Tú and thou

The Spanish second-person-singular familiar subject pronoun has as its native English cognate thou. The object forms of the pronoun match up as well: te in Spanish, thee in English. The corresponding possessive adjectives are Spanish tu and English thy. All the English forms are obsolete but survive in old versions of the Bible and in other literature and documents that people still read. Or maybe “obsolete” is too strong a word because modern writers sometimes resort to the old forms to give their words an archaic feel. For example, Leonard Cohen’s song “Bird on the Wire,” written in the 1960s, includes the lines “I have saved all my ribbons for thee” and “I will make it all up to thee.”

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Sep 04, 2017 @ 21:20:13

    Another contemporary example of the use of thou is the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? And Martin Buber’s influential book, I And Thou, was part of my studies many years ago.

    My friend named Dobson, whom I mentioned in your dobsonfly post, grew up in Yorkshire, and grew up hearing thee and thou in common speech. She’ll laugh and say the Yorkshireman uses the familiar forms rather than the more formal you since he doesn’t believe anyone is his social superior, but I believe it’s also true that certain groups like the Quakers kept the familiar forms as a way of reinforcing their belief that everyone is equal.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Sep 15, 2017 @ 17:08:06

      Those are two more good examples from relatively recent times. There’s also this interchange from the movie “The Philadelphia Story”:

      Librarian: What does thee wish?
      Macaulay Connor: I’m looking for some local b – what’d you say?
      Librarian: What does thee wish?
      Macaulay Connor: Um, local biography or history.
      Librarian: If thee will consult with my colleague in there.
      Macaulay Connor: Mm-hm. Dost thou have a washroom?
      [the librarian points]
      Macaulay Connor: Thank thee.

      I’ve taken such usages to be carry-overs from earlier times rather than social statements. Notice that the librarian uses a form that wouldn’t originally have been grammatical, whereas Macaulay Connor uses the historical forms for subject (thou) and object (thee).


  2. Marjorie Burdette
    Sep 07, 2017 @ 10:01:20

    Some very contemporary praise songs use these forms to address God. It is my impression that they are used to emphasize God’s power and majesty rather than his approachability. This attitude is the reverse of Spanish, which uses the familiar forms in prayer.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Sep 15, 2017 @ 17:12:00

      Thanks for your interpretation. I wonder if the modern emphasizing of power and majesty takes advantage of the associations with those qualities that the old grammatical forms implicitly carry with them.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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