Second Person Pronouns

Atlas Obscura is a great source of obscure information, though often flawed by lack of research, but here’s an article that got me thinking.

For all its history and variety, English has no plural form of the second person pronoun. Unlike other European languages, it also has no polite/informal forms. AO find the latter somehow elitist, but it is a way of showing respect. I recall in German how people meet strangers using the formal form, but as they get to know each other, they ask if they can use the informal, so making a statement of their growing friendship, which I think is rather sweet. And we do behave differently amongst our friends/family to those in formal situations such as towards teachers, officials and police. Though of course to non-native speakers it can lead to accidentally causing offence.

Back to the AO article, they seem to think this lack of plural form of ‘you’ is a huge problem, and yet I’ve never noticed the absence, and the more I think about it, I can’t see that we’re missing out on much. After all, our speech is constantly evolving. If this form died out it must have fallen into disuse, and if we still needed it, we would find a world for it. AO cites a number of examples of American terms, such as Y’all, from you all, used in the Deep South, to Yinz used in Philadelphia, possibly continued as a mark of local pride and solidarity. This suggests to me the term died out as we became urbanised- this seems to have happened in England in the early 18th century, which also coincided with the decline of militant Quakerism which was fond of such archaic terms, which might also have been a factor.

But I grew up in Australia, and I can’t recall the second person plural there either. Or New Zealand or South Africa. Maybe someone can correct me on this, but it does seem to be a survival of archaic forms in the US.

So I’ve been thinking, how do we survive without it? Probably because most of what we say is clear from its context. If there are only 2 people in a room and you invite someone to sit down, the statement is clear. ‘You stood on my foot’  or ‘You’re an idiot’ can only refer to one person.

If you are in a group and say something like, ‘You are invited to ….’ this can be clarified with ‘You are all…” or simply by talking directly to one person. Often the context is clear: ‘I love your dress!’ ‘You’re a great cook’ etc. Maybe there’s an irony here: the more urbanised we’ve become, the more we speak one to one. Or am I missing something here?

5 thoughts on “Second Person Pronouns

    • I think thou became you. Ye became the. If you’re right, what’s the difference between thee/ thou? I think thee is formal form of thou but I also think there were regional variant so hard to be sure


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