George Fox, Prescriptivist

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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".]


  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » George Fox, Prescriptivist [] on said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

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  2. Transneptune » Plain Speech said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

    […] Log informs me that today is International Talk Like a Quaker Day, and so I think I'll take the opportunity to think about plain speech, and what it means to […]

  3. The Ridger said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    Given that "you" is the objective form (who says "ye" nowadays?) I don't see anything particularly weird about the Quakers also using "thee"…

  4. bloix said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

    So it appears from Fox that the reason for using thou is not the avoidance of honorifics, as Jen assumed (and as I did as well).

  5. bloix said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

    Anyone with access to jstor (I don't) might read this and report back:

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

    Thomas Pynchon tackles all the thous, thees, yous and yes – as well as reduced forms like tha – with great care and subtlety in Mason & Dixon. The Geordie quaker surveyor Dixon and the Gloucestershire astronomer Mason have to negotiate all the complexities of seniority, locality and religion when addressing each other. It's particularly notable in the opening chapters but all the pay through.

    One thing I remember is that Dixon (or maybe another Geordie quaker character) uses the accusative as the default form in at least one verbless or left dislocated clause. Something like "Thee? I never even thought thou might…" I can't remember what he does with them in co-ordination, or if it arises.

  7. PaulB said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

    Something deleted a lump of text from what I just posted. The missing text comes after "from William Penn…" and reads (as best I can reproduce it):

    It certainly wasn't the Oxford-educated William Penn, but it may have been the grazier's apprentice George Fox.

    I posted the following two days ago on another thread about the second-person pronoun:

  8. Cialan said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 7:16 pm

    Here's my report on the JSTOR article by Maxfield.

    A letter from Carroll Frey dates the subsitution of "thee" for "thou" ("vulgarization of 'the plain language') as beginning during the American Revolution, using as evidence a book by S. Weir Mitchell in which different Quaker characters speak with different pronouns. Maxfield refutes this book as evidence since Mitchell was not a Quaker and could have misrepresented their speech.

    Maxfield avers that there are "two distinct Quaker languages, one written and one spoken." Originally, Quakers attempted to maintain "grammatical purity" in both; then it was lost in the spoken language; and finally it was lost in the written language as well. He posits that Penn himself did not always pronounce "thou" even though he wrote it as such:

    Of course William Penn wrote _thou_, but I doubt very much if he pronounced it so. He either said _thee_, as practically all Friends did, or else he so elided the diphthong as to give that impression. Among my own theories, which I have backed up by instances from various early publications, is that which produces a _thee_ out of a rapidly spoken _thou_, quite as we get a _ye_ out of our spoken _you_ before _are_. Since early Friends are quoted as saying, "thee wast," "thee hast," etc., and "th'art," "th'hast," "th'wast," etc., this seems to me fairly probable, though undoubtedly the influence of the accusative _thee_ would soon help to produce the leveling we know to-day.

    Finally, Maxfield refers to various dialects on either side of the Atlantic that use thee or both thee and thou, and suggests that Quaker speech might have intentionally imitated one of these dialects in order to be more "democratic."

  9. GeorgeW said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    Fox exhorts, "And so all Friends, train up your children in the same singular and plural language . . . whatsoever ye are called, that do take Friends' children, that are in the singular and plural language . . ."

    Is there any spoken dialect of English that does not have a form for differentiating second-person singular and plural like you'all, youse, you guys, you'uns, etc.?

  10. PaulB said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

    Mark Liberman writes
    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…

    It certainly wasn't the Oxford-educated William Penn, but it may have been the grazier's apprentice George Fox.

    I posted the following two days ago on another thread about the second-person pronoun:

    On "thou" and "thee": it is (or was) common for Quakers to use "thee" as a nominative as well as an objective pronoun. George Fox has this usage occasionally in his writings so I speculate that it may have been a feature of his native dialect (in Leicestershire).

    Browsing for evidence, I came across this remark by William Penn, writing about the Quaker practice of using "thee" and "thou" Against the Bishop of Cork's Exceptions

    …though the Bishop confines us to Propriety, as the only Reason of our Practice, that he might the better Lash us with the Impropriety of Thee for Thou; which yet he might have spared, since nothing is more common with all People, than to take the like Freedom in Speech, in Cases as well as Tenses; not excepting the Learned themselves.

