Jen wrote to inform me that today, being William Penn's birthday, is International Talk Like a Quaker Day. Jen explains that
I like to combine it with my pirate talk from International Talk Like a Pirate Day. "Arrr, thee must give us all thy money to donate to the Friends Service Committee, or we will nonviolently board thy ship and elder thee."
And before you get on Jen's case for using thee instead of thou, that's her question too:
What I've never understood about Quaker plain speech is why "thee" is used in both the objective and and subjective cases. I understand that early Quakers wanted to avoid honorifics and status distinctions, and so addressed everyone with the familiar pronoun. But why isn't it "thou"? And why is it "thee is" and "thee says" rather than "thee art" and "thee sayest"?
Is this just the opposite of the "who-whom" merger, with the subjective case being lost instead? And was it unique to plain-speaking Quakers?
The short answer is that someone apparently became confused at some point, but I don't know who and when. It certainly wasn't the founding generation of Quakers — thus a letter from William Penn to his father, September 1670:
I desire thee not to be troubled at my present confinement, I could scarce suffer on a better account, nor by a worse hand, and the will of God be done. It is more grievous and uneasy to me that thou shouldst be so heavily exercised, God Almighty knows, than any living worldly concernment.
And a letter from William Penn to his wife, written shortly before leaving for America, 6/4/1682:
Remember thou wast the love of my youth, and much the joy of my life; the most beloved as well as the most worthy of all my earthly comforts; and the reason of that love was more thy inward than thy outward excellencies, which yet are many. God knows, and thou knowest it, I can say it was a match of Providence's making; and God's image in us both was the first thing, and the most amiable and engaging ornament in our eyes. Now I am to leave thee, and that without knowing whether I shall ever see thee more in this world, take my counsel into thy bosom, and let it dwell with thee in my stead while thou livest.
(I should note that in all of the examples cited in this post, the spelling has been modernized in the sources available to me, which are generally 19th-century publications. If anyone knows where to find facsimiles or more faithful copies of the originals, let me know.)
Even two hundred years after Penn's move to America, at least some Friends maintained the traditional distribution of forms. Thus this letter from Hannah Bean to Eliza Gurney 4/16/1881, on the occasion of E.G.'s 80th birthday:
Beloved Friend, – Our thoughts have been much with thee of late, and ever with the heart-cheering feeling that, although feebleness of body may be thy portion, yet He who has so eminently been "the health of thy countenance and thy God" has thee so safely sheltered under His almighty wing that the strength of His spirit is thine. Faithfully hast thou labored for thy King while health and strength were given; now He has drawn thee aside to the holy mount, where, as He prompts the vocal or unuttered prayers for the Church and the individual workers in the vineyard, they arise as sweet incense, "golden vials full of odors." For the Church's sake, we long that thou mayst tarry long in the land of Beulah; but earnest is the prayer of my heart that our Father will send many and continually brighter tokens of His love to thee, both instrumentally through the dear ones who daily minister to thee, and absent ones who cherish thy image, and ever by His own best gift of Himself.
The Wikipedia article on thou says that:
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.
If it's true that there are modern Quakers who use thee for both subject and object forms, along with the verb forms appropriate for you, I don't know when this started or how it developed. Nor do I know whether it's a natural development or the result of a rational or ideological choice.
The original choice to use thou and thee was certainly an ideological one. George Fox, one of the founders of the Religious Society of Friends, could grow rather heated and loquacious on the subject. Here's a passage from Fox's Epistle 191, written in 1660:
All Friends every where, that are convinced with truth, and profess it, and own it; keep to the single language, the good spirit, the light of Christ Jesus leads to it; and that which goes from that, which doth not live in it, is to be judged. And then, if man or woman seek to get gain by speaking the improper, untrue language, and flattering language of the world, which is in confusion, the Lord may take that gain away from them. For plural and singular was the language of God, and Christ, and all good men, and of the prophets and apostles; but the confused world, that lies in confusion, cannot endure it, who live not in the fear of God, neither follow the example of good men, but are in the double tongue, quenching the spirit, and hating the light of Christ Jesus, which is single. And so all Friends, train up your children in the same singular and plural language ; all masters, mistresses, and dames, or whatsoever ye are called, that do take Friends' children, that are in the singular and plural language, it is not fit for you to bring them out of it, neither to force nor command them otherwise, to please your customers, nor to please men; for if they should pay two or three for one, that would displease you, who would have them to speak two or three, when they should speak singular, thee and thou to one. And so, do not lose that testimony, which slays the world's honour, and do not go into the custom of the world's fashions or commands, nor force others from that, which is the language of God, and Christ, and all good men and women, into that which is contrary to God and Christ, and all good men and women; for there must be, and always was a