Maybe this is common knowledge, and I’m the odd one out. But it took Voltaire to teach me something basic about the English language.
So, in the past, I’ve often wondered about just how “thee” and “thou” worked back in the days when they were in use. I knew from Twelfth Night that it was an insult to address someone with “thee” or “thou” and yet I would see them used in situations where no insult was intended or perceived. I took them, after a while, to be the informal case, like “du” in German or “tu” in Spanish, while “you” was the formal case, like “Sie” or “usted.”
But something still felt off. Especially this winter break, when I was reading the letters of Abigail and John Adams, because Abigail would switch back and forth between them in addressing him. I couldn’t make heads or tails of that.
Now, moving on to the present. This week’s reading assignment is Voltaire’s Letters on England, and the first few letters are dedicated to talking about the Quakers. In the very first letter, he describes his meeting with a particular Quaker, and how surprised he is that the man is using “thee” and “thou” in addressing him. Eventually, the Quaker (whose name is never given, no doubt because he’s fictional) explains thus:
‘Admit,’ he said, ‘that thou hast had great difficulty in preventing thyself from laughing when I acknowledged all thy civilities with my hat on my head and by thou-ing thee. Yet thou seemst too well educated to be ignorant of the fact that in the time of Christ no nation fell into the absurdity of substituting the plural for the singular. They said to Caesar Augustus: I love thee, I beg thee, I thank thee; he did not even allow anyone to call him Sir — Dominus. It was only much later that men took it into their heads to have themselves addressed as you instead of thou, as if they were double,*
After letting that sink in for a little while, I realized that while “Sie” was the formal for “you”…it was also the plural. (I only had a single semester of Spanish, so I don’t remember if that was also the case with “usted.”)
The reason we don’t have different forms of “you” for the singular and the plural is because we dropped the singular, “thee/thou,” from the language.
And this is a recent development, less than 300 years old.
Why did no one ever tell me that before?!
Seriously, why did it take the writing of a French man to teach me that? Shouldn’t it at least have been in the writing of someone whose native language was, in fact, English?**
More importantly, what happened to make “thee” and “thou” drop right out of the language? Drop out so completely, in fact, that I guarantee that there have been some writers that have had characters use them indiscriminately to establish a character as “olde timey,” even going to far as to use them to address the king. (Okay, I can definitely think of a case where a character used them to address King Arthur himself…but considering the character using them was a space bum from the far future playing a VR game, I think I can let that one pass.)
Okay, I don’t have any real point here, beyond sharing that mind-blowing revelation about “thee” and “thou” and “you.” (At least, I found it mind-blowing.)
* Translation by Leonard Tancock. I am not, btw, endorsing the translation of dominus as “sir.” The usual translation would be “lord” or “master.” It seems to me that “sir” is rather too weak to be appropriate. I don’t know with whom the error lies there, though, or if it even was an error. (If that was Voltaire’s choice, then I think it’s not so much an error as a purposeful decision to make his point more strongly.)
** I’m not trying to bash the French here. I like the French. It’s just that this being something about the English language, you’d expect to learn it from someone who speaks English natively.