AskDefine | Define thou

Dictionary Definition

thou n : the cardinal number that is the product of 10 and 100 [syn: thousand, one thousand, 1000, M, K, chiliad, G, grand, yard]

User Contributed Dictionary


Etymology 1



  • , /ðaʊ/, /DaU/
  • Rhymes with: -aʊ


  1. In the context of "archaic|or|dialectal": you (singular informal)
Usage notes
  • thou is used with the archaic second-person singular of verbs, which usually ends in -est, as in, for example, “Lovest thou me?” Exceptions (forms without s) include art#Verb (of be), shalt (of shall) and wilt (of will#Verb).
singular informal form of "you"


  1. To address (a person) using the pronoun thou.
  2. To use the word thou.

Etymology 2

Shortened from thousand and thousandth.


  • , /θaʊ/, /TaU/
    Rhymes with: -aʊ


  1. A unit of length equal to one-thousandth of an inch.


  1. A thousand, especially a thousand dollars, a thousand pounds sterling, etc.

Extensive Definition

The word thou ( in most dialects) is a second person singular pronoun in English. It is now largely archaic, having been replaced in almost all contexts by you. Thou is the nominative form; the oblique/objective form is thee (functioning as both accusative and dative), and the possessive is thy or thine. Almost all verbs following thou have the endings -st or -est; e.g., "thou goest". In Middle English, thou was sometimes abbreviated by putting a small "u" over the letter thorn: ! Modern West Frisian ! Modern German ! Modern English |- | Thou hast | [doː hast] | [du hast] | You have /juː hæv/ |- | She hath | [zɛi hat] | [zi hat] | She has /ʃiː hæz/ |- | What hast thou? | [vat hast̬o] | [vas hast du] | What do you have? /ʍɒt duː juː hæv/ |- | What hath she? | [vat hat zɛi] | [vas hat zi] | What does she have? /ʍɒt dʌz ʃiː hæv/ |- | Thou goest | [doː giəst] | [du geːst] | You go /juː gəʊ/ |- | Thou dost | [doː doxst] | [du tust] | You do /juː duː/ |- | Thou be'st (variant of art) | [doː bɪst] | [du bɪst] | You are /juː ɑr/ |}
In the subjunctive and imperative moods, the ending in -(e)st is dropped, although it is generally retained in thou wert, the second-person singular past subjunctive of the verb "to be". The subjunctive forms are used when a statement is doubtful or contrary to fact; As such, they frequently occur after "if" and the poetic "and".
If thou be Johan, I tell it thee, right with a good advice . . .;
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart . . .
I do wish thou wert a dog, that I might love thee something . . .
And thou bring Alexander and his paramour before the Emperor, I'll be Actaeon . . .
O WERT thou in the cauld blast, . . . I'd shelter thee . . .
In modern regional English dialects that use thou or some variant, it often takes the third person form of the verb -s. This comes from a merging of Early Modern English second person singular ending -st and third person singular ending -s into -s.


Thou originates from Old English , and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *tu, with the expected Germanic vowel lengthening in open syllables. Thou is therefore cognate with Icelandic and Old Norse , modern German, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish , Latin, French, Portuguese, Catalan, Italian, Irish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Spanish and Romanian or , Greek , (), Slavic ты / ty or ти / ti, Armenian (), Hindi तू (), Bengali: তুই (tui), Persian (), and Sanskrit त्वम् (). A cognate form of this pronoun exists in almost every other Indo-European language.


In Old English, thou was governed by a fairly simple rule: thou addressed one person, and ye more than one. After the Norman Conquest, which marks the beginning of the French vocabulary influence that characterized the Middle English period, thou was gradually replaced by the plural ye as the form of address for a superior and later for an equal. For a long time, however, thou remained the most common form for addressing an inferior.
The practice of matching singular and plural forms with informal and formal connotations is called the T-V distinction, and in English is largely due to the influence of French. This began with the practice of addressing kings and other aristocrats in the plural. Eventually, this was generalized, as in French, to address any social superior or stranger with a plural pronoun, which was felt to be more polite. In French, tu was eventually considered either intimate or condescending (and, to a stranger, potentially insulting), while the plural form vous was reserved and formal.
In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson, in A Grammar of the English Tongue, wrote: " the language of ceremony... the second person plural is used for the second person singular...", implying that the second person singular was still in everyday use. By contrast, The Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage says that for most speakers of southern British English, thou had fallen out of everyday use, even in familiar speech, by sometime around 1650. Thou persisted in a number of religious, literary, and regional contexts, and those pockets of continued use of the pronoun tended to undermine the T-V distinction.
One notable consequence of the decline in use of the second person singular pronouns thou, thy, and thee is the obfuscation of certain sociocultural elements of Early Modern English texts, such as many character interactions in Shakespeare's plays. In Richard III, for instance, the conversation between the Duke of Clarence and the two murderers takes on a very different tone if it is read in light of the social connotations of the pronouns used by the characters.

