February 8, 2000
S. L. Mein wrote:
When and how did you take the place of thou?
Thou hast posed a most interesting question. I hasten to answer thee.
From the beginning of Middle English, thou was the second person pronoun used to address another person, and ye was used to address more than one person. The objective singular was thee, and the objective plural was you.
In the 13th century a distinction developed between the use of thou/thee and ye/you, depending on the social situation. Thou/thee was used familiarly, when speaking to children and other family members, lovers, or social inferiors. Since the occasional misuse of thou in more formal situations was interpreted as patronizing, it developed a contemptuous or scornful connotation. In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch urges a letter to be written to Viola: "...taunt him with the license of Inke: if thou thou'st him some thrice, it shall not be amisse." (meaning: If you speak familiarly and insultingly to him...) My daughter thought Shakespeare made mistakes in using these pronouns, so she corrected him by substituting "thou" for "you" when reading aloud. In fact Shakespeare and other writers were not consistent, or at least, modern readers can't always figure out why one or the other pronoun was used.
In formal social situations, the historically plural ye/you began to be used in the singular, as a sign of respect when speaking to a person of higher rank. This distinction spread to England and throughout Europe because of the similar use of tu/vous in French (and in many modern languages).
By the 16th century ye/you was beginning to be used in all social situations. Originally ye was in subject position and you was in object position. But because they were pronounced alike, ye and you eventually became interchangeable. By about 1600 you had replaced ye, except in liturgical and other elevated language.
Thou/thee had disappeared from standard English by the 18th century but survives in certain British dialects, and in poetry and liturgy. Quakers still use these pronouns, considering all human beings equal before God, though they often use thee in subject position. Ye also survives in dialectal use and in liturgy.
The distinctions were so confusing, no wonder you is now used in the singular and plural! To avoid confusion youse can always say you-all or you guys. Are other useful grammatical/usage distinctions also in danger of disappearing?
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