Thou and ye


Second-person pronouns are contentious in some languages. For example, in Malay, you choose between awak, engkau (or cliticised to kau), anda, kamu (or cliticised to mu). (Please check with your Malay-speaking friends what the distinctions are if you are not a Malay speaker yourself.) If you include Baba Malay, there is also lu; if you include contemporary colloquial Malay, you is also used. And it is always possible to address someone in the third-person (saudara, encik, makcik, tuan, etc.). The complications are to do with how the pronoun indicates the relationship the speaker holds (or doesn’t hold) with the hearer. The English loan-word you can be seen as an attempt to avoid the complication (Bila you datang? ‘When are you coming?’).


The situation is less complicated in Chinese; and in Mandarin there is a choice between ni and nin, and of course the plural ni men. In Japanese, the formal anata is used with the less formal kimi – although in general, pronouns are best avoided altogether! Tamil speakers distinguish between the informal nii, the honorific niingka and the polite niir (and the latter two are plural in form).


The polite-intimate distinction is also well represented in the European languages: in Italian tu (singular, informal) v. voi (singular or plural, informal) v. Lei (singular, polite) v. Loro (plural, polite); in French tu (singular, informal) v. vous (singular, polite; plural); in Spanish tu (sg., informal) v. vosotros/vosotras (pl., informal) v. Usted (sg., polite) v. Ustedes (pl., polite); in German du (singular, informal) v. ihr (plural, informal) v. Sie (singular and plural, polite). In French, for example, you can tell the other person to switch pronoun forms, and notice the verbs for ‘calling each other tu’ and ‘calling each other vous’).


On se tutoie? (Let’s call each other ‘tu’.)

Vous n’avez pas besoin de me vouvoyer. (You needn’t call me ‘vous’.)


Let’s compare today’s second-person system in English with the OE system.




As represented in the 1611 Bible


Subject form, singular

ţu (đu)



Subject form, plural

{ygh}e (ge)



Object form, singular

ţe (đe)



Object, form, plural




Possessive, singular

ţin (đin)

thy, thine

your, yours

Possessive, plural


your, yours

your, yours


PDE seems surprisingly limited in its range of second-person pronouns, in contrast to the other languages mentioned earlier! We need to say that the 1611 Bible (known as the Authorised Version [AV] or the King James Version) did not reflect popular usage of the time; the AV distinguished the thou and the ye form on the basis of number (singular or plural), whereas Chaucer and Shakespeare reflected the more popular usage of the thou and ye forms. Also, the AV distinguished between ye and you based on case (subject form or object form), whereas this wasn’t systemically followed in Shakespeare.


(a) If you address more than one person, you can only use the ye form.

(b) If you are addressing an individual who is your social equal,

            (i) use the ye form for someone you do not know well (this is neutral and establishes a respectful distance), and you can expect to be addressed in the ye form in return;

            (ii) use the thou form for someone you are especially close to (to signal intimacy), and you can expect to be addressed in the thou form in return.

(c) If you are addressing an individual who is not your social equal,

            (i) use the thou form to a social inferior (your servant, your pupil, etc.), but expect to be addressed in the ye form;

            (ii) use the ye form to a social superior, but expect to be addressed in the thou form.


You can think of (b) as being to do with solidarity and (c) as being to do with power.


Here is an interaction between Falstaff and Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, where they share an intimate relationship. Notice the terms of address as well (underlined), and notice that thou requires a verb with an –(e)st inflection.


FALSTAFF: Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?

PRINCE: Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack [wine from Spain or the Canaries], and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldest truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? …

FALSTAFF: Indeed, you come near me now, Hal … And, I prithee, sweet wag, when thou art a king, as God save thy GraceMajesty, I should say; for grace thou wilt have none ­–


Now contrast this with the interaction between the King and Prince Hal.


KING. God pardon thee! Yet let me wonder, Harry,

      At thy affections, which do hold a wing

      Quite from the flight of all thy ancestors …

PRINCE. I shall hereafter, my thrice-gracious lord,

      Be more myself …

KING … What say you to this? Percy, Northumberland,

      The Archbishop’s Grace of York, Douglas, Mortimer,

      Capitulate against us and are up.

      But wherefore do I tell these news to thee?

      Why, Harry, do I tell thee of my foes,

      Which art my nearest and dearest enemy? …

PRINCE. Do not think so; you shall not find it so;

      And God forgive them that so much have sway’d

      Your Majesty’s good thoughts away from me!


This is not to say that the code was inflexible. It can be broken for particular reasons, for example, to indicate defiance or to insult; or to indicate heightened feeling. Indeed, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch urges Andrew Aguecheek to send a provocative challenge to Cesario (who is actually Viola in disguise).


Taunt him with the licence of ink. If thou thou’st him some thrice, it shall not be amiss.


Here is a recorded insult when the Attorney-General Sir Edward Coke attacked Raleigh at the latter’s trial in 1603:


All that Lord Cobham did was at thy instigation, thou viper! For I thou thee, thou traitor


(In both thou is also used as a verb to mean ‘call him thou’!)


