Thou, Thee, Thy and Y’all

I just had the most bizarre conversation in the staff room. We somehow got onto the subject of the words ‘Thou’, ‘Thee’, ‘Thy’ and ‘Thine’; and specifically their use in prayer and ecclesiastical situations in this part of the world. Within certain denominations, these words are used consistently every time someone prays. I find it fascinating on a whole raft of different levels, mostly because I don’t often hear it in my own denomination, but heard my Uncle saying grace with ‘Thou’ and ‘Thy’ pronouns the other day and I was taken aback by how weird it sounded, despite having grown up with it.

In our Hebridean church culture it is often perceived as being an honorific term, hence why it is used when speaking to God: to give Him due respect. Interestingly, ‘Thou’ (2nd person sing.) comes from the Proto-Indo-European word ‘tu’ (as does the Gaelic equivalent ‘Thu’) and was originally used as a term of familiarity, whereas ‘You’ (2nd person pl.) was used to indicate deference to one’s superior. As ‘Thou’ fell out of fashion in everyday speech, this pattern inverted, probably DUE to the fact that the ‘Thou’ usage was retained in church settings, in particular its inclusion in the King James Bible.

So that’s why I still hear people in particular denominations retaining ‘Thou’, ‘Thy, and ‘Thine’ in prayer. It’s perceived as being honorific. Strangely, though, if I hear those exact same people praying in Gaelic (which HAS retained ‘Sibh’ as an honorific instead of the familial ‘Thu’), they don’t actually use the honorific! It’s ‘Thu’ (2nd person sing.) every time!

‘Thou’ and ‘Ye’ etc are linguistically nifty words. The 2nd person singular and plural are now blurred into the slightly inferior ‘You’ which loses a touch of the meaning, as in the following example…

Luke 5:24, “But that YE may know…I say unto THEE…take up THY couch, and go into THINE house.”

“Ye” = the crowd, but “Thee/Thy/Thine” = the man.

Ultimately, this doesn’t make a hoot of a difference, except that we can’t know specifically how many people are being referred to, and personally I would rather lose that and not have to worry about convoluted and archaic verb forms like ‘canst’ and ‘wouldest’. Some people are happy with their 17th Century pronouns, and that’s fine for them too.

And “Y’all”, for my North Carolina people, is the Southern Way of filling the gap left by the second person singular/plural distinction.

Now y’all know why y’all say it!

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