Where art “Thou?”

King James Bible

King James' Bible, a text with frequent "thou" usage

Remember thou, the word that perplexed every high-schooler forced to read Shakespeare and Chaucer? What happened to that word?

Thou, as one can deduce, meant “you” up until the 1600s or so. You, in fact, was originally a second person plural, meaning it referred to a group of people, similar to modern-day dialect words like y’all, youse, or you guys.

Then, around the time of Shakespeare, thou started to recede. I’ve never read a fully satisfying explanation for why thou disappeared, but disappear it did. Soon enough, you replaced thou completely in most dialects. It’s appropriately Shakespearean: once-mighty King Thou, replaced by his crafty brother You, relegated to an eternal exile from the Kingdom of standard English.

Thou didn’t completely die out, however. As anybody who has read a DH Lawrence novel set in the East Midlands can tell you, thou remained a feature of some (mostly rural) dialects in England. The question is, are any of these dialects still around?

To answer this question, let’s look at the official party line, so to speak, regarding contemporary thou. Here is a choice quote from Wikipedia:

In traditional dialects, thou is used in the counties of Westmorland, Durham, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire and some western parts of Nottinghamshire.[34]

Wikipedia cites Peter Trudgill’s The Dialects of England here, so I’ll tentatively accept the statement as true. But I don’t really understand what “traditional dialects” means. Do these dialects still exist?

I decided to do a bit of searching myself. I headed over to the British Library website, and looked through the recordings from the Leeds Survey of English study. Most of the speakers analyzed were born in the 1870s and 1880s, so it gives us a good idea of the status of thou 100 years ago.

In Nottinghamshire and Westmorland, I couldn’t find any recordings that featured thou. This evidence would suggest that, in those counties, the word was already receding by the late Victorian era. Of several recordings for Staffordshire and Derbyshire, there was only one thou speaker each. Again, I’d guess the word was dying out in those counties by the turn of the 20th-Century.*

But in Yorkshire and Lancashire, the majority of the Leeds recordings featured thou or its variants thy and thee. And in Durham, though there were fewer accent samples, there were quite a few thou‘s as well.  So it would appear that, until at least WWI, thou was widespread across a large expanse of Northern England.

But while we have evidence that “thou” lasted into the 20th-Century, we haven’t answered our question: has thou survived in England to the present day? The word (or variants) is definitely used in the contemporary Scots language, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there were Scottish dialects slightly closer to standard English which feature it as well. But are there any true-blue modern English dialects with thou?

And this is where I could use some advice. Has anybody encountered a clip of a modern-day dialect of English that features thou? Or some other evidence of conteporary thou usage?

*Just to be clear, I actually did not spend hours last night pouring through dozens of audio recordings. The British library has a detailed linguistic analysis of each of the recordings in the study, and clearly states if they feature “thou.”

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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30 Responses to Where art “Thou?”

  1. Mig says:

    If you go to Sheffield (and I’m sure other places as well) lots of people still say thee and thou but it coms across more like “thi'” and “tha'”. I remember asking a bus driver for directions in Sheffield about 5 years ago and he said something like:

    “Na’ tha’ coomes to th’end o’road and goleft and….”

    it’s also not uncommon to hear people use it semi-ironaically as kind of relics like:

    “So it’s just thee and me today is it?” (if there’s just two people working in a shop or something)

    or

    “Sithee”, short for “see thee latter” (sic) (see you later)

    • trawicks says:

      Interesting. I wouldn’t be surprised if you can find it in quite a few areas. What I’ve found tricky is that hard to find any actual samples of “thou” or thou-like words without pouring through hundreds of hours of video. But if you know of any examples, let me know!

  2. m.m. says:

    Well, the band kaiser chiefs, hailing from leeds, west yorkshire uses ‘thee’ in the song ‘I predict a riot’, circa 2004 http://youtu.be/ZEH1btej7W8 , although the usage in that instance is of a parody kind, as explained by one of the band members

    Back in mid 2004 there was a TV programme called Bo Selecta and there was a spoof version of the pop RnB singer Craig David. He did it in a yorkshire accent and said ‘I tell thee’ all the time. I copied it from that cos it rhymed with ‘lairy’ and was funny.

