Saturday, March 29, 2008

Thee, Thy, Thine

In a previous post, I mentioned briefly but then never came back to my mother's "thee and thy-ing." I think it's a cool thing, so I just want to take a minute to explain it.

My mom, grandmother, aunt, and an assortment of other relatives, all say "thee" and "thy" amongst family. This is referred to "plain speech" in academic and theological writings on the matter, but I've never actually heard that name used in discussion. I also have not heard thee and thy being used outside of our family...we're not talking about common Quaker stuff, here, but it's rooted in formerly-traditional Quaker practice.

In Quakerism's childhood, there were still some pretty strict social norms related to class. Titles were always used, and one was supposed to take off their hat when greeting someone of a higher social class. You were also supposed to use ye/you/your when addressing anyone above your class, and thee/thy/thou with people your class or below(think back to some Shakespeare you've read for excellent example of this kind of Class Confirmation By Pronoun). The Quakers, ever dedicated to equality, didn't buy into these social practices, and thus began using thee/thy/thou with everyone, refusing to doff their hats, and didn't use titles. They also appeared to basically think using you and ye to refer to single people was dumb, since you and ye at the time were strictly plural forms (obviously, you has sort of singlularized itself...I am guessing this is an evolution of the popularity of using you to refer to one person we're talking about here. Language is so neat).

I think I have also mentioned that Quakers were a lot fightier in earlier eras? Founding Quaker George Fox is quoted as having said that using thee and thou as "a fearful cut to proud flesh and self-honor," in a tone that seems to indicate he might have taken a certain ornery joy in taking the residents of the upper social strata down a peg.

That's the deal with the thee and thy business with my dad does not use it, but mom does. Both my mom and grandmother say that they started using the terms when they had children, but haven't elaborated on why. I think it's just What Was Done, something they accepted about the parent-to-child relationship in our family. I like it all the more for the egalitarian (and fighty!) sentiment behind it, as well as for years of awesome facial expressions when friends of mine first meet Mom. It's totally fascinating, because no one wants to come out and say, "how come your mom talks funny?" On the other hand, you know that they want to ask so badly, so the tug of war on their face is usually primo entertainment.

What's the matter, son, can't handle a little plain speech??

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