Use as a verb

Many Indo-European languages contain verbs meaning "to address with the informal pronoun", such as Dutch jouen, German duzen, French tutoyer and Spanish tutear. Although uncommon in English, the usage did appear, such as at the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603, when Sir Edward Coke, prosecuting for the Crown, reportedly sought to insult Raleigh by saying,
I thou thee, thou traitor!
here using thou as a verb meaning "to call thou". Although the practice never took root in standard English, it occurs in dialectal speech in the north of England. A formerly common refrain in Yorkshire, which admonished overly familiar children, declared:
Dun't thee tha them as tha's thee!

Religious uses

As William Tyndale translated the Bible into English in the early 1500s, he sought to preserve the singular and plural distinctions that he found in his Hebrew and Greek originals. Therefore, he consistently used thou for the singular and ye for the plural regardless of the relative status of the speaker and the addressee. By doing so, he probably saved thou from utter obscurity and gave it an air of solemnity that sharply distinguished it from its French counterpart. Tyndale's usage was imitated in the King James Bible, and remained familiar because of that translation.
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which is still an authorized form of worship in the Church of England, retains the 17th-century language and uses the word thou to refer to the singular second person. The Book of Common Prayer is treasured among worshippers because of the beauty of its language, which is considered one of the greatest works in English.
Quakers formerly used thee as an ordinary pronoun; the stereotype has them saying thee for both nominative and accusative cases. This was started by George Fox at the beginning of the Quaker movement as an attempt to preserve the egalitarian familiarity associated with the pronoun, who called it "plain speaking". Most Quakers have abandoned this usage. At its beginning, the Quaker movement was particularly strong in the northwestern areas of England, and particularly in the north Midlands area. The preservation of thee in Quaker speech may relate to this history. Modern Quakers who choose to use this manner of "plain speaking" often use the "thee" form without any corresponding change in verb form, for example, is thee or were thee.
In Latter-Day Saint prayer tradition, the terms "thee" and "thou" are always and exclusively used to address Deity, as a mark of respect.
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which first appeared in 1946, retained the pronoun thou exclusively to address God, using you in other places. This was done to preserve the tone, at once intimate and reverent, that would be familiar to those who knew the King James Version and read the Psalms and similar text in devotional use. The New American Standard Bible (1971) made the same decision, but the revision of 1995 (New American Standard Bible, Updated edition) reversed it. The New Revised Standard Version (1989) omits thou entirely, and claims that it is incongruous and contrary to the original intent of the use of thou in Bible translation to adopt a distinctive pronoun to address the Deity. When referring to God, "thou" is often capitalized for clarity and reverence. While Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic (the languages of the Bible) do not have a special orthography (such as capitalization) for indicating that the Deity is being referred to, their grammars are more successful than English in making noun/pronoun agreement unambiguous.
More recently, the philosopher Martin Buber has been translated into English as using the words I and Thou to describe our ideal familiar relationship with the Deity. Most languages which maintain both a formal and familiar second person pronoun address God with the familiar pronoun (the Dutch language is an exception here), since its usage derives from older times when the distinction between the pronouns was in number only, not in degree of familiarity. Because in current English usage thou is perceived, however wrongly, as more reserved and formal than you, the translation does not convey the intended meaning well - a closer, colloquial translation of the idea would be Us or You and me, or in Australian English, "Mates".

