'Tis the season for archaic English

Confused by "God rest ye merry, gentlemen"? Of course thou art!

'Tis the season to use old-fashioned English!

"O come, all ye faithful..."

"Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child..."

"Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning…"

The holidays are for old carols, old scripture readings, and various emulations of merry olde England. This makes it a dangerous season.

Dangerous? Yes. There are conjugation accidents all over the place. People just don't know how to handle the ye and thee and thou, the –est and –eth. They put the wrong thing in the wrong place, and the next thing thou knowest, someone getteth hurt.

To reduce the carnage, I have put together this handy little instruction manual for the use of archaic pronouns and conjugations.


We don't sing "O come, all you faithful" because, at the time the song was written, they still sometimes used ye for the subject for the second person plural. E.g: I know you, and ye know me. (You will sometimes see ye in the object position in cases such as "Johnny, we hardly knew ye" — but that's a nonstandard dialectal form.) The verb is conjugated the same as ever.

Ye was already on the way out by Shakespeare's time.

Danger! You may be wondering why it's "God rest ye merry, gentlemen" when that's the object, not the subject. The answer is… it's not! The song is originally "God rest you merry, gentlemen." The ye has been put in by modern people who thought it should be there because it sounds more old-fashioned. Who knows how many people have been maimed by this!

Danger! Do not get confused by ye olde etc. The ye in ye olde is not the same ye. In fact, it's not really ye at all. It's the.

English used to have two separate characters for the "th" sound (voiced and unvoiced). Icelandic still has these characters: eth (ð) and thorn (þ). The word the was written þe. But when printing presses came in, they used type created in countries such as the Netherlands, which didn't include those letters. So they switched to using th, but in some words they just substituted y, the closest letter to þ in appearance. In old texts and tombstones you can sometimes see the as ye and that as yt to save space.

Thee and thou

We used to make a distinction between singular and plural second person, and between formal and informal singular, just as they still do in French, German, and many other languages. The singular familiar was thou in the subject position and thee in the object position. I know thee, and thou knowest me. Also, as you probably know, the possessive form is thy (and thine where you would use mine for first person).

Do you see that est on knowest? The conjugation for thou uses –est or, in a few cases, –st. So thou knowest, thou wantest, thou feelest, thou wouldst.

Danger! Some words are irregular. I am, thou art; I have, thou hast; I do, thou dost; I shall, thou shalt; I will, thou wilt (although you can also see willst). And thou must, not mustest.

Danger! Unlike every other conjugation, this one also adds the ending in the past tense! Thou likedest, thou wantedest, thou feltest, thou knewest.

Danger! Sometimes they didn't say the e, and would write it with an apostrophe: thou know'st, thou knew'st. Only do this if thou know'st what thou art doing.

Danger! Only use the present –est where you would use –(e)s for he/she. You wouldn't write "Does he thinks," so don't write "Dost thou thinkest." Don't use it on commands, either: "Only do this," not "Only dost this." Someone could lose an eye here!

Danger danger danger! Thou is not formal! You would address a social inferior or familiar as thou; you would never address a superior, let alone a king, as thou. Use the plural form!

In French, the plural vous is used this way, as a formal singular, and you know you're on casual terms with someone if you can call them tu. We adopted this distinction in English, and we finally just went with you for everyone (around the time we stopped using ye as well). So now in order to make it clearly plural, we sometimes resort to y'all or youse.

So why is God thou, then? Because the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts use the singular with God, and when William Tyndale translated the Bible into English in the early 1500s, he wanted to make it clear that God is being referred to in the singular: one God, not several. That mattered more to him than the formal/informal distinction. So he set the pattern, and it was preserved in the King James Bible (which borrowed heavily from Tyndale). God is the only lord you can use thou on.

These days, of course, the only place anyone uses thou in earnest is to address God — and only if they're Christians who prefer the King James Version. This has led to a common belief that thou is an extremely formal, reverential form. Well, I guess you could say it is reverential these days; its use has shifted. But that's the opposite of how it was used when people said it regularly. If you're trying to be old-style, don't use thou on anyone but a familiar or inferior — or, of course, God. Use it on the king and thou mayest lose thy head.


This used to be used with he/she/it where we now use –(e)s: he knoweth, she maketh, it feeleth. You can just put the eth in place of the (e)s and you'll almost always be right (doth in place of does is an exception, and is is still is, not ieth!). The s version was the version from northern England (Scandinavian influence), and it finally took over in southern England too.

Danger! Don't use –eth anywhere you wouldn't use –(e)s! If modern English is "Bring me the flute that makes her dance," it becomes "Bring me the flute that maketh her dance." It does not become "Bringeth me the flute that maketh her danceth." I mean, if you're going to do that, you might as well just go completely nuts and say "Bringeth me the fluteth." But I wash my hands of responsibility for all havoc you will cause.

One more thing…

All of this old-style English, in the mode of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, may be old and may be English, but it is not Old English. Actually, it's Early Modern English. Chaucer's English (which also uses these forms, more or less) is Middle English. Old English, the English of a thousand years ago, is very different. Here, let me show you an example of each:

Early Modern English (Shakespeare): "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Middle English (Chaucer): "Thanne is it wysdom, as it thynketh me, to maken vertu of necessity."

Old English (Beowulf): "Selre bið æghwæm, þæt he his freond wrece, þonne he fela murne."

Just thought you'd want to know that. So be careful when you call something Old English — if you get it wrong, a dragon might incinerate you.


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