Some Notes on Quaker Speech

Department: 

When Quakerism originated in the 17th century, English pronouns in all groups, with one major exception, had already achieved the forms we use today:

1st person singular:                      I, me, my, mine
1st person plural:                         we, us, our, ours
2nd person singular and plural:   you, you, your, yours
3rd person singular:                     he, him, his, his
                                                    she, her, her, hers
                                                    one, one, one’s, ones
                                                    it, it, its, its
3rd person plural:                        they, them, their, theirs

The major exception, of course, is that the 2nd person singular was expressed differently from the 2nd person plural in the 17th century:

2nd person singular:                   thou, thee, thy, thine
2nd person plural:                      you, you, your, yours

For example, “I remind thee that, as thou no doubt knowst, thy opinion is thine, not necessarily shared.”

Another 17th century exception was the custom of addressing the king with plural forms as a mark of honor (“you” instead of “thou,” with “Your Majesty” the most common example). Friends refused to practice this pronoun-honor, just as they refused to remove their hats in the king’s presence.

Although we may approve this apparent democratic insistence, the evolving English language achieved the same effect through an opposite means. Instead of the king remaining singular, all his subjects became plural. They dropped the 2nd person singular entirely. Usage promoted everyone.

Friends were unwilling to adopt this changing fashion, insisting on the “plain language” which came to differentiate them from other speakers of English. Their plain language, however, gradually underwent a change of its own. Apparently coming to find the archaic verb-forms a nuisance (“thou dost,” “thou mayst,” etc.), they dropped “thou” altogether, substituting “thee,” and began using the verb forms of the 3rd person singular. As a result, in the evolving plain language, they came to say, “thee does,” where others were saying, “you do.”

This was the speech I heard from many Westtown faculty members and other Philadelphia-area Friends when I first encountered them in 1939. “Thou” had almost entirely disappeared. One could always spot a novelist who didn’t really know Friends when “thou” turned up in speech representing 19th- or early 20th- century Quakers.

Many 20th-century Quakers who still used the plain language switched more or less automatically in and out of Standard English, depending on whom they were addressing. Some did not. The resulting interactions could be curious. Judy Matchett and I spent the summer of 1951 on the Navaho Reservation with our beloved older friends the Bailys. Bert Baily used the plain language only with others who used it also, but Helen Baily used the plain language consistently with everyone. However baffling they may have found this, the Navahos, Hopis, and Zunis with whom we were dealing quickly appreciated her warm sincerity, and after several days of exposure to her pronouns, began using them – in addition to the three or more languages they already spoke, including their native languages, Spanish, and English.

Plain speech lingered in some families, including ours, as a language of affection. Once, when I was heard to use it in England, I was severely scolded by a distinguished British Friend – perhaps “eldered” would be a more tactful way to describe the encounter – who pointed out, quite rightly I’m afraid, that what had formerly been insistently inclusive was becoming exclusive. “Stop it,” she said, but I am afraid the habit had become too strong. Given another generation, plain speech is likely to disappear entirely.

There is a further Quaker speech habit, currently spreading, on which I will take this opportunity to make a curmudgeonly comment. This is the new fashion of referring to “Meeting for Worship for Business.” “Meeting for Business” says it all, the sufficient plain speech that covers everything. Read any Faith and Practice, and it is clear what we mean by “Meeting for Business” and how it is to be approached.  Perhaps Friends need occasional reminding, but the constant expansion of the term grates on older ears, suggesting that the speaker might also insist on always referring to a widow as “a widow woman whose husband is dead.” The meaning is entirely covered by the simpler language. Like our British Friend, I want to say, “Stop it,” but know that it is probably too late. ~~~

– William H. Matchett was born into Chicago Monthly Meeting, and transferred to University Meeting in Seattle in 1954. He is an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Washington, a poet, and the author of various books and article on, primarily, Shakespeare and Dickinson. He has served Friends in many capacities and remains a member of University Meeting (NPYM).