distinction betwixt one and many. For if in your practice ye should not do it, but let one have many things, when he should have but one thing, ye would think to suffer wrong, and your servants to do that which were not righteous; and so, do not they speak that which is not righteous, when they say many for one, and nonsense and confusion? And therefore keep to the proper, sound, single language. For indeed, I did hear some that were troubled at their apprentices and servants, for saying thee and thou to one, and because they would not say the word you; and such, who have known the language from their childhood. And therefore that selfish, man-pleasing, and daubing spirit must be put down with the spirit, and condemned with the light, else ye will presently be ridiculous to the world, and to all men, and they will say, ye are not so as ye were in the beginning; and so follow the customs of the world, and not the practice of Christ, and all good men. And so, this is written that all may fear the Lord; and they who have done so, may do so no more, and that others may be warned, and not to go into such things. But mind the truth and spirit of God, the light of Christ Jesus, that none of the free born may lose the true language, and speak half the world's language, and half of the people of God's. For to say to Friends, thee and thou, and to the world you, that is hypocrisy. And therefore for all hypocrites, and hypocrisy and dissembling to be kept under judgment, for that is a dissembling with the witness of God. For ye see the outward Jews, when they went from the law of God, in process of time spoke half Hebrew, and half Ashdod. And therefore, to prevent all dissembling and hypocrisy, keep to the spirit of God and light of Christ Jesus, that the Jews inward may not have a mixed language, no more than the Jews outward, to speak half the confused language of the world, and half the true language. Nor to the world speak confusedly, to speak the plural for the singular, and when ye are among the world, speak as the world does; and when ye are among Friends speak as they do: this spirit is not from the spirit of God, but is hypocrisy and for judgment. And so let the truth have its passage in all things, and speak true words, and not false, iwth the light ye will see; who act contrary to it, will be condemned by it. So let Friends be distinct from all the world in their language, in their ways, in love, and in their conversations; for in that ye are over the world, and judge them by scripture, by grammar, and accidence, and all other teaching books, for ye have them all on your side to hammer them down withal, who follow neither scriptures, grammar, nor accidence, nor their new teaching books, and are judged by them all, and the spirit of God also, which leads to one, and to divide and distinguish singular from plural, many things from one thing, and one from two and three; and many man and women from one, and the many words from one, and the many gods from one, and the true Christ from the many antichrists and false. All this is distinguished and known by the one spirit, the light and power of Christ Jesus, which gives an understanding.
Let this be sent abroad, that all may read it over.
In fact, as that passage shows us, Fox was a classic prescriptivist on this point, invoking logic and grammar as well as scripture and history. He clearly felt about singular you the way that some contemporary prescriptivists feel about singular they. He even urged the use of public shaming to enforce the rule:
And that in all the Monthly Meetings there be an inquiry, whether any who profess truth, are out of the pure language, thou to everyone, whether they keep up God and Christ's language, which the holy prophets and apostles used, over all the flattering words in the world.
So those who want to honor International Speak Like a Quaker Day in the true tradition of George Fox and William Penn should follow "scriptures, grammar, and accidence". Or else.
[Update — as pointed out in the comments, there are some relevant articles from American Speech in the 1926-1933 time period: Kate Watkins Tibbals, "The Speech of Plain Friends", American Speech 1(4) 193-209, 1926; Ezra Kempton Maxfield, "Quaker 'Thee' and Its History", American Speech 1(12) 638-644, 1026; E.K. Maxfield, "Quaker 'Thou' and 'Thee'", American Speech 4(5) 359-361, 1929; Atheson L. Hench, "Nominative 'Thou' and 'Thee' in Quaker English", American Speech 4(5): 361-363; Anne Wistar Comfort, "Some Peculiarities of Quaker Speech", American Speech 8(1): 12-14, 1933.
A relevant quote from the Hench article:
Professor W. A. Cragie, at present working on the American Historical and Dialect Dictionaries at the University of Chicago, makes the tentative suggestion that the misuse may have originated in dialect areas in which both "thou" and "thee" came to be pronounced "tha" through slurring.' He has not had time to test this theory thoroughly yet, but writes the following as preliminary to further study: "On examining the evidence in Wright's English Dialect Dictionary I find that the area over which thou and thee are reduced to a common form (variously tha, ta, te, th' and t') includes all the northern English counties down to Yorkshire and Lancashire, plus Lincolnshire, Cheshire and Shropshire. Any one within this area trying to bring his speech up to a literary standard might readily use thee for thou, and would almost certainly do so in such sentences as 'Is that thee?' 'It was thee that said it', parallel to 'It was me', etc."
There's quite a bit of testimony that many American Quakers used thou for the nominative, at least in writing, through the 18th and even the 19th centuries. But Tibbals 1926 writes that "with all but a diminishing few, 'thou' has quite dropt away". And Maxfield 1926 writes that "thou is as much an archaism among Friends as it is with the rest of the English-speaking world, and has been so for some generations".]