    It seems that Penn was a Descriptivist.

  11. bread & roses said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

    That was fascinating. Thank you, I've been wondering about this for some time. Particularly after visiting my Quaker friends this fall, who address each other and their children as thee, but without the -st ending on the verb:

    M, has thee washed thy hands?
    J, thee knows better than to climb on the table.
    M: Why is thee being so meeeeean to me?!

    And they address other Friends as thee, but non-Quakers with you- in precisely the "hypocritical" way Fox condemns here. But the explanation I was given was that they use thee and thy because the are the familiar, informal pronoun, and "you" is the formal- analogous to Spanish tu/usted, and that it is the right and proper thing to use the intimate form of address with family and Friends, and formal with others (no matter of how close an acquaintance). The singular and plural bit- totally gone.

    I was more or less accustomed to this from times I knew them before children. But they've raised their children to address the parents by their first names. Wow. That I did not expect, given the "familiarity" explanation of thou.

    So now I am even more confused, though much better informed. An improvement.

  12. Heather Rose Jones said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 11:04 pm

    It might be quite interesting to trace the shift from distinct nominative and objective forms, and the shift from the older 2sg inflected verbs to use of 3sg verb forms in Quaker correspondence. Here are some purely anecdotal examples from my own family history (in all cases, unless noted both the writer and recipient of the correspondence were Quakers). The letters involve a couple of interrelated families (the Fishers and Harveys), mostly located in Ohio, and show the gradual and irregular shift in various aspects of usage over the course of a single lifespan.

    1827 Springborough Ohio, letter from Charles Fisher to Elias Fisher: "… on such an occasion as that which thou hast in prospect … I must inform thee … Thou knowest, I trust …" (more similar)

    1830 Clarksville Ohio, letter from Joseph Fisher to Elias Fisher (probably the nephew of the Elias in the preceding letter): "… it being always satisfactory to hear from thee … Thou mentioned waiting a long time … I had written to thee … and if thou wouldst do so too … not in my power to inform thee … she had lately written to thee … we had expected to have seen thee … She supposed thee might know as well … she wanted thee to be informed … I think I have written to thee … but whether thou ever received the letter or not I expect thou has had an account otherways … Our friend and neighbour whom thou wast somewhat acquainted with … I want thee to give me as particular an account of him …."

    1832 Waynesville Ohio, letter from Anne K. Fisher to her sister Ruth Fisher: "… in writing to thee … I often feel very desirous that thou & I may not forget … I have no cause to think that thou art forgetful … I want thee to assist … I may inform thee … I request thee to attend to it if thou canst … thou mayest tell Father … Please get to a large sheat of paper & fill it full when thee writes to me for I can not say as much to thee on one sheat as I should like to … sincere love to thee …."

    1833 East Fairfield Ohio, letter from Ann FIsher Hanna to her niece Ruth Fisher (same as the above): "… when I heard thee had some prospect of coming up I thought perhaps thee would be willing to supply her place but if thee is comfotabelly sittuated I have no wish to discommode thee. … I want thee to write to me how thee likes the country … So in love to thee I conclude …."

    1839 Ohio, letter from Rush Fisher Harvey (the Ruth Fisher above) to her sister Sina Fisher Stickel and SIna's husband: "I sit down to let thee know … I could not do less than write a letter to thee to give thee what information I can … " The closing paragraph provides confusing data as it alternates in addressing "you" and "thee" but this might be alternations in plural (both addressees) vs. singular. "I want thee to write to me on the reception of this … I feel anxious to hear how your health is and when you are coming to see us …."

    1853 Ohio, letter from William Fisher to Ruth Fisher Harvey: "… that thee can easily see how it will suit us …

    1857 Salem Ohio, letter to Ruth Fisher Harvey from her brother William: "… I shall therefore enclose eleven dollars and the rest thee gave me, and a form of receipt for thee to sign and return to me. …."

    1861 letter from Ruth Fisher Harvey to her son John: "… I want thee to prize the privelege … perhaps thee and Ann will help us eat peaches next fall … Jimmy says he will write thee a letter … do the best thee can …."

    1861 letter from John Harvey (same as in the above letter) to his father Eli (husband of Ruth Fisher Harvey): "I would like to pay you a visit … Walter told me that he saw thee at Miami, said thee was getting young again … I am glad traveling agrees with thee but I guess thee works it all off when thee gets home … I am afraid you will have a tedious time … I'd like to know what thee is thinking about. My love to all of you."

