No Need to be Ashamed of the Plain Languageby Kenneth S. P. Morse
from The Friend of Truth #4, Tenth Month, 1938.
We sometimes hear people object to the plain language as "ungrammatical" and "barbarous," because of the fact that in America thee is almost always used instead of thou, and the verb takes the same form as after he, among those who speak the plain language. It has been uneasy to my feelings to hear certain Friends call this usage "incorrect" and on this ground to advocate the use of the biblical forms, beacuse I know they are on mistaken ground.
Our English grammars were not handed down to us from heaven; they were written by men, men who do not use the plain language. The business of the grammarian is simply to tell the customary forms of speech. His only standard of correctness is the customary usage. Now the plain fact is that the verb is inflected differently by those who use the plain language from the way it is by those who do not. If we look at the facts of the matter, we shall see that we have no need to be ashamed of the plain language as we now speak it.
First, as to the use of thee for thou. Why do we use thee for thou? Probably for the same reason that Quakers and non-Quakers alike say you instead of ye. In the older language, and in the King James version of the Bible, neither thee nor you were used as nominatives (subjects of a verb). They are always objective, and thou and ye are always nominative. It is no more barbarous to say thee instead of thou, than it is to say you instead of ye. The actual reason seems to be that the objective form tends to replace the nominative, because it is used more than the nominative.
Language is always changing. French, Spanish, and Italian all sprang from Latin by gradual changes, and in these languages, the nouns are almost always derived from the Latin objective or accusative case, which has crowded out the nominative, just as objective thee and you have crowded out nominative thou and ye. To ask why we do not say thou art and thou hast instead of thee is and thee has is like asking a Frenchman why he does not speak Spanish instead of French. Language changes differently in different places. In the English dialects, thee for thou is characteristic of the dialects of southwestern England, of Cornwall and Devonshire, for example, but not of northern England.
Thee for thou occurs about eight times in George Fox's Journal (Penney edition), and according to the Bishop of Cork, was a common thing among "Early Friends." William Penn quotes the bishop's words, and does not deny that such a usage exists (see his Works, Sowle edition, ii. 901). This was in the year 1698.
Now, there is another deviation in our plain language of today from the language of the Bible. We do not say thee art, hast, doest, findest, but thee is, has does, finds. Why? Have we clipped the t off these endings? By no means. The t was not there in the first place. The English or Anglo-Saxon worlds of the Lindisfarne manuscript of the "gospels" date from around the year 950. In the book of John, it shows 57 s endings, and only two st endings in the second persona singular. Gothic is the oldest representative of the Germanic group of languages, to which English belongs and all of which were once a single language. In the Gothic gospels, whose date is about the year 350, and in Latin, the s ending is the only one found. We can be very sure tha the original ending was s, and not st. This statement is supported by the Greek and Sanskrit also. There are or have been three principal kinds of English, or groups of English dialects, the Northern, the Midland, and the Southern. The st ending never got a foothold in the north.
Thee is instead of thou art or thee art calls for comment. Thee art occurs in Cornwall and Devonshire dialect, and thou is in Yorkshire, and in the poetry of Robert Burns, who was no Quaker. Thu arth is the form in the Lindisfarne gospels, and thu is in the Gothic. That is and not art is the older and original form is evidenced by the Gothic, as well as by the Latin tu es, the Homeric Greek essi and the old Icelandic es.
The sum of the matter is, that we get our verb forms for modern English from the Northern English dialects, while the King James Bible is in the Midland English. This is why we say he has, he does, he finds, instead of he hath, he doeth, he findeth. These s forms are not original, but they come from the north of England, and are found in the Lindisfarne gospels (date 950). If we should say thou findest, he finds, we are speaking Midland dialect in the second person and Northern in the third! Regardless of the grammarians who never use the plain language, if we are consistent, we can say either thee finds, he finds, you find, or thou findest, he findeth, ye find.
I am not Amish or Mennonite, but some people who come to my website are interested in knowing more about these groups. I can recommend these books as authoritative and relatively inexpensive sources of further information.