Thou, Thee, Thy, Thine & Ye: Shakespearean English

Almost everyone reads at least one work of Shakespeare in his or her life. Heck, you might be even be studying one of his works now! Shakespeare used a form of archaic English in his works that can be at times confusing, irritating, and downright silly. The words that I will discuss today are the archaic forms of “you.” Because using the word “you” is very common, it is not surprising that Shakespeare also used it quite a bit in his works.

Specifically, these words are:

Thou, Thee, Thy, Thine and Ye.

To add to the confusion, sentences in Shakespearean English are often switched around, so reading them as-is can cause you to scratch your head. Learning these words will give you the tools to translate these often confusing sentences. I will also provide a few examples later on to help you on your way. Once you become adept at learning the “lingo” and translating the sentences using the tools you are about to learn, you will be well on your way to reading Shakespeare as well as any English major can!

Onward.

To make this lesson easier, I have created a table that illustrates the words, their  translation, and when to use them.

Translation Table

Word Translation When to use
Thou You When “you” is the subject of the sentence.
Thee You When “you” is the object of the sentence.
Thy Your Possessive form of you. Commonly used before a noun that begins with a consonant/consonant sound (like the article, “a”).
Thine Your Possessive form of you. Commonly used before a noun that begins with vowel/vowel sound (like the article, “an”). Also used when indicating that something is “absolute and understood”.
Ye You (plural) Plural form of “you” when addressing a group of people.

Examples

Now, let’s look an example. We will use a scene from Romeo & Juliet to illustrate our newly learned skill of translating the archaic form of “you.”

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

We know that “thou” means “you” and that you is the subject of the sentence. A few other archaic words crop up here. Art is a form of the word “be” and wherefore means “what is the purpose of.”

O Romeo, Romeo, what is the purpose of you being Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name;

From the table above, we know that “thy” means your. Notice how it precedes a consonant sounding word.

Refuse your father and refuse your name;

Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love

Once again, thou means “you” and is used as the object. In this sentence, wilt translates to “will”.

If you will not, then swear to love me.

To illustrate the use of the words thee and thine, we turn our attention to this Chinese proverb.

“If thine enemy wrong thee, buy each of his children a drum.”

We know that “thine” means your. Note that it precedes a vowel sounding word. We also know that “thee” translates into “you” when “you” is used as an object.

If your enemy wrongs you, buy each of his children a drum.

Final Thoughts

Right now I am reading Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory in an effort to keep up with my wife’s rapidly expanding literary knowledge. At first I had trouble reading this book because it is written largely in archaic English (pre-Shakespearean). Once I understand the various forms of common words, the reading became much easier and enjoyable. I know that many people read Shakespeare in high school or college (not by choice) and at times it can become very confusing. Hopefully this post helps to clear up some confusion and provides a foundation for you to better understand Early Modern English works. Good Luck!

Posted in Academic Advice.

15 Comments

  1. I’m really glad you decided to do this post…I was just musing aloud to my husband last Sunday during church about when one should use the different forms of thou, etc. It’s all so clear now! 🙂

  2. thanks for this post!! it really helped me understand the different ways of writing, and the books. it’s really helped me out!

  3. I read this and am a little troubled by “thine”.

    I’d heard it was used to mean “yours” as well (the possessive noun).
    Think of it this way:

    Thou=I
    Thee=Me
    Thy=My
    Thine=Mine
    Ye=We

    Am I completely wrong?

    • I’m not quite sure–do you mean “your” or “yours”? Judging by your parenthetical, I’m inclined to believe you mean “your,” which would–indeed–be the possessive pronoun. However, “yours” functions differently as it is an objective pronoun. We have listed that “thine” DOES mean “your,” but it is used in particular cases. I don’t believe pronouns came in all the subjective, objective, and possessive flavors that we are accustomed to today.

      Your comment confuses me because, although you mention “thine” meaning “yours” in the beginning, at the end you mark “thine” to mean “mine”–so I’m not sure which you mean. As such, I looked it up in the OED and “thine” does–indeed–mean your. It says, “Genitive case of the pronoun THOU,” which means possessive.

      I was also concerned about your use of “Thou” for the first-person subjective pronoun. Thou is always the second-person subjective pronoun–namely “you.”

      I went back through this post and double checked it against the OED, and it is accurate.

  4. I read:
    “If thine enemy wrong thee, buy each of his children a drum.”

    But I was thinking shouldn’t “…thine enemy…” be “…thy enemy” instead?

    As in “…mine enemy” seems confusing when “…my enemy” sounds better?

    This is how I see it:

    Thine — Mine = (i.e. This gold is thine — This gold is mine).

    Thy — My = (i.e. Thy love is for me — My love is for thee).

    Please, if possible send response to my e-mail 🙂

  5. (My reply was considered spam when I posted it together, so I’ll try breaking it up.)

    A correction: The author meant to say:
    Once again, thou means “you” and is used as the SUBJECT (in the quote: Or if thou wilt not,…)

    Also a point of confusion, “ye” which is often seen in supposed archaic spellings such as “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe” has nothing to do with any second person pronoun and should actually be pronounced “the” – see the full story in the Usage Note here: www-dot-thefreedictionary-dot-com-forwardslash-ye

  6. As far as the commenting–there is an issue with this page being flagged as suspicious, which may be why you had trouble commenting. I’m trying to work that out now.

    Technically, with “ye,” we’re both correct. The symbol to which the dictionary you suggested refers is called the “thorn” and was popular in Middle English. It was a symbol for “th.” The site is indeed correct that the thorn was shifted to a “y,” hence why the “ye” is considered “the.” However, that is not the sole definition of “ye.” In fact, if you continue reading the definition, the second usage refers to the second-person pronoun.

    It is not uncommon for English to have completely different definitions for one particular word and this is a perfect example. The pronoun “ye” is based in the letter “y,” which connected to “you.” Yet the definite article “ye” comes from the change of lettering from Middle to Early Modern English.

    Thank you for pointing out the article usage. It is helpful to know, even though this post focuses on pronouns.

    • It’s a bit easier if you know things like the subject of a sentence, object, etc. In this post, it is assumed you have that knowledge.

  7. The plural of Thou, Thee, Thy and Thine is Ye, You, Your and Yours. Ye, therefore, was always used as the subject. Thine was also used instead of Thy when a word begins with a vowel (as Mine used to be — “Mine eyes have seen the Glory…”). An example is, “Thine is the kingdom.” (Compare A versus An)

  8. Correction “Thine is the Kingdom is not a good example, as Thine in that case means yours. A better example would be “Speak to me only with thine eyes and…”)


  9. Nikki:

    I’m really glad you decided to do this post…I was just musing aloud to my husband last Sunday during church about when one should use the different forms of thou, etc. It’s all so clear now!

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