    1861, letter from Ruth Fisher Harvey to her son John: "James just came in … I asked him why he did not write to thee. he said that he had not sense enough and that you ought to write the first letter … When thee writes tell me … one more letter to thee before thee comes home." [Note: The "you" seems anomalous for Ruth but she might be quoting the said James.]

    1863, letter from Eli Harvey to John Henry Douglas (not clear if he's a Quaker): "I though I would drop thee a few lies that thou may know … O how much I miss thee … I hope thou art now enjoying they own fire side … I wish thou would write me … that I may know how thou got home &c as I fell quite anxious about thee … my tender love to thee …." [Note: the "thou art" occurs in a passage that seems to have shifted into a more flowery and poetic style.]

    1866, letter to John Harvey from his sister Sina: "… I hope when this reaches thee … How does thee enjoy thyself down there. I know thee is very lonesome. I wish I was with thee. …."

    1866 letter from Ruth FIsher Harvey to her son John: "… sorry that thou apprehended it to be thy duty to remain … I want to knit some socks for thee …."

    1876, letter to Ruth Fisher Harvey from her sister Anne Knight Fisher Lindley: "not having heard anything about thee, where thou are or how thou art, since last spring … I often think of thee … Tell all thee knows about brothers and their families."

    1882 Ohio, letter to Ruth Fisher Harvey from a former student Amos P. Harvey (presumably also a relative): "[I learned] thee was living in Dayton … I have often thought of thee … Resolved at once to write thee … seal the letter with an old wafer thee gave me the last day of School thee taught in the old log cabin … Thee little thought … I think of thee …"

  13. Peter Taylor said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 2:30 am

    GeorgeW asked

    Is there any spoken dialect of English that does not have a form for differentiating second-person singular and plural like you'all, youse, you guys, you'uns, etc.?

    What precisely is the question? Are you interested in dialects which can never distinguish or which don't usually distinguish? In my dialect (South-Eastern England) singular and plural are "you"; plural can be disambiguated, at least in lower registers, as "you lot" or "all of you", but I can't think of an easy way to disambiguate a singular other than naming, describing ("You, the man in the red shirt, …"), or pointing.

    I also observe that when translating other English people into Spanish I'm sometimes unsure whether their "you"s are singular or plural. And many modern translations of the Bible leave it ambiguous, so that unless context is clear you have to look at the original languages or translations into other languages which distinguish. I've heard English preachers insert the words "singular" or "plural" after "you" when reading in order to clarify.

  14. Joyce Melton said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 4:16 am

    The classic Quaker quote, from some movie I suppose, and the one I used to use to keep the difference between thee and thou straight was: "I would not hurt thee, friend, but thou art standing where I am about to shoot."

    I don't remember the movie but I believe the actor was Gary Cooper.

  15. Cialan said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 4:52 am

    Comments on the Internet Movie Database forum indicate that this quote is often falsely attributed to the 1956 movie Friendly Persuasion:

    This is the punchline to an old joke that dates as far back as the 1930s and appeared in Readers Digest. A Quaker surprises a burglar and, holding a gun on him (not too likely!) says those words. Nothing to do with this film.

  16. Keith Gaughan said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 5:41 am

    > Given that "you" is the objective form (who says "ye" nowadays?)

    In Irish English, "you" became used as the second person singular pronoun for both the nominative and accusative cases while "ye" remained the second person plural pronoun. This usage is now seen, in spite of its advantages, as being "bad english" and something only somebody from the country would use.

  17. Terry Collmann said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 6:28 am

    MYL quotes Hench quoting Cragie as saying: "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 …" but my understanding (not necessarily reliable, as a Londoner) is that Yorkshire, at least, maintains a difference between "tha" (thou) and "thee", as in the Yorshire lass's remonstrance to a young man she felt was being over-familiar in his pronoun usage: "Don't tha 'thee' me – tha 'thee' them that 'thee's' thissen!"

  18. GeorgeW said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 7:05 am

    Apparently from several comments here, (bread & roses, Terry Coleman, et al.) the original grammatical distinction (objective) for 'thee' has developed into a social distinction to mark familiarity or, with Quakers, insider/outsider.