Literary uses


William Shakespeare occasionally seems to use thou in the intimate, French style sense, but he is by no means consistent in using the word that way, and friends and lovers sometimes call each other ye or you as often as they call each other thou. In Henry IV, Shakespeare has Falstaff mix up the two forms speaking to Prince Henry, the heir apparent and Falstaff's commanding officer, in the same lines of dialog:
PRINCE: Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldest truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? …
FALSTAFF: Indeed, you come near me now, Hal … And, I prithee, sweet wag, when thou art a king, as God save thy Grace – Majesty, I should say; for grace thou wilt have none –

More recent uses

Except where everyday use survives in some regions of England, the air of informal familiarity once suggested by the use of thou has disappeared; it is used in solemn ritual occasions, in readings from the King James Bible, in Shakespeare, and in formal literary compositions that intentionally seek to echo these older styles. Since becoming obsolete in most dialects of spoken English, it has nevertheless been used by more recent writers to address exalted beings such as God, a skylark, Achilles, and even The Mighty Thor. In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader addresses the Emperor with the words: "What is thy bidding, my master?" In Leonard Cohen's song Bird on a Wire, he promises his beloved that he'll reform, saying "I will make it all up to thee." And in Diana Ross's song 'Upside Down' we hear the lyric "Respectfully I say to thee I'm aware that you're cheatin'." These recent uses of the pronoun suggest something far removed from intimate familiarity or condescension, while they could be seen as mirroring the mode of address used with the Deity in the Bible as discussed above.
Most modern writers have no experience using thou in daily speech; they are therefore vulnerable to confusion of the traditional verb forms. The most common mistake in artificially archaic modern writing is the use of the old third person singular ending -eth with thou, for example thou thinketh. The converse—the use of the second person singular ending -est for the third person—also occurs ("So sayest Thor!"—spoken by Thor). This usage often shows up in modern parody and pastiche in an attempt to make speech appear either archaic or formal. The latter is ironic as thou was historically informal, you being the formal form. The forms thou and thee are often transposed (as in Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose).
In the fictional teenage ideolect nadsat, invented for Anthony Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange (and the film adaptation), Alex and his droogs regularly use "thou", which fits in with their semi-Edwardian clothing. For example, when fighting a rival gang, Alex addresses them thus (note the mixing of "you" and "thou" for the third person):
''Well, well, well! Well if it isn't fat stinking Billy goat Billy Boy in poison! [i.e., in person] How art thou, thou globby bottle of cheap stinking chip oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly thou!
Some translators render the T-V distinction in English with "thou" and "you", particularly in places where you appears in the place of expected thou, or vice versa. This practice has largely fallen out of use. Ernest Hemingway, in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, uses the forms "thou" and "you" in order to reflect the relationships between his Spanish-speaking characters.
Thou is often falsely interpreted as having been formal; its use today can give an impression of stiltedness. In reading passages with thou and thee, many modern readers stress the pronouns and the verb endings. Traditionally, however, the e in -est ought to be unstressed, and thou and thee should be no more stressed than you.

Current usage

You'' is now the standard English second-person pronoun and encompasses both the singular and plural senses. In some dialects, however, "thou" has persisted, and in others the vacuum created by the loss of a distinction has led to the creation of new forms of the second-person plural. The forms vary across the English-speaking world and between literature and the spoken language.

British Isles

Persistence of second-person singular

In traditional dialects, thou is used in the counties of Westmorland, Durham, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire and some western parts of Nottinghamshire.Such dialects normally also preserve distinct verb forms for the singular second person, for example thee coost (standard English: you could, archaic: thou couldest) in northern Staffordshire. Throughout rural Yorkshire, the old distinction between nominative and objective is preserved. The possessive is often written as thy in local dialect writings, but is pronounced as an unstressed tha, and the possessive form of tha has in modern usage almost exclusively followed other English dialects in becoming yours or the local word your'n (from your one):
The apparent incongruity between the archaic nominative, objective and genitive forms of this pronoun on the one hand and the modern possessive form on the other may be a signal that the linguistic drift of Yorkshire dialect is causing tha to fall into disuse; however, a measure of local pride in the dialect may be counteracting this.
There are some other variants that are specific to certain areas. In Sheffield, the pronunciation of the word was somewhere in between a /d/ and a /th/ sound, with the tongue at the bottom of the mouth; this led to the nickname of the "dee-dahs" for Sheffield folk. In Lancashire and West Yorkshire, ta was used as an unstressed shortening of thou, which can be found in the song On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at. These variants are no longer in use.
The use of the word "thee" in the hit song I Predict a Riot by Leeds band Kaiser Chiefs ("Watching the people get lairy / is not very pretty, I tell thee") caused some comment by people who were unaware that the word is still in use in the Yorkshire dialect.
The use persists somewhat in the West Country dialects, albeit somewhat affected. Some of the Wurzels songs include: Drink up Thy Cider & Sniff Up Thy Snuff.
Thoo has also been used in the Orcadian Scots dialect in place of the singular informal thou. In Shetlandic, the other form of Insular Scots, du is used.

