Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Question of Case

I'm reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond right now (which is as fresh and enjoyable to me now as it was when I read it as a teen), and last night I came across something that raised a question in my mind. Kit (the main character) met Hannah Tupper, an old Quaker woman who lives in the meadow isolated from the rest of the community. Here are a couple of examples of Hannah's dialogue:
"Thee must be hungry," she said, more briskly. "Come, and I'll give thee a bit to eat."
"The answer is in thy heart," she said softly. "Thee can always hear it if thee listens for it."
What I wondered is whether the pronouns have been used properly in this dialogue. (Forgive me some grammar geekiness here...) I always thought "thee" was the objective case for the pronoun, "thou" was the subjective case, and "thy" was the possessive. If that's true, then a sentence might read something like this:
"Thou must be hungry...I'll give thee a bit to put in thy stomach."
In an earlier draft of my novel, I had the protagonist's sister-in-law be Quaker because I thought it would contribute to a subplot about slavery that was in the story at that time (Quakers were leaders in the abolition movement). I tried to be very careful to get the dialogue right, because I thought that would be the type of mistake that would take the reader out of the story. But I never felt entirely confident that it was done correctly, and I also had the problem of trying to figure out what verb should go with "thou." ("Thou have"? "Thou has?" "Thou do"? "Thou does"? ARRRGGGH!!!)

Eventually, I decided it wasn't urgent to the plot that the character be a Quaker. That was an easy way to solve my problem, but I still wonder about it. Just what is the right way to have a Quaker character use pronouns? Just in case it is urgent to have a character be Quaker in some future story!

4 comments:

lil red hen said...

I wonder where the word "thine" would fit in? possessive also?

Augustina Peach said...

I had forgotten "thine"! Yes, it's possessive, but I don't know how to distinguish it from "thy." I'll have to consult my favorite Christmas present ever, my dictionary!

Augustina Peach said...

I did check the dictionary, and I guess both "thee" and "thou" are correct as subjectives. Maybe it's a dialect thing, ha ha.

The difference between "thy" and "thine" is that "thine" is used when there is no noun with the pronoun. So you would say, "Where is thy hat?" or "Is this hat thine?"

I love grammar.

Ann Turnbull said...

The 17thC Quakers used "thou" -e.g. "art thou hungry?" - which was common speech in many parts of England. But at some point they changed to using "thee" in the rather odd way that Hannah uses it in the book and which is typically associated with Quakers. In England this didn't happen till later - 18thC, I think. Maybe it happened earlier in America, but as Hannah was an old woman in 1687 I did wonder if she might actually have been English - since the Quakers began in England in the late 1640s and some felt moved to take their faith to hostile places such as Boston, where some were hanged.