The evolution of the word ‘thou’
By Benjamin Howard, Columnist
William Shakespeare wrote “thou” instead of “you” for a good reason, and it wasn’t that he was trying to sound fancy. In present‑day English, we can use “you” in any situation, formal or informal, but Elizabethans had two second‑person pronouns to choose from: “thou” and “you.”
Despite sounding poetic today, “thou” was the informal pronoun, similar to “tu” in French, and “you” was the formal (and sometimes plural) pronoun, such as “vous.” “Thou” was used among equals, intimates, or towards subordinates, while “you” was used only towards superiors.
For example, an Elizabethan fellow might remark to his friend or child, “How art thou?” but to his father or the king, the fellow would say, out of respect, “How are you?” So when Shakespeare wrote, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate,” he was being intimate. To say “You are more lovely” would’ve sounded oddly stiff in Elizabethan times, yet it sounds much more natural than “thou” to modern ears. So what changed in English between now and Shakespeare’s day? What ever happened to “thou”?
Well, in the 17th century, English speakers—those of London, in particular—began to favour “you” over “thou” due to a few reasons. For one, the middle class was expanding in those days, and aspired to be prim and proper, so they used “you” quite often, in imitation of the genteel upper class. The growth of the middle class also made it hard to distinguish between the wealthy and the poor. To use “thou,” even by accident, towards someone of wealth would be disrespectful, so “you” was favoured over “thou,” just in case. On top of that, there was a movement towards equality occurring, so to be more fair some would only ever say “you.”
Many years later, as the language evolved, “thou” was still in use, but was clearly losing out in favour of “you.” Since the use of “thou” had become more rare, its use would create a special emphasis. At that time, to say “How art thou?” would be quite offensive because it implied that thou art inferior, and that the speaker is superior to thee. Naturally, people began using “thou” as an insult.
Here’s an exemplary quotation from Sir Edward Coke, who said this in court: “All that he did was at thy instigation, thou viper; for I thou thee, thou traitor.” With “thou” being used actively as an insult, it was no longer a term of intimacy at all, so it fell even further out of use.
For those who’ve read Shakespeare or the King James version of the Bible, the usage of “thou” instead of “you” may have seemed arbitrary, but that’s far from the truth.
I hope that this morsel of knowledge will grant better understanding of English’s older, more nuanced form.