Busse suggests that power and distance are the most important factors determining the choice of either thou or you (2002: 286). His study also suggests that the later Shakespeare plays tend to favour an increased use of you over thou, which suggests that thou had already begun its decline in use in Shakespeare’s time. Ye was also being increasingly abandoned in favour of you.


The distinction apparently arose when the Roman Empire split up into two –Western and Eastern (Byzantine) – resulting in two emperors. In theory, therefore, when one was addressing one of them one was also addressing the other (Leith 1997: 106). (Think also about the traditional royal we, although the present Queen Elizabeth has abandoned this use.) Others (eg Grevisse in Le Bon Usage) challenge this view has been challenged and claim that this distinction pre-dates the split in the Roman Empire. The adoption of the plural form to suggest deference was borrowed into English through the Francophile English aristocracy.


How is it then that the thou form is almost completely lost today? And why was it that that thou form was abandoned rather than the ye form? This contrasts to the situation in French, where there is a tendency to abandon the deferential vous form. If we bear in mind the middle-class insecurity of the British in the 17th and 18th centuries, it seems reasonable to suggest that the use of the polite you was safest because it didn’t risk offence. In today’s context where intimacy is highly valued, it is also less surprising that languages that are abandoning the distinction should now opt for the item to suggests intimacy.


Text to examine

Extract from the folio text of Romeo and Juliet (1623) in the original spelling (except that the long s is replaced with the short s) here.


  Iul. O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Denie thy Father and refuse thy name:
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworne to my Loue,
And Ile no longer be a Capulet.
  Rom. Shall I heare more, or shall I speake at this?
  Iu.Tis but thy name that is my Enemy:
Thou art thy selfe, though not a Mountague,
What’s Mountague? it is nor hand nor foote,
Nor arme, nor face, belonging to a man.
O be some other name.
Whats in a name? that which we call a Rose,
By any other word would smell as sweete,
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo cal’d,
Retaine that deare perfection which he owes,
Without that title Romeo, doffe thy name,
And for thy name which is no part of thee,
Take all my selfe.
  Rom. I take thee at thy word:
Call me but Loue, and Ile be new baptiz’d,
Hence foorth I neuer will be Romeo.
  Iuli. What man art thou, that thus bescreen’d in night
So stumblest on my counsell?
  Rom. By a name,
I know not how to tell thee who I am:
My name deare Saint, is hatefull to my selfe,
Because it is an Enemy to thee,
Had I it written, I would teare the word.
  Iuli. My eares haue yet not drunke a hundred words
Of thy tongues vttering, yet I know the sound.
Art thou not Romeo, and a Montague?
  Rom. Neither faire Maid, if either thee dislike.
  Iul. How cam’st thou hither.
Tell me, and wherefore?
The Orchard walls are high, and hard to climbe,
And the place death, considering who thou art,
If any of my kinsmen find thee here,
Rom. With Loues light wings
Did I ore-perch these Walls,
For stony limits cannot hold Loue out,
And what Loue can do, that dares Loue attempt:
Therefore thy kinsmen are no stop to me.
  Iul. If they do see thee, they will murther thee.
Rom. Alacke there lies more perill in thine eye,
Then twenty of their Swords, looke thou but sweete,
And I am proofe against their enmity.
  Iul. I would not for the world they saw thee here.
  Rom. I haue nights cloake to hide me from their eyes
And but thou loue me, let them finde me here,
My life were better ended by their hate,
Then death proroged wanting of thy Loue.
  Iul. By whose direction found’st thou out this place?
  Rom. By Loue that first did promp me to enquire,
He lent me counsell, and I lent him eyes,
I am no Pylot, yet wert thou as far
As that vast-shore-washet with the farthest Sea,
I should aduenture for such Marchandise.

























































827 wherefore art thou Romeo ie why have I fallen in love with a Montague?





833 Thou art … Montague you would still be the same person even if you were not a Montague

834 nor … nor neither … nor




840 owes owns

841 doffe put aside

842 for thy name in exchange for your name



845 new baptiz’d baptised again, ie he will take the new name Love in place of the name he received at baptism

848 counsell private talk











857 if either thee dislike if either displeases you.







864 ore-perch over-perch, ie fly over







870 look thou … enmity if only you will look with favour on me, then I cannot be hurt by (am proofe against) their hatred

874 but unless


876 proroged (prorogued) postponed

876 wanting of thy Loue (if I should be) without your love

882 aduenture for such Marchandise risk anything for such a prize


For details, you are invited to explore the following:


Blake, Norman (2002), A grammar of Shakespeare’s language (Houndmills: Macmillan)

Busse, Ulrich (2002), Linguistic variation in the Shakespeare corpus: morpho-syntactic variability of second person pronouns (Amsterdam: Benjamins)

Salmon, Vivian and Edwina Burness (eds) (1987), A reader in the language of Shakespearean drama (Amsterdam: Benjamins) [Call No. P140 Ahl35]



The Religious Society of Friends (more commonly known as the Quakers) have retained the use of thee longer to signal equality between its members. Here is a summary of a discussion in 1996 of the use of the second-person pronoun among Quakers:


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