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A Portraiture of Quakerism, Volume 1 by Clarkson

Was in the use of the pronoun thou


As the Quakers are distinguishable from their fellow-citizens by their dress, as was amply shewn in a former chapter, so they are no less distinguishable from them by the peculiarities of their language.

George Fox seemed to look at every custom with the eye of a reformer. The language of the country, as used in his own times, struck him as having many censurable defects. Many of the expressions, then in use, appeared to him to contain gross flattery, others to be idolatrous, others to be false representatives of the ideas they were intended to convey. Now he considered that christianity required truth, and he believed therefore that he and his followers, who professed to be christians in word and deed, and to follow the christian pattern in all things, as far as it could be found, were called upon to depart from all the censurable modes of speech, as much as they were from any of the customs of the world, which Christianity had deemed objectionable. And so weightily did these improprieties in his own language lie upon his mind, that he conceived himself to have had an especial commission to correct them.

The first alteration, which he adopted, was in the use of the pronoun thou. The pronoun you, which grammarians had fixed to be of the plural number, was then occasionally used, but less than it is now, in addressing an individual. George Fox therefore adopted thou in its place on this occasion, leaving the

word you to be used only where two or more individuals were addressed.

George Fox however was not the first of the religious writers, who had noticed the improper use of the pronoun you. Erasmus employed a treatise in shewing the propriety of thou when addressed to a single person, and in ridiculing the use of you on the same occasion. Martin Luther also took great pains to expunge the word you from the station which it occupied, and to put thou in its place. In his Ludus, he ridicules the use of the former by the, following invented sentence, "Magister, Vosestis iratus?" This is as absurd, as if he had said in English "gentlemen art thou angry"?

But though George Fox was not the first to recommend the substitution of thou for you, he was the first to reduce this amended use of it to practice. This he did in his own person, wherever he went, and in all the works which he published. All his followers did the same. And, from his time to the present, the pronoun thou has come down so prominent in the speech of the society, that a Quaker is generally known by it at the present day.

The reader would hardly believe, if historical facts did not prove it, how much noise the introduction or rather the amended use of this little particle, as reduced to practice by George Fox, made in the world, and how much ill usage it occasioned the early Quakers. Many magistrates, before whom they were carried in the early times of their institution occasioned their sufferings to be greater merely on this account. They were often abused and beaten by others, and sometimes put in danger of their lives. It was a common question put to a Quaker in those days, who addressed a great man in this new and simple manner, "why you ill bred clown do you thou me?" The rich and mighty of those times thought themselves degraded by this mode of address, as reducing them from a plural magnitude to a singular, or individual, or simple station in life. "The use of thou, says George Fox, was a sore cut to proud flesh, and those who sought self-honour."


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