Pronoun Inflation

A striking example of how powerful signaling can be in forming language:

Not so long ago—just a few hundred years—thou and its cousins thee and thy were the words to use when addressing one person, while you and ye and your were reserved for more than one. … But later in the Middle Ages, … it became the custom, not only in English but in most European languages, to show respect by addressing someone as you, even if the person was singular. Perhaps it was the inverse of the royal we, used by a ruler in public utterances as if to speak on behalf of God or of all his or her subjects. The subjects would show respect by responding to the plural we with the plural you. … Because you was a sign of respect, thou by contrast became a sign of disrespect, at least in public. … Gradually politeness spread so widely among speakers of English that you entirely displaced thou. … Even with you usurping the whole of second-person pronouns, the impulse to distinguish between singular and plural remains. That’s why we have plural locutions that prompt purists to gnashing of teeth: you all, y’all, yous, you’ns, and of course that all-time favorite … you guys. (more; HT Virginia Postrel)

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  • Alrenous

    Specifically, the black death relieved Malthusian stresses and opened up many positions so that the peasantry could be upwardly mobile. Merchants (for one) bought estates but were slow to buy new clothes; it became dangerous to assume thou could tell on sight which tone to use, and thus thou had to use ‘you’ with everybody thou didn’t personally know.

    The Japanese (for one) retain the distinction between informal/intimate and formal/polite address and it is a right pain. Relationships are hard enough without having to decide when the time is ripe to switch from ‘you’ to ‘thou.’

    • Julia Wise

      It seems unlikely that the black death affected English in this way but none of the other European languages I know of. (Many of these languages are trending towards the informal, but I think this was a 20th-century thing.) I don’t see any sources saying the plague was worse in England than elsewhere.

  • Thomas

    We germans also use the informal “Du” and the formal “Sie”. Funny thing is, if any of the two will be replaced, my money would be on the formal “Sie”.
    In any environment where english is mostly spoken, say a workplace, if people switch to german they will almost invariably use “Du” instead of the more common “Sie” if not familiar with one another. So in the long run I predict you guys will end up with the technically formal “you”, while we will end up with the informal “Du” as the sole pronoun. A nice illustration of the anti-authoritarian times we are living in.

    • Dániel

      The same here in Hungary. We have the informal ‘te’ and two formal versions: ‘ön’ and ‘maga’. There is a fourth construction to address someone, called ‘tetszikezés’. All the formal versions will probably die out in a few decades. (And none of them existed 500 years ago.)

      • Ian

        Same in Spanish: “tú” vs. “ustéd”. They also distinguish between those and the plural forms of “you”: “vosotros” and “ustedes” respectively.


    • Olli

      Same also in Finnish. The formal (and plural) ‘te’ is continually becoming rarer, and the informal (singular) ‘sinä’ is widely used.

  • When the Black Death killed a large fraction of the population, labor became much more valuable and this allowed a middle class to develop. Before then, the relatively few very wealthy landowners could afford the time and expense to hire, equip and train soldiers with weapons and so could suppress the peasants who did all the productive work. Keeping experience in war fighting out of the hands of the peasants is a necessary aspect of suppressing them.

    Once the income disparity that allowed the extremely wealthy to purchase the means to suppress the poor was lost, the wealthy couldn’t exploit the poor to maintain that income disparity and people had to be treated more equally.

    • Ilya Shpitser

      Peasant foot soldiers formed the backbone of ancient armies. Some societies responded to relatively high value of labor by introducing slavery (Russia), some did not (Netherlands). You are telling a “just so” story that fits your ideology.

      • There is a theory as to why Russia had serfdom, which Hanson and I referenced here.

    • Slaves are not as productive as wage earners, and wage earners are not as productive as entrepreneurs.

      If the number of workers falls, to maintain productivity they need to be converted to wage earners and then to entrepreneurs.

      With interacting economic entities, the most productive groups will be the ones that are successful. If you can suppress the productivity of your opponent, then eventually you will be successful in any competition. Conversion of entrepreneurs to wage earners and wage earners to slaves will decrease productivity. Conversion of wage earners to unemployed does too.

      Suppression of US productivity through these conversions, or with unemployment is enhancing the success of China.

