A brief look at English archaic pronouns

A brief look at English archaic pronouns

Ali Shahdoost


Archaic pronouns are not used in modern English anymore but you still may come across them from time to time, whether you are reading works of Shakespeare, the bible, or even watching a movie referring to old times you surely have heard them. In this post, we are going to briefly talk about these pronouns; what they were and how they worked.

English Archaic Pronouns

Many of the pronouns that were used in the past are still used without much change but the ones that are not used anymore are the following:

  • thou (you - singular)
  • thee (you - singular)
  • ye (you - plural)
  • thy (your)
  • thine (yours - before a vowel)
  • thyself (yourself - singular)

In the list above you can see the pronouns substituting each archaic pronoun.

Why there used to be so many forms for ‘you’

Most Germanic languages which include English, have different forms of the second person pronoun for the subject, object, and singular, plural (some even have a formal form). This means they have at least 4 pronouns for ‘you’; English used to be the same.

In modern English, many of the personal pronouns have different subject and object forms, so it is not difficult to imagine how you were used in those cases.

No alt text provided for this image


Thou and Thee

‘Thou’ and ‘Thee’ were the singular archaic forms of the pronoun you. Take a look at these examples:

Thou shalt not kill. (You should not kill.)
With this ring, I thee wed. (With this ring, I am wedded to you)


In the second example, you can see a grammatical structure that is not present in modern English anymore, the subject and object of the sentence came after each other. This was only possible because the object of the sentence was marked.

Ye

Ye used to be the second person plural pronoun when it was the subject of the sentence. You may ask; so, what if it was the object? In that case, we should have used the pronoun ‘you’ which we are all familiar with. To better understand how ‘ye’ was used take a look at the following examples:

Come, All Ye Faithful


Thy and thine

'Thy' used to be the second person singular possessive determiner (or possessive adjective as some people call it. It was like ‘my’ but for the second person (my and thy sounded good but it is history now). Here is an example:

Honor thy father and thy mother.


Thine one the other hand was the possessive pronoun. A possessive pronoun works just like a possessive determiner but does not come before a noun. (like ‘my’ and ‘mine’ or ‘your’ and ‘yours’).

His spirit will take courage from thine.


Thyself

Thyself was a reflexive pronoun from the same family. This example can probably clarify everything:

Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.


No alt text provided for this image


What happened to the archaic pronoun?

You may have noticed that most of the pronouns mentioned were different forms of the same set of personal pronouns. In old times English had two sets of pronouns for singular and plural. But the plural form was also used as the singular formal form.

Apparently from a point in time, people decided that they prefer referring to everyone in formal form. And that was the end of a set of pronouns. It is important to mention that in some non-standard accents of English similar pronouns are still used but they are cut off from standard modern English.

Why it is important to know archaic pronouns

Although these pronouns are not present in modern English there are thousands of books and resources from the past which are filled with this type of grammar. You still need to access those resources without the need for translation so it is essential to know about the history of a language and its changes through time.