    I never encounter 'thee' except in KJV Bible readings or prayers in which it is regarded as sacred language.

  19. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 7:13 am

    It's common especially in the North of England to use thee in certain set phrases like I tell thee and I kid thee not. You hear it in these phrases from city folk who don't speak, say, Yorkshire dialect, and would never use thou.

  20. ?! said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 8:25 am

    And this is supposed to be all due to sing/pl forms in Aramaic? Or were the founders attributing this much importance to the extant English translation?

  21. GeorgeW said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    @?!: I am not perfectly clear on his Hebrew example. Was he suggesting that they lost the singular/plural distinction (which I am confident is wrong), or that it was just an example of language corruption?

  22. Mark F. said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    bread & roses — Are these Quaker friends (Friend friends?) UK or US? I was not aware that there were still any Quakers who used "thee". And other comments seem to have the same assumption.

  23. Sid Smith said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    ”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”

    I'm from Lancashire and I disagree: a distinction certainly is/was maintained. As mentioned in another LL discussion, my uncles would say things like, "Tha'll never do that," and "Asta bin 'ome?" ("Hast thou been home?") But they'd also say "I'll gi' thee one."

  24. Sid Smith said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    "Don't tha 'thee' me – tha 'thee' them that 'thee's' thissen!"

    Interesting. Did she want the young man to use "you", I wonder.

  25. Liz said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    Lancastrian, I remember thee and tha, but not thou as common in thick dialect (Don't know if it still is?) I was always a bit fascinated by "Sithee", both from Derbyshire and Yorkshire. But long term resident in London, I am not aware of any distinction between singular and plural You.

  26. James Kabala said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    Speaking of movies, in The Philadelphia Story Jimmy Stewart encounters a plain-speaking Quaker librarian and, after some confusion, replies in kind with "Dost thou have a washroom?" So he used "thou," but I can't remember whether the Quaker character herself did.

  27. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    It would be interesting to know if any dissident social/religious/etc. movements in non-anglophone countries where the local language has a strong T-V distinction adopted the behavior of ostentatiously using the T form with those with whom one would conventionally use V as a sign of egalitarian rejection of the prevailing mores. Jacobins/Bolsheviks would call people Citoyen or Tovarisch [sp?] or what not, instead of the ancien regime forms of address, but I don't know if they switched their pronouns or not.

  28. Nineveh_uk said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

    From Yorkshire, I've got to disagree with Professor Cragie. Specifically this:

    "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."

    Anyone with sufficiently strong dialect to use thee or thou, who wanted to "bring his speech up to a literary standard" wouldn't just pick thee at random. Why would he? If it is indistinguishable in the dialect, then he's got no "thee" to pick. If he is taking examples from outside the dialect, then someone seeking a "literary standard" would surely get it right. But the main reason I think he's wrong (regardless of whether the pronouns are really interchangeable as pronounced) is that anyone with that strong a rural dialect would almost certainly be at least culturally Christian and exposed to the Lord's Prayer, Christmas carols, the 23rd Psalm and others, thanks to which in school assembly in Leeds in the 1980s, I and every one of my 8 year old classmates knew the correct use of thou, thee, thy, and thine. No Yorkshire sheep farmer who can read his Bible is going to get it wrong.

    I do wonder if thee-ing among US quakers comes from groups no longer exposed to sources where they pick up the correct use, who decided to bring it back when it had dropped out of use.

  29. Nineveh_uk said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    Oh yes, and if you're trying "to bring [your] speech up to literary standard" surely you drop the ginormous non-standard markers. Like thou and thee.

  30. groki said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    "Don't tha 'thee' me – tha 'thee' them that 'thee's' thissen!"

    took me a few googs to find thissen = yourself (from thyself maybe? though, like tha, without the too-familiar overtones of the objected-to thee), but then I got it.

    for a while, I tried parsing 'thee's' as a possessive, but I see now that it is the 3rd-person-singular conjugation of 'thee' in the duzen/tutoyer/tutear sense, with the subject being the gender-blind 3-p-s them as the referent of the relative pronoun that.

    in any case, one of the two has to go first with thee. the important thing, clearly, is to do so only when it will be welcome. don't guess wrong: or else!

