or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Antiquities, Part 1

"Thou doth protest too much!"
"He shall reap what he hast sown."
"I shall smite thou!"

How many times have you seen expressions like these? And how many times have you given them a second thought? It's just old-timey talk. It's archaic.

It's also--and this should come as no surprise to any reader who's been paying attention--wrong.

The rules for Early Modern English (not, it should be noted, Old English) speech were clearly somewhat different than they are today, but rules they nevertheless were, and if we're going to use such locutions, we should use them correctly. And the fact is that it's much easier than it may seem at first glance.

Today I'm going to discuss the pronouns (I'll leave the verbs until tomorrow, because they're incredibly, brainlessly simple, and after the pronouns they'll be cake). In three short lessons, you can use antique pronouns with the best of them.

1: Thou vs. Thee. This one can be confusing because in Modern English we use the same pronoun for subject and object: singular "you". What makes it worse is that in modern English it's so irregular:

he / she / it----him / her / it

In Early Modern English, for singular "you", "thou" is the subject pronoun, "thee" the object. "Thou art the winner! I give this medal to thee!" This suggests an easy method of figuring out which is which, based on the structure of English: if the pronoun appears at the beginning of a clause, it's probably the subject, and if it appears at the end, it's probably the object. (You may have to do some mental gymnastics, though, unknotting a sentence like "To thee I give this medal" or "Of thee I sing".)

2: Ye vs. You. "Ye" and "you" are the plural forms of "thou" and "thee". It would have been easier to learn if the endings had matched up properly, but they don't, so the rule is that "ye" is the subject pronoun, "you" the object. "Ye know of what I speak. I will not say it again to you." Once again, in most cases, beginning = subject = ye, ending = object = you. Probably.

3: Thy vs. Thine. Once again, it's subject pronoun versus object pronoun, except this time it's in the possessive. Luckily, this one is much easier: these two words are exactly parallel to "my" and "mine". A quick mental substitution will supply you with the correct word: "My house/thy house"; "It is mine/it is thine". (There is an exception for subject pronouns, easily learned: just like "a" and "an", "thy" is used before a consonant, "thine" before a vowel. Thus, "thy face", but "thine own face".)

"Ye" as second person plural, I would like to note, is still alive and well in my birthplace, Newfoundland, where you can hear such expressions as "Will ye guys get over 'ere!" It's worth noting that it doesn't always stand on its own: it often acts in concert with a noun, as "you" does in standard English when we say "You people are driving me crazy!" But it can also function on its own, just as plural "you" can in standard English: "Ye are the nicest people I've ever met."


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