Is he a “thee” or a “you”?
Our early Quaker ancestors often used peculiar words when speaking to each other. In many languages, there is a familiar or informal form for the second-person pronoun “you” in English. For Quakers, this familiarity was expressed by using “thee” or “thou” in place of “you.” It came to be called the Plain language and every Quaker was using it.
[For other language comparisons, think “tu” rather than “vous” in French and “tu” rather than “usted” in Spanish. In these examples, “thee” takes the place of “tu,” and “thou” takes the place of “vous” and “usted.”]
It all began in the late 1600s when George Fox decided that he wanted to reform some verbal expressions common in his day, as they appeared to convey flattery or to be idolatrous. He called on Quakers to depart from all vain customs of the world, including the use of “you” as a form of flattery. Fox adopted what he called Plain language for use with persons in all levels of society in an effort to avoid class distinction and acknowledge the equality of all people as children of God. He quietly used it in his own pattern of speech, and others followed his example. Over time, the Plain language became the way Quakers all spoke, with everyone. Friends continued to use the Plain language for centuries until it slowly drifted out of the Quaker lexicon sometime in the mid-1900s.
Some families maintained the custom, although the terms were reserved only for family members and close friends. I can remember as a child in the 1950s asking my mother if certain relatives were “thees” or “yous”, trying to sort out which people were other Quakers or close friends of the family. When I became of age to date and brought a young man to visit my grandparents, my grandfather would often ask me, “Is he a ‘thee’ or a ‘you’”? In other words, have you two become serious? In that instance, calling someone a “thee” connoted an inner-circle acceptance and if the person was in the “very special” category, the entire family would call that person a “thee.”
Even though my children and grandchildren were not raised in the Quaker faith, they continue this practice and even the younger ones have learned to differentiate between who is a “thee” and who is a “you.”
To give you an idea of how the language is used in everyday communications, here is the text from a letter written from my grandmother to my grandfather prior to their marriage.
[The plural of “thee” is “you”. Alice uses “you” when she refers to more than one person; in this instance, Tim and his sisters, Ida and Sara.]
To learn more about the Plain language, order my new book: Thee & Me: A Beginner’s Guide to Early Quaker Records [available on Amazon.com]. Purchase as an eBook or in printed format. The printed book has dozens of illustrations and images, including a bonus chapter with a case study demonstrating step-by-step how to perform a successful search using the Quaker Collections on Ancestry.com.
You may also use the new Research Guide to Finding Your Quaker Ancestors.