  31. Heather Rose Jones said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    Further anecdotal evidence from family history:

    When my parents were first married (back 50 years ago) they knew a Quaker family who used "plain speech" and whose children were raised with it as their mother tongue. However I don't know whether the parents were part of a continuous tradition of use or part of a revived tradition. (This would have been in the Seattle WA area.) In the '60s or so I did occasionally meet Quakers who had self-consciously adopted plain speech (and/or plain dress) as part of their Quaker cultural identity but who were not part of a continuous tradition. (This would have been in California.)

    The historic explanation offered internally within the Society of Friends for the move away from plain speech and plain dress is that the underlying principle is to avoid "worldliness", i.e., in speech to avoid endorsing the original social rank distinctions encoded in "thou" vs. "you", and in dress to avoid the pursuit of fashion and conspicuous consumption. When the social distinctions encoded in thou/you were erased by the generalization of "you", then plain speech no longer functioned as a linguistic equalizer and the primary remaining function was as a marker of social difference (not of upper/lower class distinctions but of Quaker/non-Quaker distinctions). There arose a general sense that this sort of deliberate distinction was, in itself, "worldly" — a calling attention to oneself for no productive purpose.

    Similarly for plain dress: the point wasn't to be anachronistic, but to eschew the pursuit of high fashion and excess. When the semi-fossilized clothing styles that had originally been simply "plain" versions of what everyone else was wearing had diverged enough from the new "plain versions of what everyone else was wearing" to become a strongly marked identifying "costume", then the use of plain dress came to be seen (internally among Quakers) as an affectation and "worldly". Obviously this wasn't a universal view, but it contributed to a drift away from the practice.

    (These comments are meant purely as my own recollections of what I was told and what I observed. Quaker experience varies widely in different regions and branches.)

  32. Ann said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

    Bliox wrote: So it appears from Fox that the reason for using thou is not the avoidance of honorifics, as Jen assumed (and as I did as well).

    Actually, I think both of you both have, in fact, had it correct, all along. As I understand it, using the plural "you" as a formal address to a singular person is precisely the honorific Fox is arguing against; it's the same reason that kings and queens use the Royal We:

    "We are a of a higher rank, and so are worth two or three of thee. Therefore, thou shalt address Us in the plural."

    But Fox was arguing: No, in fact, each person is equally singular, regardless of rank. So unless thou art actually addressing a crowd, use the singular pronoun, and don't try to flatter anyone into thinking that his life is worth two of thy own by using the plural form when talking to him (and hoping to get double price for what thou art selling).

    The problem modern Friends face is that the actual meaning of "you" and "thee" has been switched in popular culture — those who are not familiar with plain speech think "Thou" is formal, and "You" is informal. So it's easier to use the common vernacular, unless you want to include and grammar and history lesson in every conversation…

  33. Claire said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    Heather Rose Jones has a good point that "plain speech" (like plain dress) has become the very sort of affectation that Quakers originally sought to avoid.

    The last person I knew personally who used plain speech unaffectedly nevertheless used it to effect. He was an Elder who would signal a shift in conversation towards Quaker affairs by using "thee". So he might say, "I saw you in town yesterday" but "we could use thee on the Finance committee".

    My grandfather also sometimes used plain speech, but only with small children and dogs. He used nominal thee, not thou — but also used the third person verb, as in "thee's a good girl". I see that in some but not all of the examples in this thread.

  34. GeorgeW said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

    @Ann: "As I understand it, using the plural "you" as a formal address to a singular person is precisely the honorific Fox is arguing against."

    This makes sense. According to M-W Unabridged," 'you,' was " used from Old English times to the 13th or 14th century only as a plural pronoun of the second person." So, Fox was contrasting 'you' (second-person plural) with the singular thee/thou.

    I was unaware of this history.

  35. david said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    William Penn birthday was October 14, 1644

    The facebook link says

    "Seeing as some people think that October 24th is William Penn's birthday and since it actually is United Nations Day, it has also been declared to be International Talk Like a Quaker Day"

  36. Joyce Melton said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    Interesting Jimmy Stewart quote. Using have with thou, is that the subjunctive?

  37. KCinDC said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    Joyce, it's not using "have" with "thou". It's using "dost" with "thou". But I think using "do" to form questions like that didn't appear until after "thou" was pretty much dead, so "Dost thou have" sounds like an error for "Hast thou".

