March 14, 2018

The Marvelous Thou

Thou! Has there ever been a pronoun as misunderstood as thou art? Thou standst in the midst of time, refusing to budge even when the rest of the language has abandoned thee. Thine admirable qualities, thy quaint sound. Thou, we love thee. "Thou" is a pronoun in English. Was a pronoun in English. Most people don't really use it anymore (but there are exceptions, as we'll see later!). We're going to take a look at how "thou" continues to be used in modern music and other media.

Religious Thou

Most usage of "thou" in songs appears to be religious. This is a carryover from the use of "thou" to address God in the Bible. Remember that "thou" used to be the *intimate* pronoun, like "tu" in Spanish/French or "du" in German (as it was translated into those languages). As people stopped using "thou" in real life, the only place people encountered "thou" became the Bible, and so its role reversed completely from "non-formal, intimate" to "most serious and respectful." Whence the usage of "thou" to address Sith lords in Star Wars. (Quakers kept using "thou" for a while as part of their idea that we're all equals and really we shouldn't be elevating some people with special pronouns. In America, Quakers ended up using the form "thee".)

Thou as marker of Medieval England

"The lair is deep within. Will thee accompany me?" - Frog, Chrono Trigger

Chrono Trigger is a video game where you travel in time. Among the characters you meet is a frog, named Frog, who is also a knight and speaks in vaguely Shakespearean English. Unfortunately they misused "thou" completely here. As we've seen above, "thee" is the accusative form. You can't say "Will him accompany me" in standard English! So first off, that should be "Will thou accompany me?" And if you really want to be accurate, "thou" has its own conjugations. The conjugation for "will" is "thou wilt," meaning the actual correct form of this is "Wilt thou accompany me?" I don't think this is a case of them thinking the correct form will scare people off - I think they just didn't do the research and figured it was a kid's game and who would care.

I would like to make a note that there is one group of English speakers that used "thee" as the nominative - Quakers, who used "thee" for religious reasons (why "thee" and not "thou" is open to speculation) (http://www.quaker.org/thee-thou.html). I have very deep doubts that Frog the talking frog medieval knight is actually an 18th century Quaker, not least because Quakers are pacifists and Frog has a variety of physical attacks he can inflict on enemies. If anyone wants to make this argument, though, I'd be open to hearing it. ;)

The people who still use thou

Some dialects of English, incredibly enough, still use "thou" to this day! Most of them have changed it a little to be "tha". Alex Turner, lead singer of the Arctic Monkeys, is from Sheffield and uses "tha knows" fairly frequently. He even adds it to songs live, which results in people googling "why do they say tha knows?"

"Watching the people get lairy is not very pretty, I tell thee" - I predict a riot, Kaiser Chiefs

"Well, time tastes bland when she's not around
And you'd sit and you'd sink and approach the brink
Before she showed you how to shake love's steady hand, tha knows" - The Blond-O-Sonic Shimmer Trap, The Arctic Monkeys

Rhyming Thee

My favorite use of "thou" is a very practical one. Wouldn't it be great if "me" and "you" rhymed? Seriously! How many pop songs talk about "you and me," or maybe thrown in a "he"? You could have a three-pronoun rhyme! What a love triangle this would be! And think of all the words that end in -ee, too! Not that rhymes ending with -oo are lacking, but we could have a fourway rhyme of he, me, tree, and ye! But unless you speak a dialect with the pronoun "ye", this is not a reality for you. Instead you have to rhyme "you" with "blue" or "too" or even "shoe."

Now I've often wondered, why don't songwriters use "thee" to rhyme with "me" or any other -ee word for that matter? They have no problem rhyming "lane" with "again" (even when they're American and this pronunciation doesn't make sense). They will use non-standard forms like ain't and make up conjugations. Why does the humble "thee" get ignored? I suppose it just sounds too old-fashioned. But that doesn't mean others haven't thought as I have.

"For when you are crazy
I'll let you be bad
I'll never dare change thee
to what you are not." - Terrence Loves you, Lana Del Rey

Using "you" and "thee" in the same sentence! Shakespeare would be proud of such inconsistency in thou/you usage.

Th'art cool!

"Thou" truly is a marvel, because it's the little pronoun that just wouldn't stop. It's been five hundred years since it's been used en masse, yet it's been preserved in literature and dialect and from there we've given it a new luxurious life as The Pronoun of Ultimate Respect. Language tends to move forwards, not back, and so it is unlikely we will ever see a revival of thou. But forwards doesn't always mean erasing - it can mean re-purposing. "Thou" has been repurposed within dialects as "tha" and between dialects as a marker of Northern English heritage. Wow, thou!

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