When did ‘thou’, ‘thee, ‘thy’ and ‘thine’ die an unnatural death? They lingered on in regional dialects into the last century, but I suspect they dropped out of common usage well over a century ago in the more formal Victorian era.
Intimate insult was used during the trial for treason of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603, his accuser being the King’s Counsel Sir Edmund Coke whose family later became the Earls of Leicester and are still owners of the magnificent seat in Norfolk, Holkham Hall.
Their rivalry in the late years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign and the early ones of King James’s, both contemporaries of Shakespeare, was well known. Sir Walter was imprisoned for over a decade in the Tower of London where he wrote the first history of the world and fathered a son. Prisoners of a certain standing were allowed long visits from their families.
A few years ago while in the USA, I stayed in Williamsburg and was fascinated by the exhibition on the site of the first English-speaking settlement. In a display cabinet was a book entitled The Discovery of Virginia by Raleigh on loan from Holkham Hall. It was open at the frontispiece where the author’s adversory, Sir Edmund Coke, had scrawled a dedication to his friend, Sir Francis Bacon, adding, ‘Did he really write it?’
This is doubly intriguing. How much boastful arrogance and subterfuge was rife in the court? Did Raleigh go to Virginia and name it after Queen Elizabeth, or did he only finance probably the first voyage of discovery to the New World properly equipped with a geographer, botanist and illustrator? In the same vein, some question whether a jobbing actor, a certain William Shakespeare, could possibly write the poetry and plays attributed to him? His name might have be used by a nobleman to disguise the fact that he wrote the plays and poetry himself, an activity that would demean his status as a knight of the realm – was Shakespeare really Sir Francis Bacon?
Whatever, a transcript of Sir Walter Raleigh’s trial survives. In it, the King’s Counsel, Sir Edward Coke, addresses him as ‘thou’ in front of the whole tribunal. In the circumstances, this would hardly been a term of friendly informality between two knights of the realm. Raleigh takes it as an insult. He protests that he should be addressed with formal respect, as ‘you’, not ‘thou’ as if he were a servant. So thou, thee and thine can be both terms of familiarity between members of a family or friends, or, in a different context, be a form of address indicating bone is speaking to a member of the lower classes.
English has lost the subtlety of address that remains in other languages. The familiar ‘thou’ when addressing a child or an adult member of the family or a close friend has been lost in the ubiquitous plural and formal ‘you’. In some languages such as Spanish, the singular form of familiar address ‘tu’ is replaces by the formal ‘usted’ (a combination of the words for ‘your grace’), their plurals being the familiar ‘vosotros’ or the formal ‘ustedes’. This distinction remains in Italian too.
Many years ago I was in an Italian household to give my first English lesson to a young member of the family. While I was waiting the kindly grandmother kept me company. I thought I was referring to my pupil, a young girl, when I asked, ‘How old is she?’(Quanti anni ha lei?) To my consternation the elderly lady was taken back, frowned and hesitated. Just in time I realised that she thought I was asking how old she was, using the formal you (Lei) (Quanti anni ha Lei?), which was rude of me. I hastily substituted the name of the child and the moment passed – a narrow linguistic escape, given that the old lady was visibly shocked by my seeming disrespect.
On a different occasion in a bank, I witnessed the indignation of a young man, only just out of his teens, being addressed by the elderly bank manager familiarly as ‘tu’. The manager probably meant to celebrate the man’s youth, but instead his client resented being addressed as if he were a child. After all, it was a business matter between adults.
Familiarity or insult have been shifted in English from the innocuous portmanteau pronoun ‘you’ for singular and plural, familiar or formal, to the inventive – or insulting – use of nouns, adjectives and pronouns, which is also true, of course, of other languages. In the process thee, thou and thine have been consigned to the linguistic dustbin and you, your and yours reign supreme and unaltered for either the singular or plural.
As a postscript, look at the current use of ‘gotten’, and not ‘got’, as the past participle for the ubiquitous verb ‘to get’ in the USA, sounding so quaint, old-fashioned and charming to British ears – definitely Shakespearean.