  38. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    KCinDC: That's probably true as regards mainstream usage; but Quaker simple speech isn't meant to be a reconstruction of a historic form of English. 'Thou' was a living form for the Quaker, so I see no problem combining it with more modern constructions.

  39. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

    @ Nineveh_uk –

    Familiarity with the bible doesn't necessarily mean you can get its grammar right. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, made lots of mistakes with archaisms in the Book of Mormon. He was certainly very familiar with the King James version but didn't 'feel' the archaisms well enough to reproduce them grammatically.

  40. Sid Smith said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

    As I mentioned, in Lancashire dialect "thou" was pronounced "tha": I should add that "thee" was "thi".

  41. Bloix said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

    Wikipedia says that by the 17c "thou" was a term of contempt ("I thou thee, thou traitor!" said Ralegh's prosecutor), which meant that the Quaker usage was certain to give offense.

  42. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

    The discrepency concerning Penn's birthday might perhaps be because October 24, 1644 in the newfangled Gregorian calendar fell on the day called October 14 in the unreformed Julian calendar still in use in England.

  43. James Kabala said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

    KC in DC: Good point. I didn't catch that.

    It certainly would have been entertaining if Richard Nixon's speeches had been given in plain speech.

  44. marie-lucie said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 10:53 pm

    J. W. Brewer: Jacobins/Bolsheviks would call people Citoyen or Tovarisch [sp?] or what not, instead of the ancien regime forms of address, but I don't know if they switched their pronouns or not.

    During the French revolution, people were supposed to address each other as "Citoyen(ne)" and "tu". In novels written in the decades after the revolutionary period (and dealing with the period), people associated with the revolutionary government use this with everyone, but those who disagree or need to make themselves inconspicuous continue the traditional habits when speaking privately, even though they conform to the new rule in public (not doing so could be a matter of life and death). Most people resumed their old habits of address after the political situation had stabilized.

  45. Joyce Melton said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 2:52 am

    Thanks, KCinDC, that didn't occur to me at all! Hmm. But using do-forms in English is older than Shakespeare, though the old Saxon way of forming a question didn't really become the exception for some time.

    This is one of those fiddly bits of the language that fascinate me. :)

  46. h. s. gudnason said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 7:04 am


    I don't think it was necessarily a term of contempt, but would have been perceived as one of disrespect. It could certainly be said in a contemptuous manner (as in your quotation), but that was clearly not the Quakers' usual intent.

    That said, the Quakers were subjected to enough discrimination and harrassment that their unwelcome familiarity might have been willingly heard as contempt in the ears of the outside world.

  47. John Cowan said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    A modern author who uses the second person singular is Tolkien: here's a brief analysis of just how he uses it in various places in The Lord of the Rings. As he himself says, it has at least four functions, which may be mingled in specific instances: intimacy("I have wished thee joy ever since first I saw thee. It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss"), contempt("Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn"), ceremonious language ("That office is not ended, and it shall be thine and thy heirs' as long as my line shall last. Do now thy office!"), and poetry ("Where now are the Dúnedain, Elessar, Elessar? / Why do thy kinsfolk wander afar?").

    There is also the song about the old troll, which contains a conversation between dialect-speakers who address each other in the singular (the only such instance), and also makes use of ax for ask, the subject of the next LL post. Here are two verses that illustrate both points:

    "My lad," said Troll, "this bone I stole.
    But what be bones that lie in a hole?
    Thy nuncle was dead as a lump o' lead,
    Afore I found his shinbone.
    Tinbone! Thinbone!
    He can spare a share for a poor old troll,
    For he don't need his shinbone."

    Said Tom: "I don't see why the likes o' thee
    Without axin' leave should go makin' free
    With the shank or the shin o' my father's kin;
    So hand the old bone over!
    Rover! Trover!
    Though dead he be, it belongs to he;
    So hand the old bone over!"

    There is also a sly jest on trover, which appears to be just part of the rhyming nonsense words used in the "bob" of each stanza, but is actually the common-law term for the wrongful conversion to one's own use of another's personal property, quite suitable to the case of a bone abstracted from a grave by a troll!

