31 December 2006

Turning to Thee

In a recent discussion with friends, the subject of the Quaker thee came up. We traced its linguistic development and speculated on why Quakers clung to the second person familiar while others replaced it with the second person formal and plural. More mysterious was the Quaker clinging to the objective "thee" instead of the nominative "thou" and the practice of conjugating "thee" as if it were third person singular (i.e. "thee does" instead of "thou dost").

I have long regretted the loss of the tender and personal "thou" in English speech. I am now regretting the loss of the religious and personal "thee" in Quaker speech. "Thou" served to set apart speech with an intimate from impersonal or commercial speech. "Thee," it seems to me, is a direct appeal from that of God in me to that of God in thee.

I am wondering about introducing "thee" into my own speech with Friends. For me, it would function as a reminder to speak from the heart and the Spirit, a reminder that Friends are connected at a deep and personal level.


Anonymous said...

My goodness, thank you for posting about this. I have been wondering about this for months now, why some of us who use "thee" never use "thou" in what would seem to be its rightful place! I thought people were just making mistakes until I realized they were all doing it. Of course, I don't know all the grammatical terms.

david said...

I've been associated one way or another with Friends since 1982 though I'm no longer a regular attender (our YM calls fols like me "Isolated Friends" and doesn't know what to do with us). I went through a phase where I started using "thee" with outsiders -- with mixed results -- but I came off the practice. My wife and I still say thee to one another occasionally -- usually a sa sign of intimacy or warm feelings. I also had a website once -- where my welcome page addressed the reader as "thee" -- a "weighty" Friend from our meeting advised me not to use the Plain Speech unless it was a clear leading as some Friends who practice it conscientiously may take offense.

Its a simple practice. But there's a lot of stuff behind it.

James Riemermann said...


I don't want to be contrary, but the clear and entire point of the original testimony of plain speech--why Fox and others used "thee" and "thou", and never "ye" or "you"--was to vehemently *reject* the "setting apart of of speech with an intimate from impersonal or commercial speech." In the wider society Fox lived in, the formal "you" was reserved for those who were either unfamiliar or considered to be of superior status. Friends rejected this system as an offense to the equality of all human beings, and used "thee" and "thou" for absolutely everyone, including so-called superiors.

Over time standard English dropped the familiar form, thus eliminating the double standard that Friends had rejected. Some groups of Friends continued to use "thee" and "thou" exclusively, but it no longer served the original intent. Force of habit seems to me the most obvious explanation for this continuation of "plain speech," but it has often been justified, along with plain dress, as a way of setting Friends apart from non-Friends, as a "peculiar people." I'm not so interested in setting myself apart from non-Friends, myself, but it's a valid choice some Friends have made.

Nancy Andreasen said...

Hi Heather - I grew up around Quakers using the plain language - my grandparents, folks at Westtown School which I attended, my former in-laws - and know it not as an inclusionary but rather an exclusionary form. "Thee" was used within the inner circle only. My mother's mother-in-law quite unconsciously used "you" to her, but "thee" to her other son's wife! My poor mother was on the outside. I think today it is an affectation, dear to many of us as an expression of intimacy, but not useful as a social statement.

Robin M. said...

The only Friends I know personally who use thee are two brothers, who only use it with each other, and other members of their immediate family. The funny thing is that they both say they grew up in an otherwise largely secular Quaker family.

Liz Opp said...

The first time I was "thee'd" was in a written note from a fFriend. She was thanking me for a particularly difficult and tender conversation we had had, and she signed the note "Thank thee."

Since I wasn't familiar with Quaker "thee-ing" at the time, I was touched when I read it, and nowadays, when I have more in my heart than I can possibly express in words, I will sign a note (or even an email!) with the now-familiar phrase.

One Conservative fFriend has used "thee" with me when she and I were speaking of very tender and weighty concerns in our lives, so I took the "thees" to mean that she felt very close to me at that particular time. Certainly she and I have had many other opportunities for conversations, and "thee" hasn't arisen otherwise.

Another Conservative Friend, whom I have never met but with whom I have cyber-chatted, has used "thee" with me from the start, and I sense that this Friend is called to use this speech, at least among Friends, on a regular basis. It is something I shall have to inquire about, when Way opens!

At times I have wondered how hard I should work at responding in kind with "thee" when someone has "thee'd" me, but I am clear that I am not called to "thee-ing" others, except in the first case I've explained, lest it become forced and therefore empty.

What an interesting topic you've exposed here, Heather. Thanks for lifting it up.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Will T said...

If you read Barclay or Fox you will find that the reason that they give for using thee for the second person singular was based on honesty and plain speaking. It was not honest to use a plural form to speak to an individual. Of course underlying this was the class issues because conventional usage was to use the plural forms for individuals in the nobility and singular forms for servants. Barclay notes that this lead to the case where a noble would use the same form to refer to God and his servants.

As for the use of thee and not thou, I recall reading that this was partly because this was the common usage in the North of England where many Friends came from.

As others have noted, over time what had been a testimony of equality became a way of separating Quakers from the world. In fact plain speach and plain dress were seen as part of the hedge against the world. It is interesting how things change over time.


Heather Madrone said...

Thanks, Friends, for all your interesting comments. You've given me a lot of food for thought.