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I have never heard anybody using it, I only came across the word in the title of the movie Honor Thy Mother

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    Never. Never use it. At least, not in speech. Shouldst thy novel be written as one of Shakespearean times, you can, but not in colloquial speech. (Forgive my terrible Early Modern English. I'm not a native speaker.) – Nic Hartley Jun 22 '15 at 1:36
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    As if you care, @QPaysTaxes (and as if to exemplify your point), I'm pretty sure it would just be "should thy novel...", because "thy novel" is the subject - not "thou". "Shouldst" is a valid form, though I'm not 100% sure exactly when you can use it. An example from the KJV though is "And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?" (Genesis 3:11). Admittedly it uses "shouldest", but that's just a variant – Au101 Jun 22 '15 at 2:03
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    @Terve, the obvious point being that most native speakers do not know and do not care how these old inflections worked. Occasionally we might try and use them to sound old-fashioned or eloquent, or just to imitate Scripture. We very often get them wrong. I often see things like "thou shalt not cheatest on your girlfriend." It should be "thou shalt not cheat on thy girlfriend" and both "girlfriend" and "cheat" sound out of place – Au101 Jun 22 '15 at 2:06
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    @Au101 There are plenty of English words that most native speakers don't know, or don't know how to use correctly—I don't know, possibly the majority of words in the language!—but that doesn't mean you should "never" use them. They all have appropriate contexts. One obvious place where you say "thy" today is at a Renaissance Faire. Another time is when quoting the King James Bible. I've used it when "improvising" Shakespeare. There are probably many more appropriate times, limited only by creativity. Another: you could use it incorrectly on purpose to mock the Book of Mormon. – Ben Kovitz Jun 22 '15 at 12:08
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    @Au101 Most natives should understand them because they're part of the main influential literature of their own language. References to commonly known literature are an important part of communication, as in the title of this movie. Anyway, we seem to agree about that. I've just been clumsily trying to say that a true explanation of the situation is helpful for an ESL learner, while a rule like "never" (referring to QPaysTaxes' suggestion) is misleading. – Ben Kovitz Jun 22 '15 at 15:09
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This is a quotation from the best-known translation of the Christian Bible, the 'Authorized Version' or 'King James Version':

Honor thy father and thy mother.

Possessive thy and the subject/object forms thou/thee are old forms which are no longer used in Standard English, and are dying out even in the dialects where it has survived. In ordinary uses it is today restricted almost entirely to religious contexts, where it employs the diction of the KJV; to works of historical fiction which imitate older language; and to translations from languages which maintain morphological or lexical distinctions between singular and plural and/or familiar and formal in the second person. It is very unlikely that you will ever have occasion to use it.

  • A little addition: occasionally you will see them used in translations of languages (especially classical languages) which have a distinction between 2nd person singular and 2nd person plural. Indeed, I believe that even when the KJV was being written "thou", etc. were actually dying out and their primary purpose is to reflect the Hebrew. I haven't got a source to hand, mind. Even that, though, is very rare these days. – Au101 Jun 22 '15 at 2:10
  • @Au101 Another important point is that "thou" is more familiar than "you" in the same way that in french there are "tu" and "vous" that can both mean you in the singular. – tom Jun 22 '15 at 9:01
  • This is a fine point, but the archaic pronouns do get other uses. Here's a modern usage: I and Thou. In connection with that book, I heard "thy" in speech in a college psychology class within the last ten years. There are probably an infinity of appropriate contemporary uses for archaic speech, even though they're very rare. (See also the answers about Yorkshire.) I like that your answer explains "thy" as an allusion to older writings—that's probably the main clue a learner needs. – Ben Kovitz Jun 22 '15 at 12:31
  • @BenKovitz I and Thou is a pretty special case: a theological work, and a translation from German, which has 2nd-person uses (du/ihr/Sie) which have no English parallel. In effect it's a term of art, not an ordinary SE usage. But yeah, I've overstated; I'll put in some hedges. – StoneyB Jun 22 '15 at 14:27
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    "almost entirely to religious contexts" -- and dramatic/literary allusions. Shakespeare is quoted about as much as the KJV ("Deny thy father and refuse thy name"). Or his contemporary Marlowe ("If these delights thy mind may move // Then live with me, and be my love"). But the KJV is unusual for its time in using "thee" rather more than you'd expect, and "you" less. – Steve Jessop Jun 22 '15 at 18:38
22

When can I use “thy” instead of “your”?

When? Pretty much anytime before about the year 1780.

In all seriousness, "thy" (and its other forms like "thou", "thee", and "thine") is the equivalent of "tú" (in Spanish) or "du" (in German). It is just the familiar form.

Unlike every other Indo-European language, we stopped using the familiar form about 200 years ago, except when we are deliberately attempting to invoke an archaic ambiance, suggesting Shakespeare or the King James Version of the Bible.