Loss of second person plural

English once drew a clear distinction between the singular and plural forms of the second person pronoun. As discussed above, thou and thee were the subjective and objective forms of the singular second person. With some important exceptions, thou is no longer used in the modern language. Ye and you were the plural subjective and objective forms of the second person pronoun. Perhaps even more than thou, ye is almost completely dead as a linguistic expression. It survives in archaisms such as "what say ye" and "hear ye," and in deliberate efforts at humour, such as in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which the knights are warned by an enchanter: These lines present an interesting mixture of old and new styles. To establish the antiquity of the scene, the actor (John Cleese) uses the ancient form ("if ye be men of valor"), then, having accomplished this with one ye, he switches back to the modern forms, saying "if you do doubt your courage" and "death awaits you all"). The lack of a modern distinction between singular and plural you created a need for you all to make it clear that the actor is addressing the entire company of knights.

Neologisms for second-person plural

In the dialect of English spoken in Northern Ireland, yous or yousuns is frequently heard for the informal nominative plural and accusative plural, while either your or yousuns is the possessive adjective.
  • Have yousuns heard the racket your dog is making?! (Very informal speech)
  • Have yous heard the racket yousuns' dog is making?! (Very informal speech)
  • Have youse heard the racket your dog is making?! (Ordinary speech, most dialects)
  • Have you heard the racket your dog is making?! (Formal speech; ordinary speech in some dialects)
The case is similar in Scotland (and North East England), where youse (and most often written with that spelling) is used in informal speech in some southern Scottish and northern English dialects.
In much of provincial Ireland ye or yez is used as the nominative and accusative plural with yeer as the possessive. In Dublin, youse and yiz are used in the nominative and accusative plural, with yer or yizzer as the possessive.

North America

In Southern American English and in African American English throughout the US, y'all is a widely accepted form of second-person plural. In rural Appalachia, yenz and yunz are common in casual speech. In Pennsylvania, you'uns or yinz is sometimes used around Pittsburgh. In the north, yous, youse, or you guys is sometimes used, especially in much of lower Michigan and around New York, though in New York Dialect, "youse guys/youse guys's" are more common objective and possessive forms, although these are probably minority usages, and are highly stigmatized, your guys or your guys's being more common. These usages may be the American variants of Irish and British coinages noted above. You guys is widespread throughout English-speaking North America as a means of indicating the plural (this term is used to address both men and women). However, these grammatical expressions are considered colloquialisms and are not used in formal speech or writing. The table below shows standardised second-person pronouns of today, with informal regional usage shown in brackets.

See also



  • Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language, 5th ed. ISBN 0-13-015166-1
  • Burrow, J. A., Turville-Petre, Thorlac. A Book of Middle English. ISBN 0-631-19353-7
  • Daniel, David. The Bible in English: Its History and Influence. ISBN 0-300-09930-4.
  • Shorrocks, Graham. "Case Assignment in Simple and Coordinate Constructions in Present-Day English." American Speech, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Winter, 1992).
  • Smith, Jeremy. A Historical Study of English: Form, Function, and Change. ISBN 0-415-13272-X
  • "Thou, pers. pron., 2nd sing." Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (1989).
  • Trudgill, Peter. (1999) Blackwell Publishing. Dialects of England. ISBN 0-631-21815-7


  • Personal Pronouns in Present-Day English by Katie Wales (Author) ISBN 0-521-47102-8

External links

thou in French: Thou (pronom personnel)
thou in Romanian: Thou
thou in Scots: Thou
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