  48. Robert Coren said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    @Bloix and @h. s. gudnason: I have a specific recollection among a lot of vague ones from my 6th-grade studies of Colonial America, in this case the segment on Pennsylvania and its origins. The textbook that we used (no chance of my remembering anything about its title or author) indicated that most members of the society in which the Quakers developed regarded "thou" in a similar light to the French "tu", and thus offensive to those who perceived themselves to be socially equal to or better than their interlocutors; in particular quoting one gentleman who had been addressed as "thou" by a Quaker in the street as responding indignantly: "Do you 'thou' me, dog? An thou thou'st me, I'll thou thy teeth down thy throat!"

  49. Alex said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    @Bloix, hs gudnason, Robert Coren. I was talking with my brother about this (he's a linguist, but not a historical linguist), and he suggested that Quaker insistence on "thou" hastened its extinction in the general populace, because Quakers were so stigmatized in many areas and no one wanted to be mistaken for one. In England, Quakers couldn't hold public office and were often imprisoned or tortured. In the Puritan colonies, Quakers could be branded on the forehead and hanged or exiled.

    You could see why other people would want to distance themselves, but I'm not sure how you could test whether avoidance of Quaker-like language significantly sped up the loss of "thou."

  50. GeorgeW said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

    @Alex: I suspect the sacred nature of 'thee' and 'thou' may have contributed to the demise. By reserving this for sacred speech (and song), it helps distinguish the sacred from the mundane.

    As an example. some Jews abstain from Hebrew in everyday life and use Yiddish because of the sacred nature of Hebrew.

  51. Liz said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    re: Jimmy Stewart in the Philadelphia Story – his question was in response to the librarian asking "What is thee wish?"

  52. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    An interesting example of the sacralisation of 'thou' is the Evening Hymn ('Glory to thee, my God, this night'), written by Bishop Thomas Ken in the late 17th Century. Most of it is addressed to God, so naturally uses thou/thee. However, one verse is addressed to the guardian angel, and begins ' You, my blest guardian, while I sleep'.

    It seems Ken associated 'thou' so specifically with God that he did not think it suitable even for angels. (Or perhaps, it occurs to me, the point is to make clear that this verse is not addressed to God, which might not be clear otherwise. But in any case 'you' for an angel is not seen as problematic.)

  53. Chronicler said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

    A lot has been said here already, and maybe no one will care about what I am about to post.

    William Penn lived during the time that the Julian calendar was in use (often called the "Old Style" calendar today). He was born on Eighth Month 14, 1644. However, at the time that England switched to the Gregorian calendar, ten days were added (and New Years Day was shifted), so his re-calculated birthday using the "New Style" is Tenth Month 24, 1644. The difference between the Old Style and New Style calendars has increased since 1752.

    The use of second person singular pronouns has been a source of some interesting scholarly studies. In general, it appears that Friends ministers used 'thou' for the nominative pretty consistently until around 1900, as evidenced by the many printed journals. The plain dressing Friends in England continue to use 'thou' today. In the USA, the most traditional Quakers (the Ohio Friends) mostly prefer the KJV and use 'thou' when quoting scripture but otherwise use 'thee' for nominative and objective.

    Other second person singular-related pronouns have suffered a similar fate. 'Thine' is rarely heard today except to say something like 'this is thine and not mine.' The historical use of 'thine' before words beginning with a vowel sound ('thine insight') has been pretty universally replaced by 'thy' ('thy insight').

    Also the use of 'ye' as the second person plural has mostly disappeared among Ohio Friends except when quoting scripture.

  54. Chronicler said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    Nineveh_uk said,

    I do wonder if thee-ing among US quakers comes from groups no longer exposed to sources where they pick up the correct use, who decided to bring it back when it had dropped out of use.

    Ironically, the opposite is the case. Those who have joined in recent decades are far more likely to use plain speech than those from the old Quaker families who have used it all along. As I stated above, the most traditional Quakers usually prefer the KJV and are familiar with its use of pronouns. They sometimes use the -eth ending for verbs and other elements of 17th century English that are found in the KJV.

  55. GeorgeW said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    FWIW, one of the best know English translations of the Qur'an, the translator, A. Yusuf Ali uses King James English. An example in the "Fatiha' (the opening Sura) says, "Thee we do worship . . . the way of those on whom Thou has bestowed Thy grace. . ."

    I think this was a very clever way to translate the classical Arabic of the Qur'an: Sacred Arabic in the source language to sacred English in the target language.