    He links to a video of craig davids usage of “I tell thee” aswell http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMEsBEBypRE&feature=player_detailpage#t=95s

  3. Erica Walch says:

    Don’t the Amish or Menonites or some such order still routinely use both thee and thou?

    • trawicks says:

      A very good question. I believe they may have, although I’m not sure how much of that is reality and how much of it is pop culture. Also, the Amish and Menonites originally spoke dialects of German, so I’m not sure where the linguistic boundaries are these days among those communities.

    • Nick says:

      Are you thinking of the Quakers’ plain speaking?

      • Alex says:

        You’re thinking of traditional Quakers’ plain speech, which was meant to deliberately disregard social status distinctions by addressing everyone familiarly. Also, many early Quakers were from Lancashire, where “thou” hung on longer. Very few Quakers use it today, because relevant social distinctions have been levelled to a uniform “you” pronoun.

        For more information, check out “International Talk Like a Quaker Day” http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2732

  4. Malti says:

    There are places in (rural) Devon where “thee”/”‘ee” is almost exclusively used for “you” (with no subject/object distinction), with “youse” being the plural. (Or at least there were still places as of 5/6 years ago, I suppose things could have changed quite quickly.) I’m not sure how to go about finding clips of it though.

  5. Jon says:

    Hi Ben,

    I came to your blog via SBaCL Lynne & have really been enjoying it these last weeks. I work at the British Library and am cataloguing some Staffordshire & Derbys. recordings this week (with plenty of thou/thee/thys – nice coincidence). I can only really think of a single ‘thou’ that is spontaneous & not just a performance of older speech patterns. I’ll send you a clip tomorow if I can: these clips won’t be avail online for a few months just yet.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks so much, Jon. That’s fantastic! The British Library’s archival sound recordings is easily one of my favorite things on the web. And I’m surprised how few people actually know about it!

      • Jon says:

        Here we go. These quotes are taken from a recording made in November 2004 of 4 men, aged between 42 and 73 in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, UK. It’s part of a survey done by the BBC in conjunction with Leeds University (www.bbc.co.uk/voices).

        The majority of the occurences of 2nd person thou/thee come in mini ‘performances’ of what’ve become set-pieces of Potteries dialect, or quotes of older friends using these forms in a specific situation as part of a story:

        0:06:08 “canst thou bring us some salt, duck?”;
        0:06:20 but if… if there is other Pottery people about that’s nothing do with you they say, “what part of Stoke dost thee come from?”;
        0:12:55 we’ve got a chap on the allotment does talk broad and first thing he says to you in a morning when he sees you, “art thou all right?”;
        0:15:03 “art thou all right, sirree?”;
        0:55:06 “what’s thou been doing down here? burning thy wellies?”;
        0:58:31 “dare thou be bound?”

        However, I did find at least 2 completely natural occurences, both of them (I think) spoken by the youngest participant:

        0:22:22 you used to freeze your conkers off in winter when you’d been to have a slash, I tell thee;
        0:38:30 thou’s got some in thy hand;

        You’ve inspired me to blog about it, as that way I could probably upload some sound clips for you to hear 🙂 And as I said, this collection will be on sounds.bl.uk by the end of 2011 we hope. But I’ll comment on here again when I get the blog post done!

        Really glad you like our site: maybe we should publicise it more 😉 ASR isn’t the catchiest of names and I think we’re going for an overhaul and relaunch this summer.

        • trawicks says:

          This clip is fantastic. It’s really interesting that you separated the usages into “performative” and “natural” occurences. I’ve found that a lot here in the states as well, where people will use certain dialect words “facetiously,” rather than organically.

          Thanks for letting me know about the blog. It looks great!

  6. Richard Gadsden says:

    I suspect that when it says “traditional dialects” it means “dialects spoken by older people”. My grandmother (from Barnsley, South Yorks) said “thee” and “tha” (for thou) in casual speech until she died in her nineties a few years ago.

    My mother (also from Barnsley) uses them occasionally, especially if she’s tired, or has had a drink or two.

