We know language changes—we don't say thee and thou anymore—but have you ever wondered why? Often, it's not clear, but there's a particularly satisfying answer when it comes to these two pronouns.
A couple of weeks ago, after I talked about how the pronoun you fills so many roles, I started wondering why we stopped using thee and thou.
It turns out that English used to have formal and informal pronouns like many other languages. German has Sie and du, French has vous and tu, Spanish has usted and tú, and during Shakespeare’s time, English had thou and you and thee and you.
Thee and Thou Were English’s Informal Pronouns
Since thee and thou have survived mainly in religious and poetic writing, you may be surprised to learn that thee and thou were the informal pronouns. Yup. You was formal, and thou was informal.
In a book called The Personal Pronouns in the Germanic Languages, Stephen Howe says that in the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, thou was generally used to address someone who was socially inferior or an intimate. For example, parents called their children thou, and children called their parents you, but then the use of thou sharply decreased in the seventeenth century, starting in London. Thou was used the longest in areas that were farthest from London, and in fact, it’s still used in a few regional dialects including those in Yorkshire and Cumbria, which are both quite a bit north of London.
When Social Status Became Unclear, People Started Using You More
The reason people stopped using thou (and thee) was that social status—whether you were considered upper class or lower class—became more fluid during this time. You had social climbers striving to talk like the upper class, so they used you all the time instead of thou, and since you couldn’t be as sure as you used to be about who was in what class, it was safer to use you instead of thou because you didn’t want to risk accidentally offending someone in the upper class by using the wrong pronoun. You didn’t want to call someone thou when you should have used you!