‘Thou’ on Google NGram Viewer

For dialect enthusiasts and language buffs, Google’s NGram Viewer is the kind of thing that keeps us up till the wee hours.  For those out of the loop: type any word (or phrase) into Google’s NGram search, and you’ll get a graph of how frequently this word was used in literature for a give time frame.  Cool!

I recently decided to use this tool to revisit an old topic we discussed, the archaic (or dialect) word thou.  Here’s the graph Google NGram gave me (which you can find in a better view here):

Some fascinating things can be gleaned here. First, thou seems to have had a ‘final hurrah’ during the golden age of Elizabethan literature. Most of what I’ve read suggests that the word was dying out in London by the time of Shakespeare. Paradoxically, this same time seems to be the golden era of literary ‘thou.’  So while the word may have been uncommon on the streets, writers of the period preserved it.

I was surprised to see such a precipitous drop in the early 1600’s given the publication of the King James Bible. But notice the spike in thou usage in the mid-17th-Century. Looking at a more close-up view of the chart, this increase almost perfectly aligns with the publication of the revised Book of Common Prayer in 1662.  (For Americans, this is the prayer book used by the Anglican church.)  So it seems this book, rather than the King James Bible itself, led to the notion that God uses the second person singular.

This publication seems to lead to a brief increase in liturgical thou:  Browsing over the Google Book results from 1650-1700, the vast majority of thou appearances are in various religious texts.  Then, sharply at the turn of the 18th-Century, thou falls out of usage. From 1700 till the present, the word is presumably reserved for references to the Bible, Elizabethan drama, or various English dialects.  Thou shalt never again relive thy heyday in the time of Marlowe and Shakespeare.

Thoughts?

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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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15 Responses to ‘Thou’ on Google NGram Viewer

  1. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    Interestingly, if you do the same thing for ‘thine’, the overall picture is pretty much the same, except the two major spikes switch positions: the one around 1590 is smaller, and the one around 1670 is larger.

  2. Ryan says:

    ‘…the notion that God uses the second person plural’ should read ‘second person singular’ or ‘second person familiar,’ no?

    • trawicks says:

      Andrej,

      Very interesting. Doing a bit of numbers crunching with Google Books, there indeed seems to be quite a difference in “thine” frequency. I searched through a Book of Common Prayer from 1731, and found 94 uses in a book which I’d roughly approximate to have around 60,000-70,000 words. Hamlet, meanwhile, has only 12 uses of “thine” in a text of 32,241 words.

      I don’t quite know what to make of this, but looking over different contexts for “thine” in the BoCP, I notice a startling number of them are direct addresses to God.

      Ryan,

      Duly noted and corrected! Sorry, force of habit: I talk about “y’all” a lot here.

  3. Marc Leavitt says:

    In a way, it’s regrettable that “thou, thy, thine” have fallen out of use in English. In other languages, particularly the Romance and German languages, the use of the second person singular telegraphs nuances of meaning which don’t exist in modern English. The most obvious of these include the use of “thou” when addressing a child or an intimate friend, relation, or someone who is below you in the social pecking order. At the same time, apologists for its demise will say that those distinctions are fussy and unnecessary.

    • Julie says:

      I don’t know that we need or want the status distinction, but we keep trying to recreate the singular/plural distinction.

    • Ellen K. says:

      As I understand it, social status related use of 2nd person pronouns is part of the path towards the demise of those forms. Once we start using the different forms for a social distinction, we are no longer using them to mark the singular/plural distinction.

  4. trawicks says:

    @Marc,

    Agreed. “You” has become too aggravatingly multipurpose, in my opinion. Beyond the fact that it serves as both the second person singular AND plural, it has also become a seriously problematic indefinite pronoun. I can’t count the times when rhetorical “you” has caused minor alarm in my interlocutor! (“Wait, you’re talking about when I PERSONALLY get drunk?!”)

    @Julie,

    Very true, and yet attempts at crafting second person plurals are often deemed incorrect! Although I personally think “y’all” is becoming more common in traditionally non-“y’all” areas of the US.

    @Ellen,

    Interesting you mention this. I’d suspect that in a hundred years or so the French equivalent of ‘thou,’ tu, may go down the same path, at least in “Metropolitan” French. Sarkozy actually went so far as to ban (or at least try to ban) the word in French schools! This seems to point to a common process whereby a word that serves a grammatical function starts to denote “familiarity,” which then evolves into a word causing offense.

    • Dw says:

      In California I hear “you guys” more than “y’all”. Indeed, I’ve picked up the “you guys” habit myself, finding it very useful to have a distinctive plural form lacking in my native BrE.

      • m.m. says:

        Yes, california is strong ‘you guys’ country, and usage of ‘y’all’ or other regional second person plural typically leads to mockery or even ridicule.

        • Rodger C says:

          Where I grew up in the Ohio Valley of West Virginia, “y’all” had replaced the Ullans “yens,” still found high up in the hills, and is now being replaced in its turn by “you guys.”

        • Julie says:

          Yes, my California accent uses “you guys.” It’s not a new invention here; it’s definitely my native speech (and I’m over 50).

          @Dw: You just opened an interesting question. So far as I know, most (if not all) Americans have a preferred regional plural for “you,” whether it’s “y’all,” “you’uns,” “you guys,” or something else. Are you saying this is not the case in Britain?

      • Ed says:

        “You lot” would be the British equivalent, I’d say.

        • dw says:

          I didn’t have “you lot” as an option when I was growing up in Britain (born mid-70s). I don’t know whether it postdates me or whether I just missed out on it somehow.

  5. P.L. says:

    It’s notable that in Shakespeare and his contemporaries speakers often mix up you and thou, addressing the same person now with one prounoun now with the other. This when speaker and hearer are of roughly the same social status; I don’t recall anyone in Shakespeare ever addressing a child or dog as “you” or a king as “thou”. One reason for the demise of “thou” may have been the inconvenience occasioned by the verb forms thast go with it, and the anomalous fact that the special verb-ending (“-st” in most cases) must be applied in the past as well as present tense (“thou wentest”, “thou broughtest”, etc), and even to the defective, or auxiliary, verbs (“thou canst”, “thou wilt”, “thou wouldst”, etc). Modern English having got rid of so many inflections, this one must have seemed a nuisance to hang on to.

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