  7. Cheri says:

    I grew up hearing this hymn in church. ‘My Jesus I Love Thee’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=at67q_staZ8&feature=youtube_gdata_player
    Also, the KJV Bible has thees and thous. I don’t hear it used in regular conversation.

    Neat blog!

    • trawicks says:

      Thee is quite common in Christian hymns thanks to the KJV, which, being written in the Elizabethan era, was chock full of them!

      @Richard,

      Thanks for sharing! It’s becoming clear that “thou” is still alive and kicking (if more than a bit sickly).

  8. 'enry 'iggins says:

    It’s hard for Americans to understand what traditional-dialect is because we don’t really have it here. John Wells explains what the term traditional-dialect means at the beginning of his Accents of English (This web site might help explain it too). One example Wells gives is that in the traditional-dialect of Westmoreland the General English sentence the roads are dirty could instead be said as [t rɪadz əz mʊkɪ]. There is no agreed way of spelling that. He also gives the example of the Standard English sentence you must eat it up; this can be said as [ða mʊŋ ˈɡɛr ɪt ˈɛtn̩] in north-of-England traditional-dialect. The [ða] here is obviously related to thou. There is no agreed way of spelling that utterance either. There are just a lot of different words used which don’t have an agreed upon spelling. There is also often a different syntax and very different pronunciations which you won’t find anywhere else. Here is a man speaking in traditional Yorkshire dialect (with subtitles!). It’s continued here. He doesn’t actually speak in dialect the whole time and you might not actually find some parts of it that difficult to understand, but he talks about some of the words used in the dialect. If you look up ewwer or yat in the dictionary, you won’t find them. You can find many other examples of traditional English dialects at the British Library.

    An example of traditional-dialect you might be more familiar with is Scots in Scotland and Ulster. Here is a place where you can hear Ulster Scots. There are also many other places on the Internet where you can hear Scots. By the way, even when Wells wrote that book (almost 30 years ago now), he said that traditional-dialect was “recessive” everywhere where it persisted at all. It seemed to be recessive when that Yorkshire man was being interviewed too, based on the fact that he said other people couldn’t understand him.

    • trawicks says:

      We really have accents in America, rather than dialects of the kind you describe above. African American Vernacular English being a very notable exception.

  9. Helen Howes says:

    Poring, please…

    Inner pedant strikes again…

    HH

  10. MT says:

    I have a friend from the Midlands who occasionally uses ‘thee’ in what seems to be an unselfconscious way e.g., “One for me, one for thee” when doling out a round.

  11. Petejm_uk says:

    The people of Sheffield are sometimes pejoratively referred to as “dee-dahs” by people from Chesterfield because of their use of ” thee” and “thou”, often rendered as “dee” and “dah”.

    http://www.sheffieldforum.co.uk/showthread.php?t=681009

  12. Trina says:

    Coming late to this party, nevertheless, a few thoughts.
    Seems that the demise of thou is part of the process of deinflection of the English language, that is, the slow death of those few words that have an accusative form. Like whom. In that case, it’s the accusative that gets abandoned. With thee/thou, the accusative (thee) has supplanted the original nominative (thou). Among Quakers, it’s not a sign of an agrarian dialect, but based in the philosophical view that there is “that of God” in everyone, therefore everyone should be addressed the same, at least in the singular. They do use you for the plural. The familiar thee/thy/thine is still used around Philadelphia by some older Quakers. In my childhood, Quakers of my grandparents’ generation still used the greeting, “How art thou?” but “How is thee” has supplanted it. Note that with thou, the construction is archaic–art, dost, canst, couldst thou, etc.

    While we’re at it, on to youse: in at least one instance in rural Cape May County, New Jersey, I heard it used specifically as a plural. One of my daughter’s riding teachers, addressing two mothers, said, “Now when you–I mean youse–come to the horseshow…” Grammar rules in action.

    And, yes, Inner Pedant–poring, please

    • trawicks says:

      I just read “Through the Language Glass” by Guy Deutscher, and he believes there is a correlation between how many speakers a language has and loss of inflection. Which means that as the number of speakers of English grows (and grows), we are only going to see more of these distinctions recede.