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    Why did you mention the year 1780 specifically? Do you have any source for that? – PJvG Jun 22 '15 at 6:58
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    Here's a chart showing the frequency of 'thee' and 'thy' in books from 1800 to 2000. books.google.com/ngrams/… – user151841 Jun 22 '15 at 14:03
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    @PJvG - Only this. – Malvolio Jun 22 '15 at 14:22
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    @BenKovitz -- something every English Learner should learn is that native English speakers, American ones at least, tend use humor somewhat unprovokedly. I have added an explanation for very beginning learners. – Malvolio Jun 22 '15 at 20:35
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    This is nitpicking, but: technically speaking, Spanish has also a thou equivalent, 'vos', which has exactly the same archaic and Biblical connotation and usage as does the English thou. – Yellow Jun 23 '15 at 9:23
7

A key thing not mentioned in the other answers is that thou, thy, thee, thine is the informal version of you, or at least many years ago it was. In the same way that in french we have tu and vous, which can both mean you in the singular, so in english there was thou and you. In french you have to be really careful when to use tu and vous, because to say tu to someone in the wrong context is very rude. It is more respectful to say vous.

In the North of England it persists a bit - the phrase "t'art" is short for "thou art", which is equivalent to "you are".... e.g. "t'art right useful" where right in this context means very.

So if you want to use "thou" or "thee" it should be to one person in a familiar context in speech from about 200 or more years ago.

These days if someone uses thou it sounds a bit odd and more formal, which is not at all its original meaning, which is why in Romeo and Juliet there is the line from Juliet of "Romeo, o Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo" - - which translated is "Romeo, o Romeo why are you Romeo" (why a Montague and not a Capulet (like me) - thanks to all who pointed out my mistake - many apologies...)- Note that it is uses the very familiar intimate version of you because of the intimate relationship between Romeo and Juliet.

edit - so I messed up in my original answer and thought wherefore=where, but it does mean why.... sorry

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    Here is a google ngram, charting the usage of 'thy' and 'thee' in books from 1800 to 2000: books.google.com/ngrams/… – user151841 Jun 22 '15 at 13:48
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    The first part is useful and relevant information which I might have noted myself, but I can't bring myself to upvote because of the final paragraph - misunderstanding of 'wherefore' as 'where' (rather than 'why') is a major berserk button for me. – Nye Jun 22 '15 at 14:59
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    It's a bit more complicated than that. The original distinction was one of number, thou sg vs ye pl. There was a brief (by linguistic standards) vogue in ME for a familiar/formal distinction, probably derived from the French model, but this was already disappearing in Shakespeare's time, in parallel with ye and its objective form you collapsing into an unstressed /jə/. Today the situation has reversed; just about the only person (or Person or Persons) addressed as thou is the deity. – StoneyB Jun 22 '15 at 14:59
  • @BenKovitz - sorry you're right .... I will edit..... – tom Jun 22 '15 at 20:59
  • @Nye - sorry for my mess up - corrected now – tom Jun 22 '15 at 21:02
5

If you were quoting someone from Yorkshire, you could use the modern equivalent 'thee'. From personal experience it exists more as a stereotype than actually being common usage, but there are still people that do it.

Use of the singular second-person pronoun thou (often written tha) and thee. This is a T form in the T-V distinction, and is largely confined to male, mostly older speakers.

Wikipedia

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    Yorkshire people still say thee and thou to their friends and family. (I know because I am one.) They don't do this when strangers are about because they go all "trouble at mill". In school we got punished for saying thee but it seems to be acceptable now. – RedSonja Jun 22 '15 at 11:04
  • @RedSonja I was under the impression that thine had practically disappeared in the north, and that both thou and thy had collapsed into /ðə/; can you confirm or deny this? – StoneyB Jun 22 '15 at 14:54
  • I sometimes get "see thee" (though it sounds something rather closer to "sithee") from a friend originally from (roughly) those parts for a goodbye, though by now her accent is mostly local(ish). – Glen_b Jun 23 '15 at 7:19
  • Thine is never used, we say thy or tha or thi. Thou art has become tha's and so on. How are you doing is how's ta doin? Shut thi mouth. Where's thi shoes? Thee and thou are used to make us feel homely, like Bavarians wearing lederhose, I suppose. – RedSonja Jun 23 '15 at 12:45
2

As others have mentioned before me, thy is only used in historical and religious texts, or fiction which takes place in older times (usually medieval times). So unless you’re going to write a historic fiction story which takes place in medieval England, you’re probably not going to use it.

I think this article on Shakespearean English explains the use well. It gives the following example from Romeo and Juliet:

Deny thy father and refuse thy name;

Furthermore, this Shakespearean English can also be used in role-playing (games). However, most people would probably find it silly and/or too cumbersome to do so.

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    "unless you’re going to write a historic fiction story which takes place in medieval England" -- even then, using the thee/you distinction to represent Middle English is an extremely cheap shorthand, basically a "glitch" in the translation to modern English. "Whilom ther was dwellynge at Oxenford // A riche gnof, that gestes heeld to bord, // And of his craft he was a carpenter." and all that. And earlier medieval Old English isn't really recognisable, not that the kind of posh people who populate the majority of historical fiction spoke English at all. – Steve Jessop Jun 22 '15 at 18:55

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