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For instance in text books -more precisely audiobooks- like Uncle Tom's Cabin, and some others that I can't recall now, I've heard the word "thee" when the speaker meant to say "you".

I wonder if this is a more respectful way of saying "you", something like "usted" in Spanish vs "tú"?

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    Thee is the direct object or objective form of thou, which used to be the second person singular pronoun. (With this ring I thee wed.) We now use you for both singular and plural. While thou can still be found in some rare places like book titles, thee is now even more rare and probably found mostly in old forms of prayers: We thank Thee, O God, for... In this sense it is more respectful, but only because of the direct object. – user6951 Apr 5 '15 at 5:43
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    You can't really just look at it in a vacuum like that... the numbers there are pitifully small and you're looking at written works, not spoken... which just means people are writing more period novels. It doesn't mean it's used in modern... see it compared to you. – Catija Apr 5 '15 at 5:53
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    Even more surprisingly, I added you to that Ngram chart, and found that you has been steadily increasingly used since 1966! (PS. Please don't take this message seriously. :-) – Damkerng T. Apr 5 '15 at 5:55
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    I should add that thee is also for indirect object. As far as a trend upward in usage, if that is true, meh, it's when people want to sound a bit different, because they lack imagination. The word is certainly not going to come back into everyday use! – user6951 Apr 5 '15 at 5:56
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    It's been in everyday use in Northern UK since time immemorial, though in speech it's now been reduced to an almost generic "tha" or "thi" sound replacing thee thou or thy. "Tha'll attu get thi booits on before tha go's out in't rain, lad!" (Wow, that was a fight against auto-correct ;-) – Tetsujin Apr 5 '15 at 10:52
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No.

Firstly, "thou"/"thee" is not modern English outside of dialectal usages (which I believe is its context in Uncle Tom's Cabin).

Secondly, you're right about the parallels to the two pronouns in Spanish, but "you" is the polite, formal option. Actually, Spanish is a bit more complicated, because it has (I understand) familiar and formal versions for both singular and plural. English is more similar to French; in both languages, the singular ("thou", "tu") is also the familiar, and you would use the plural ("you", "vous") to an individual if you wanted to be formal.

(Related reading: "T-V distinction".)

Thirdly, having said "no", let me now change it to "no, except when it is". Thanks to "thou" falling out of usage, most people are only familiar with it in old works, especially the King James Bible and Shakespeare's plays (both Early Modern English, from around 1600). The former, in particular, has caused "thou"/"thee" to be associated with formal situations, because God is addressed as "thee" (because it's singular, not because it's familiar).

However, that only applies to people affecting old-fashioned usage. They are quite likely to use "thou"/"thee" as a formal pronoun. People who use them because it's part of their dialect will, I'm sure, be using them with their original (singular and familiar) meaning.

  • To put it simply, English "thou" and Spanish "tú" are cognates, and "thou" once served a similar role that "tú" does. – 200_success Apr 5 '15 at 8:39
  • I'm not too sure about that last paragraph. Maybe things are different in AmE. We still have a few (mainly older) BrE dialectal speakers who use thee/thou/thy naturally, but I'd have thought everyone else (and indeed some of those very speakers), would accord the usage negative status in all other contexts (except where there's the redeeming quality of humour in appropriate facetious usages). – FumbleFingers Apr 5 '15 at 12:40
  • For what it's worth, I believe God is usually "tu" in French and Spanish as well. – Casey Apr 5 '15 at 18:16
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    Epic answer! But a question: I had thought the use of "thee" in religious works around 1600 was not incidental, but theological; I was under the impression that it was a deliberate choice to express the idea of an intimate relationship with a personal God, something which was very much what the Protestant Reformation was about, closely wedded to the idea of translating the Bible into the vernacular in the first place -- to disintermediate lay people's relationship with scripture and God. Am I mistaken about that? – Codeswitcher Apr 6 '15 at 7:31
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    @Codeswitcher: I'm not an expert, but I suspect not. The Catholic Douay-Rheims translation used "thou" as well. – Tim Pederick Apr 6 '15 at 13:09
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Thee and thou were once forms of address which were non-formal and intimate, hence the usage in the Bible and in wedding vows, so they would not originally have been used to denote respect to, say, strangers. However, they came to be used in literary works to indicate that the speaker is ill-educated and doesn't know when to use the correct form for the social situation; they are "overly-familiar", often due to being good-natured. This latter is probably the intent for at least some of the uses in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The words can also be used in an insulting way, to suggest that the object is not worth a formal address.

As the words fell out of usage they became associated with old-fashioned speech and, as often happens, old-fashioned speech was itself associated with stiffness and formality. So a modern native English speaker will often have exactly the opposite understanding to the correct one - that "thee" and "thou" are especially formal instead of being friendly or relaxed pronouns for use in private situations with friends, children, and lovers.

A final complication is that regional (that is, English spoken in different parts of the UK) English contains these words even today but in my experience they are mostly used in the belittling/insulting manner but with an undertone of jokiness or teasing.

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