What’s wrong with you? The history of a pronoun
If you’ve ever stopped to think about it, you may have noticed that there’s something wrong with you. ‘You’ is what is called a personal pronoun. In English, as in most languages, these are grouped into three distinct ‘persons’: the first person (‘I’), the second person (‘you’), and the third person (‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘it’). These three persons also come in two ‘numbers’, singular or plural. The first person plural is ‘we’, the second person plural is ‘you’, and the third person plural is ‘they’. Put this way, you may have noticed the problem: the singular and plural forms of the second person are the same, so that whether there’s one of you or lots of you, you’re always just ‘you’.
This is so fundamental to English that native speakers simply take it for granted, but it’s actually incredibly odd. Virtually no other language on the planet exhibits this curious eccentricity, nor is there any obvious reason why the difference between ‘I’ and ‘we’ should be considered linguistically less important than that between ‘you’ and ‘you’ (see the difficulties we get into!). Furthermore, when we learn that English did, once upon a time, have two separate words (like any other sensible language), the plot only thickens, and the question then becomes not why does English not make this distinction, but why did English cease to make this distinction?
The emperors’ new pronoun (or the T-V distinction)
To understand you’s homogeneity, we need first to understand something called the T-V distinction, which takes us back a little over seventeen hundred years, to the Latin of the Roman Empire of the late third century AD. Latin had, as one would expect, two second person personal pronouns: tu, meaning ‘(one of) you’, and vos, meaning ‘(two or more of) you’. Prior to the third century, Latin speakers did the logical thing with these numbers, that is, when they addressed a single individual they called him tu and when they addressed multiple individuals they called them vos. From the late third century on, however, the Roman Empire began to be ruled by multiple emperors at once. As part of the programme of rationalising why it was that a polity supposedly governed by its greatest citizen was now governed by several men at once, Roman orators began systematically to address the emperor in the plural. The idea behind this was that, when multiple emperors ruled, each individual emperor carried the presence or essence of the others with him, so that what appeared to be a singular individual was in fact a singular manifestation of all the emperors.
Whether people ever particularly bought into the ideology of this innovation is something of a moot point. What is clear, however, is that it caught on. As it became increasingly common to identify the emperor in the plural, the idea that the plural could be used as a mark of honour became increasingly concreted. By the end of the fourth century, various people were addressing men of importance (not just emperors) as vos, and it became an increasingly expected mark of courtesy. This has endured into modern French, as anyone who has tried to organize a fancy party will know. We send out an RSVP because we are politely requesting of our guest ‘répondez s’il vous plaît’, and not risking being overly familiar with a RSTP, ‘réponds s’il te plaît’.
This, then, is the T-V distinction, where the plural, or V-form (vos in Latin, vous in French) is used to address someone in the singular, whom we should logically address in the T-form (tu in both languages). It was (and is) used to address one’s elders, one’s social betters, and people who occupied positions of power or status.
‘I know thee, who thou art’
This brings us back round to English. English, like Latin and French, once had two second person pronouns, one to mark the singular and one to mark the plural. Old English used Þu (pronounced ‘thoo’) for the singular and ge (pronounced ‘yay’) for the plural. As the language gradually shifted to that which we call Middle English, these pronouns changed to become words that will probably be recognisable even to modern English speakers – ‘thou’ and ‘ye’ (later ‘you’). These plurals retained the distinction of number. One of you was ‘thou’, two or more of you was ‘ye’.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, Romance Norman French began to exert a considerable influence upon the Germanic language of the English. One of the various things that French thus gave to the new fusion language of Middle English was the T-V distinction. So whilst a Saxon of the tenth century would have called his king Þu, a fourteenth century Englishman would have called him ‘ye’ or ‘you’.
‘dost thou thou me!’
So well mannered, it would seem, were medieval Englishmen that within a few centuries ‘you’ was beginning to squeeze ‘thou’ out of the language. Why this happened in English but not in other languages remains something of a mystery and a topic of fierce debate. What is clear, however, is that the effect of this change was profound, for ‘you’ increasingly seems to have become the default pronoun with which to address someone, even someone familiar.
To refer to someone as ‘thou’ when they felt deserving of a ‘you’ thus became a bitter snub. From this emerged a new verb, ‘to thou’, meaning to address someone with the familiar pronoun. The ‘Additions’ made to The Rule of St Saviour which governed the conduct of monks and nuns at Syon Abbey in Middlesex, and which were written around 1450, it is stated that ‘none of hyghenesse schal thou another in spekynge, but eche schal speke reuerently to other.’ In 1569, in the parish church of North Huish, a man named William Harvey was confronted for mistreating the parson’s servant. When Harvey insisted on addressing the parson as ‘thou’ and refusing to stand whilst he spoke to him, a brawl broke out in which knives were drawn. The infuriated parson in the church of North Huish exclaimed to William Harvey, ‘Dost thou “thou” me?’. Samuel Pepys, in January 1664, watched in bafflement when a Quaker woman approached King Charles II with a petition and ‘thou’d him all along.’
Making do with you
Ironically, because the singular form of ‘thou’ survives into the modern world through the Bible and in certain ritual settings (think ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done’ and ‘with this ring I thee wed’), people often assume that ‘thou’ is in fact a formal form of ‘you’. As we’ve seen, quite the opposite is true.
The result of turning ‘thou’ in to a taboo word was thus to effectively remove it from the language. Aside from certain Northern dialects (where the variant ‘thee’ is still used), English thus no longer has a designated pronoun to mark the second person singular. Most of the time, we rub along with this okay, although many other dialects have invented ways of getting around this problem, which usually involve strategies to create a new second person plural pronoun. In the south eastern United States, particularly in states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, people say ‘y’all’, in Glaswegian English one often hears ‘yiz’, and dialects across the world, from Liverpool to New York to South Africa, employ the eminently logical ‘youse’. In doing so, however, these dialects imply that what our language is missing is a plural pronoun. But it turns out that ‘you’ originally was the plural pronoun and has, for the last five hundred years, been forced to work two jobs within the English language. Typical English politeness!