers call their family members the same thing they called everyone else instead of calling everyone else what they called their family? Could it have been because irritating everyone else is easier to bear than irritating those close to you, as my own experience suggested? I also noted that Quakers didn’t use thou but used thee instead and used the third person singular verb, not the second. The result was a kind of strange, highly simplified version of the familiar. For instance, people sometimes said, "How is thee," as a greeting. This is a three-word sentence with two grammatical errors. (That is, unless you view it as a dialect whose consistent use defines its grammar, in which case it’s correct by definition, since it is used consistently.) Other questions were: Why did English drop its familiar while none of the other European languages dropped theirs? Why did English drop it so fast? Wouldn’t that have been a huge change to make so rapidly? Whatever the reason for the change, surely the Quakers had nothing to do with it since they wanted to drop the formal instead? Finally, how did the Quakers’ use of the familiar get so abbreviated?

At the college where I taught, I tried for years, off and on, to interest my linguistic colleagues in those questions but to no avail. Since I am now retired, I have the time to answer them myself. I started by looking in books on the history of English, and finally found what is apparently the definitive work on the subject, You und Thou by Thomas Finkenstaedt. He answered nearly all the questions I had and many that I had not thought of. The bibliography of that book is massive, and apparently so is the scholarship. However, it’s in German and my German is very weak. It took a long time to get through even the parts I thought were relevant, but at least I got the answers, more or less. I also read The Battle-Door by George Fox et al., as well as parts of William Penn’s No Cross, No Crown and parts of Robert Barclay’s Apology. What I found was that almost everything I had thought was true was wrong. My picture of the state of the language, the reasons I thought Quakers used thou, and my supposition about their lack of a role in the change were all wrong.

To begin, I had thought that in 1650 thou was in common use equivalent to the familiar in other languages, and had been for a long time. In fact, the use of thou had been changing drastically for four centuries. This development was extremely complex and I will give only a few snapshots of it. In the Middle English period, say the beginning of the 13th century, there was only one form of address. That was, in the singular, thou and thee, and in the plural, ye and you. Thou and ye were nominative, and thee and you were objective, although the distinction between ye and you was breaking down even then. In the second half of the 13th century the English nobility began to address those of higher rank in the plural, namely, as you. This was a practice taken over from the French ruling class who began using the plural with royalty and then extended it downward. By 1500, thou was still the standard address between strangers with you reserved for higher-ups. But this was throughout the population, not just the nobility. By 1600, you had spread so that it was the standard address between strangers, with thou being used for intimates and underlings, i.e., the same situation I had thought held for centuries before Quakers came along. Even within the family, there were distinctions. For example, the father addressed the son as thou, but the son addressed the father as you, as a mark of respect. Moreover, the use of thou was accompanied by several kinds of emotions. For example, a stranger addressed as thou instead of you would likely take that as demeaning and be greatly offended, as Quaker experience showed. By about 1700, thou was archaic in ordinary speech (this was the only thing I got right!) and unlike the situation only a few decades before, had no demeaning implications. The disappearance of thou began in London and in the upper classes, and spread from there. To get a sense of how complex that development was, note that only the English dropped its familiar, so that in explaining it, one has to come up with reasons why the English dropped it, but no one else did, not even the Welsh.

Far from playing no role in this transition, the Quaker decision to use thou universally apparently hastened its departure from the language! One reason was that by the end of the 17th century, thou was so widely associated with Quakers that a person couldn’t use it in public without being taken for a Quaker. That pretty much put an end to thou, although Finkenstaedt says it would have died a natural death anyway due to societal changes working against it.

Although the spread of you through various parts of the population at various times was uneven and complex, the pride, vanity, and flattery that Quakers complained of were constant themes. Also, the distinction between thou and you at that time was part of what amounted to a culture war and Quakers were very much on one side, with the proponents of you on the other. Also, these Quaker authors referred to you as the plural, thou as the singular, and apparently thought of them that way. So Quakers choosing thou as a universal address was not just a matter of backing the wrong verbal horse. They could not have used you and remained true to their insights.

As for how thee came to supplant thou among Quakers, my source’s guess is that thee sounds gentler than thou and a gentle impression was what Quakers wanted to make. Note also that the objective case was replacing the nominative, just as the objective you replaced the nominative ye. Maybe something in the objective case makes a better, or at least gentler, impression than something in the nominative. My own guess as to why the verb is the third person singular rather than the second is that thee sounds enough like he and she to make the second person verb sound "wrong." (How are thee? Thee run fast? Thee speak well? Ouch; not a chance.)

I thought finding the justification, "Address all people as you address your brother and sister," which I thought early Quakers had for using "thou" with everyone, would be easy; but I could find it nowhere—not in Fox, nor Penn, nor Barclay. (For a fairly comprehensive list of the reasons these authors gave for using "thou" instead of "you," see Penn’s No Cross, No Crown, Chapter 10. It’s a fascinating read on several levels.) The closest thing I found to a "brotherhood" or "sisterhood" argument was an "equality" argument that implied that we should address everyone alike, thou being chosen for reasons listed by Penn and Fox. Those reasons don’t make sense today and haven’t for three centuries. For example, one reason given is that using you to one person is grammatically incorrect. Another was that the only correct way to translate the Bible from Latin, which has only one second person singular pronoun, was to use thou, and the Bible being holy Scripture—you get the picture. Another was that one addresses God as thou, so using you to people would elevate them above God (note the implied difference in levels).

The fact remains that Quakers went on using thou (or thee) in a serious way long after the original justifications no longer held. The only reasons I can see for its continued use were simply that Quakers had "always" done it, it was "our" thing, it distinguished us from others, and it felt good when used among family and other Quakers. Doing it was the justification for doing it. This from a people who eschewed symbols and ritual! It is an object lesson in the passage of a live, meaningful religious insight into a form maintained only by custom, habit, and familiarity, or one that is maintained by considerations quite different from, and even counter to, those that gave rise to it.

If this could occur, and occur so quickly, in a people who were so suspicious of ritual, then what of the religious observances or practices of those in other religious traditions? Are any of them fresh, living things still supported by the original religious insight? Is the "shelf life" of religious insights always as short as that of the Quaker thou?

I could get in a lot of trouble by going further, so I won’t.

Albert W. Briggs Jr.

Albert W. Briggs Jr. is a member of Chester River Meeting in Chestertown, Md., and an emeritus professor of Mathematics and Computer Science. Having retired from Washington College in 2002, his primary interest is making music on his violin.