  56. M said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 6:23 am

    J. W. Brewer: According to, 您 nin2 (which is polite but not a plural form) was forbidden or discouraged in the early PRC.

  57. Susie Lorand said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 1:45 am

    "(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.)"

    For original spellings, have you tried Early English Books Online (1473-1700) or Eighteenth Century Collections Online? While they don't necessarily include the examples you cite here, they do contain page images of many early Quaker (and anti-Quaker) writings.

  58. Kristi said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    Dear Friends,
    A family member forwarded me the link to your original article on the use of Plain Speech by Quakers, and I have read both it and the comments that follow with great interest. As someone who is called a "grammar Nazi" with some regularity (I will never be convinced that "they" is a singular pronoun), I have enormous respect for the work you do. I hope, therefore, that my comments will be taken as they are intended: to help with your investigations, not to reprove.
    Several days ago, Mark F. wrote that he wasn't aware of any Quakers who still used Plain Speech. May I suggest that you are not looking in the right places? My family does, and I know many others who do, as well. In fact, one friend (also a Friend) to whom I forwarded the link responded, "interesting but not really in line with my experience with the older members of my family or meeting. I clearly remember them using Thou. As in, "how art Thou this morning, Chris?"
    My maternal family are birthright Friends and every member of it uses the Plain Tongue with each other; the older members used it with everyone, in and out of the family. My paternal grandparents were Friends by convincement, and did not use Plain Speech, although my parents do. I continue to use it with my ex-husband, and I use it with Friends to whom I am especially close.
    From a neurological point of view, I am interested in the facility with which Quakers who use Plain Speech switch back and forth. My mother tells the story of me at our Quaker nursery school, age 3: the teacher said to me at the end of the day, "Let's put thy jacket on, Kristin." According to my mother, I drew myself up to my full 3 feet and said, "You can't talk to me that way!" Apparently even as a child I had a keen sense of who was and was not an appropriate recipient of "thee."
    Who knew there was an International Talk Like a Quaker Day? My sense of humor is tickled. I am ambivalent, however, since it smacks of the teasing I endured as a child for being different and "odd." I could certainly endorse International Behave Like a Quaker Day, when everyone put down weapons and hurtful words, and sought to see that of God in everyone.
    Thank you for letting me share my experience.

  59. Mark F. said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    Kristi — Fascinating. As you could tell, I had no idea. And I love the idea of International Behave Like a Quaker Day.

  60. Quaker Pagan – UPDATE on International Talk Like a Quaker Day said,

    November 13, 2010 @ 7:39 am

    […] who study language). My wife wrote in under my name and her question made language log: […]

  61. Jeremy Marshall said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

    I suspect the dialect explanation is much too simple. Yorkshire usage does not reduce to a single form: this much is apparent from the well-known folksong "Ilkley Moor": "Wheer 'ast tha bin since I saw thee?".

  62. Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’ | Sentence first said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 5:04 am

    […] A few articles of interest: Geoffrey Pullum's definitive argument for singular they; Mark Liberman on the future of singular they; more on Quakers and singular you. […]

  63. Orthohawk said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

    disclaimer: I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian who has lately adopted "theeing" as a form of Speaking Truthfully as a way of "working out my salvation with fear and trembling"
    I found this paragraph (in one of the comments) interesting:
    "The problem modern Friends face is that the actual meaning of "you" and "thee" has been switched in popular culture — those who are not familiar with plain speech think "Thou" is formal, and "You" is informal. So it's easier to use the common vernacular, unless you want to include and grammar and history lesson in every conversation…"
    When anyone makes it apparent that they expect a grammar/history lesson, I resort to "This is the way I speak. If thee doesn't like it, thee is more than welcome to refrain from talking to me at all." and that usually puts an end to their queries.
    On the historical linguistics front, I've recent found that the -s form of the 3rd person was a dialectism of the south and -th was the northern variant which happened to win out. Along with the -th third person ending in the north, very early manuscripts have not the expected -st, but an -s ending with "thu" (the OE version of "thou) which system interestingly is cognate with Latin and Slavic languages: amo amaS, amaT; chitayu, chitayeSH, chitayeT. (Not sure about the other language families.) This put together with the later confusion of "ye/you" paralleling "thou/thee" makes "thee makes" a perfect parallel with "you make".

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