  13. boynamedsue says:

    Lovely blog this.

    I come from West Yorkshire, and can attest that “Tha” is still used, though no longer in Leeds, and rarely consistently by any speaker not over 80, even then mostly only when speaking with a person who comes from the same background and is of the same age.

    It can be heard used by younger people in Wakefield and Cas (and by younger I mean as young as 16), but usually only as part of set phrases such as “get thissen off” (imperative meaning “leave”) “tha knows”, “I tell thi” and “ee, dun’t tha know?”. Though of course, not everybody uses these phrases.

    Fifteen years ago former miners still sometimes used “tha” in conversations amongst themselves, for long spells and pretty consistently in subj, obj and poss. pron. position. Other times they would use “you” exclusively. Other young people in pubs and clubs would use it less frequently, and rarely as a poss. pron. The youngest of the former miners would now be in their early 40’s, but I’d imagine that they probably still use “tha” with former colleagues.

    Further South around Barnsley you’ll still find, and probably some younger users. I was in Barnsley baths about 15 years back and I heard two kids (12ish) arguing “Tha’s a German, thee!” “Well, tha’s a Jew!”. That tells us two things, people under thirty can, at the very least, remember using “tha” in Barnsley, and, given one of the kids was black, people from Barnsley are really crap at racism.

  14. Will Divide says:

    A friend’s mother, now around 90, once told me that when she was a little girl her Philadelphia Quaker grandmother, when vexed with her, would say: “Thoust little ‘you’, thee”, broadly meaning the child was being almost naughty enough to be called “you”.

  15. rozele says:

    @ ‘enry ‘iggins: It’s hard for Americans to understand what traditional-dialect is because we don’t really have it here.

    no, we just have different ones here. from northern new england (“ayuh”) to central pennsylvania (“yinz”) onwards… regional words, region-specific syntactical patterns, etc. some coming from specific old-country englishes, some from more complicated multi-linguistic pathways, but all regionally specific dialects that have been changing rapidly over the last half century of mass media and mobility.

    can we please not fall into the good old brit-centric garbage about the u.s. (and the rest of the americas) as a New! Young! World! with neither traditions nor history (linguistic or otherwise)? imitating your namesake’s level of linguistic prejudice doesn’t suit you, especially given how well-informed you seem to be about british dialects in all their diversity…

    • trawicks says:

      Rozele, I don’t think we have “traditional dialects” in quite the same way as you find in England. What ‘enry is alluding to are dialects that have been almost codified in a way, or nearly treated as separate regional languages. It’s more a matter of the differing cultural attitudes of the US and the UK toward dialects than the dialects themselves.

  16. “The word (or variants) is definitely used in the contemporary Scots language”

    Really? Leaving aside the highly contentious issue of what “the contemporary Scots language” might constitute, I really can’t believe there are many present-day Scots who unselfconsciously use (variants of) thou, in the way that people certainly do in the North of England. Perhaps in Orkney and Shetland, I don’t know, but then supposedly they don’t really consider themselves Scottish anyway!

    However it’s not so long since relics of “thou” could be heard even in the South of England. My father once heard an old Gloucestershire man say something like “thee cassent do nothin right” (you can’t do anything right). That would have been in the 1950s, at the earliest.

    I do wonder how many places still keep intact the entire morphology of thou (thee, thy, thine plus the corresponding verb forms such as dost, hast, canst and wilt). Certainly not religious communities such as the Quakers, who seem to simply replace you with thee and stop at that.

  17. Ed says:

    It persists amongst older speakers in an area roughly between Leeds and Mansfield. It’s not heard in York or Hull in Yorkshire. I think that it is still around in some parts of Lancashire, but I’ve never lived there so can’t be precise.

    Amongst younger people, it tends to be used in a tongue-in-cheek manner or for self-parody of a broad accent. I don’t think that it’ll last much longer.

  18. Sarah says:

    It used to be common among the older farming community in Derbyshire. It would be quite normal for my dad’s cousin, a farmer, to great him with ‘How’s tha doin’ yowth?’