As anyone who is learning English will know, you will have come across the fact that English seems to be missing a way to address more than one person, but does it really? Is there a plural of ‘you’? Is ‘you’ plural?
Old English – a plethora
To answer this question, we need to look back into English’s history when it was still firmly Germanic. As one would expect, Old English resembled something closer to Modern German than it does to Modern English. Old English had five different noun cases: nominative (subjects), accusative (direct objects), dative (indirect objects), genitive (possessive), and instrumental (an object used to achieve something else). Modern German has dropped the instrumental case but retains the other four.
If we look at the word ‘you’ in Modern English, we use it for subjects: ‘You went to the beach’. You can use it for direct objects: ‘I love you’. Finally you can use it for indirect objects: ‘I gave you the ball/I gave the ball to you’. However if we look at how people spoke English before the Norman Conquest, we see a much wider variety:
As you can see from this table, Old English had four cases and three different numbers. They were singular, dual (2), and plural (3+). Note: the þ (called the ‘thorn’) is pronounced like the ‘th’ sound in ‘this’. It bears resemblance to the German ‘d’ sound (such as ‘du’, ‘dich’, ‘dir’, ‘deiner’) used for the second person singular form. The ƿ (called the ‘wynn’) is a /w/ sound.
Middle English – fewer pronouns
With the Norman Invasion of Great Britain, or the time when French really started to have an influence on English, we can see a shift in the language, including the import of thousands of Latin words, moving from the flexible sentence order inherent in Germanic languages to a stricter, Latin-influenced structure, and the parallel nature of Germanic/French words in the English language (e.g. pig/pork, chicken/poultry, calf/veal, cow/beef, sheep/mutton, wood/forest, house/mansion, worthy/valuable, etc.)
Here we can see the second person pronouns used during this time:
We can see here that the singular pronouns did not change much while the plural ones have changed radically. Why is this?
After the Norman Conquest – thee, thou, you and ye
After the Invasion, French nobles who came with William the Conqueror the aristocracy. The language of the upper echelons of became French while the people’s language remained English. To refer to someone of a higher social status than you, they would have to use the formal form. In French, the plural form also works for formal situations, so the same was adopted in England. A peasant speaking to a lord would use ‘ye’. Fast forward to around the 1400s (think Chaucer) and the two languages have fused into Late Middle English. All official documents with the exception of Church documents (still used Latin) and legal documents (in legal French) are in this new language.
As you can also see in the chart below, Middle English has lost the Genitive case. Instead it uses a possessive pronoun that is called a ‘possessive case’, although it really isn’t a case. At the same time, the accusative and dative objects (for all instances) became the same. Note: Modern English still has something called the ‘Saxon Genitive’. This is where we use the ‘s at the end of words resembling Old English. Some adverbial genitives also didn’t die out with the rest of the genitive case (words such as ‘once’ and ‘afterwards’).
To simply the chart (including transliteration to the modern alphabet) from Wikipedia to only look at the Nominative and Accusative cases (Subject and Object, which are the ones today that uses the same word), we have:
Here it is easier to see that the modern ‘you’ comes from the second person plural form. I mentioned this before; it was used by people for higher status than yourself. Over time, people started using it with strangers too.
Early Modern English (think Shakespeare) kept these Middle English pronouns (i.e. Shall I compare thee to a fine summer’s day?) while going through the Great Vowel Shift. Around the 17th century, the other forms faded away in many English speaking locales and ‘you’ reigned supreme over the second person subjects and objects. In some locales, these forms have clung on. In western Ireland, for example, it is common to ask ‘how are ye guys doing’.
Today – Just you…or is it?
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly (or perhaps not depending on your viewpoint), this phenomenon has happened in other languages as well. In Brazilian Portuguese, the second person informal faded in favour of the formal ‘você’ for subjects. The informal, ‘tú’, is for God or, in some dialects, to loved (amorous love) ones.
In Spain, the opposite seems to be happening. The use of Usted and Ustedes (formal singular and plural) is also falling out of use in everyday speech in favour of ‘tú’ and ‘vosotros/vosotras’ (informal singular and gendered plurals). The end effect may turn out to be the same: using only one form for the second person singular and plural forms.
An interesting, additional phenomenon for some dialects of English (especially ones found in the US), is a resurgence of different second-person plural forms. Some examples include ‘you all’ (also abbreviated to y’all), ‘you guys’ and other variations to distinguish the plural from the singular. In the dialects across the English speaking world, ‘yous(e)’ functions for both the singular and plural second-person pronoun. In other dialects, the word ‘you’ continues to be standard both in singular and plural instances.
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