  • rpl

    I’m skeptical of the argument that it was Black-Death-induced equality that led to the demise of the second person singular in English. In the first place, the timing is all wrong. “Thou” seems to have survived in regular use until at least the 17th century, long after the Black Death. In the second place, that explanation doesn’t explain why the T-V distinction persists in other European languages spoken in places that also suffered plague.

    The usual explanation for the demise of “thou” is that its use in the King James Version of the Bible lent it an air of solemnity that undermined its function as an informal pronoun. This explanation fits the timing better (the KJV was finished in 1611), and it is consistent with the effect being confined to English.

    • Alrenous

      Things sometimes take a long time to die. But why not combine, and believe both? Societies are complex.

      Also, the English economy was more favourable to merchants. (“Nation of Shopkeepers.”)

      • Roger Thinstlater

        So you are completely wrong but rather than learn and accept that your guess was factually unsupportable, you say, “Why not combine, and believe both”.

        That’s how you roll? Oh, I am wrong, well let’s combine and believe both!!! Yeah, kumbala…

        I hope you are not in charge of teaching anyone. The Native Indians rode Unicorns when Abe Lincoln came over on the Enterprise. They didn’t? Well, let’s combine and believe!!!!

        Hate to be snarky, but you shouldn’t just make things up. Had you started with the word “Perhaps” rather than “Specifically” you may not look so silly.

        Happy Learnin’

  • Ari T

    Well where I live, we rarely use formal addressing however in Finnish, we have special words for casual and formal addressing. I think some people on the left are happy we don’t use that as it tells our society is more equal.

    The only place I actual learnt that was army, where it was regulated and highly required. Talk about signaling.

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  • botogol

    Gosh, Thou survived much longer than that in some areas, for instance in northern England certainly right into the 20th century, even to this day to a small extent.

    There’s a saying (various versions) “Don’t thee tha me, thee tha thysen, and see how tha likes it”

    don’t show me disrespect by calling me ‘thee’ . Try it on yourself and see how how you like it.

  • J Storrs Hall

    Don’t forget New Jersey’s contribution to our great linguistic culture:
    “youse guys”

  • Earl T

    Hey! “y’all ” by itself is a singular pronoun in the South.

    The plural form is “y’all y’all”

    Don’t y’all be confusin’ the masses!

  • Don’t think I agree with some of this.

    Thee and thou are objective and subjective familiar forms of address. The familiar in English, as with du in German, are/were used within families or when addressing underlings. The Quakers used the familiar form with the reasoning that all men are brothers. Be careful in continental Europe, since speaking familiarly with someone you don’t know extremely well can be construed as an insult.

    ‘Ye’ was the plural of ‘you’ in Old and Middle English. It’s use in pseudo-antique settings–for instance, Ye Olde Tea Shoppe–is an error. The ‘Y’ is actually a mistaken transcription for ‘thorn’ or ‘eth,’ the name of the Anglo-Saxon character that sounded like and is now replaced by ‘th.’ Some authorities consider these two characters interchangeable, while others consider them the unvoiced and voiced forms of the consonant.

    • Ye was not the plural of you. You and ye were both plural, but differ by case. See e.g. the table in wikipedia:

      2nd person plural (or formal singular), nominative: ye
      2nd person plural (or formal singular), accusative: you
      2nd person plural (or formal singular), genitive: your
      2nd person plural (or formal singular), possessive: yours

  • Sean G

    And in Pittsburgh and its surrounds, its “yinz” (for you ones)

  • Thomas

    The formal familiar “tu” and “usted” is holding up well in Spanish in the singular, not so in the plural. The plural familiar “vosotros” and verb forms are moribund. Recently the General Confession in Mass switched from asking “vosotros hermanos … intercedais por mi” to “ustedes hermanos … intercenen por me” (you, brothers … pray for me) and Latin Americans are about as likely to use the familiar plural verb conjugations as English speakers are to use “speakest” or “hast.”

    But the orgin of “usted” is interesting. Latin did not have a familar/formal pronoun differenct. “Usted” developend in a two step process. First the plural possessive pronoun “vuestro” was used with “merced” to become “vuestra merced.” not “you” but “your grace.” Then the phrase got compacted into a word, “usted” which is still abbreviated “Vd.”

  • bgarrett

    It has always baffled me why so many do no recognize that ‘you’ can be singular or plural.