Notes on Second-Person Pronouns

Whatever Happened to 'Thou' and 'Thee'?

Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables (1908) by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Pronouns make up a closed word-class, which simply means that it's hard for a new pronoun to break into a language. But now and then a fresh one does emerge, while some older items--like the second-person pronouns thou, thee, and thine--just fade away.

The Status of T and V

As a point of reference, consider the current status of the French second-person pronouns tu and vous.

In an article in England's Guardian newspaper, Agnès Poirier examined the effect of social media on what linguists call T and V.

"Are we slowly giving up on the vous and calling everyone tu?" she asked. "Or, on the contrary, are social networks' faux familiarity a reminder of the virtues of le vous and le tu?"

In the end, Poirier came down on the side of preserving the distinction:

Vous is not only a sign of respect and politeness towards an older person or a stranger; it puts a healthy and adult distance between two individuals, it gives them some space to actually get to know one another better, to win the other over and get to the stage where they'll happily say "tu." Tu is a sign of real intimacy, one that should be genuine, not contrived. Tu is a gift to real friendship--just not the kind you necessarily have with your 1500 Facebook "friends."
("Don't Let French Lose the Tu/Vous Distinction." The Guardian, September 12, 2012)

English speakers might view this issue with a sense of linguistic nostalgia. After all, we abandoned such pronominal niceties a few centuries ago.

The Singular Pronouns Thou, Thee, and Thine

In late Middle English and early Modern English, the singular pronouns thou, thee, and thine (like the French tu forms) served as markers of intimacy and informality. (Thou was the subject form, thee the object form, and thy/thine the possessive.) In contrast, the plural you (like French vous) signified politeness and respect—or downright submissiveness: "Social inferiors used you to their superiors, who reciprocated by using thou" (The Oxford History of English, 2006).

More often than not, Shakespeare followed this convention ("Get thee to a nunnery"), as did the translators of the King James Version of the Bible (1611). But by the end of the Elizabethan era, the thou series of pronouns had already begun to fall out of fashion among Londoners.

The Rise of You

So what caused you to displace thou over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries?

Some attribute the rejection of power-coded pronouns to new democratic impulses. But historical linguists have qualified that view.

You [became] increasingly identified with "polite" society in and around the court and with the City of London, which was now growing even more rapidly to become the economic and political power base of the country. People wished to be associated with the social power of the people of London and gradually language use changed in accordance with economic and social reality. You thus became the standard form it is today--in both singular and plural forms--as it was used increasingly between and across all social classes and language groups and for the wide range of functions which had previously been served by you and thou together.
(Ronald Carter and John McRae, The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2001)

In his Social History of English (1997), Dick Leith argues that "middle-class insecurity" also contributed to the decline of thou: "With power and influence increasingly identified with the entrepreneur, there was no means of knowing who was entitled to you, and who to thou. The best solution was to stick to you, which would not offend."

Not that thou disappeared immediately. It showed up in poems, hymns, and personal letters right up through the 19th century. And thou and thee can still be heard among Quakers and in certain parts of northern England (as well as in pseudo-medieval video games). But for the most part these forms--along with the social conventions that accompanied them--are regarded as archaic.

Present-Day Distinctions Between the Singular and Plural

Does this mean that the distinction between singular and plural in the second person has been entirely lost in English?

Not entirely--and in some dialects, not at all. Because the first- and third-person pronouns still distinguish number (I and we; he, she, or it and they), it's not too surprising that new singular-plural distinctions have emerged for the second person. Australian linguist Kate Burridge offers some examples:

Many dialects have repaired the loss with new plural pronouns. Southern American English has y'all and you-uns; East Anglia has you-together and Australian English has youse which it shares with North America, Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand. Whatever you feel about such forms as youse, it does seem that this singular-plural distinction is a useful one, and Standard English will probably eventually adapt to it.
(Blooming English: Observations on the Roots, Cultivation and Hybrids of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2004)

To Burridge's list of plural forms we might add the British you lot and the American you guys--the Yankee equivalent of y'all.

But as far as I know, nobody is leading a campaign to revive thou, thee, and thine.