English to Elizabethan translation

September 12, 2015
Elizabethan translation

Almost everyone reads at least one work of Shakespeare in his or her life. Heck, you might be even be studying one of his works now! Shakespeare used a form of archaic English in his works that can be at times confusing, irritating, and downright silly. The words that I will discuss today are the archaic forms of “you.” Because using the word “you” is very common, it is not surprising that Shakespeare also used it quite a bit in his works.

Specifically, these words are:

Thou, Thee, Thy, Thine and Ye.

To add to the confusion, sentences in Shakespearean English are often switched around, so reading them as-is can cause you to scratch your head. Learning these words will give you the tools to translate these often confusing sentences. I will also provide a few examples later on to help you on your way. Once you become adept at learning the “lingo” and translating the sentences using the tools you are about to learn, you will be well on your way to reading Shakespeare as well as any English major can!


To make this lesson easier, I have created a table that illustrates the words, their translation, and when to use them.

Translation Table

Word Translation When to use
Thou You When “you” is the subject of the sentence.
Thee When “you” is the object of the sentence.
Thy Your Possessive form of you. Commonly used before a noun that begins with a consonant/consonant sound (like the article, “a”).
Thine Possessive form of you. Commonly used before a noun that begins with vowel/vowel sound (like the article, “an”). Also used when indicating that something is “absolute and understood”.
Ye You (plural) Plural form of “you” when addressing a group of people.


Now, let’s look an example. We will use a scene from Romeo & Juliet to illustrate our newly learned skill of translating the archaic form of “you.”

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

We know that “thou” means “you” and that you is the subject of the sentence. A few other archaic words crop up here. Art is a form of the word “be” and wherefore means “what is the purpose of.”

O Romeo, Romeo, what is the purpose of you being Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name;

From the table above, we know that “thy” means your. Notice how it precedes a consonant sounding word.

Refuse your father and refuse your name;

Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love

Once again, thou means “you” and is used as the object. In this sentence, wilt translates to “will”.

If you will not, then swear to love me.

To illustrate the use of the words thee and thine, we turn our attention to this Chinese proverb.

“If thine enemy wrong thee, buy each of his children a drum.”

We know that “thine” means your. Note that it precedes a vowel sounding word. We also know that “thee” translates into “you” when “you” is used as an object.

If your enemy wrongs you, buy each of his children a drum.

Final Thoughts

Right now I am reading Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory in an effort to keep up with my wife’s rapidly expanding literary knowledge. At first I had trouble reading this book because it is written largely in archaic English (pre-Shakespearean). Once I understand the various forms of common words, the reading became much easier and enjoyable. I know that many people read Shakespeare in high school or college (not by choice) and at times it can become very confusing. Hopefully this post helps to clear up some confusion and provides a foundation for you to better understand Early Modern English works. Good Luck!

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