Thou and You

Unlike most other European languages, each having at least two forms of the second person pronoun with corresponding cases, English now has only one form of the second person pronoun; namely the "you" form with four cases disregarding the singular or plural: "you" the subject, "you" the object, "your" the possessive adjective, and "yours" the possessive pronoun. Therefore, there is no distinction between informal and formal usage of the second person pronoun. Spanish, on the other hand, has the informal "tĂș" and the formal "usted" as singular second person pronouns, and in Spain, people also use "vosotros" and "vosotras" as informl plural second person pronouns and "ustedes" as the formal plural second person pronoun.

In French there are "tu" and "vous" and in German "Du" and "Sie" to indicate the distinction between intimacy and formality. Their counterparts in modern Chinese are "ni" the informal second person pronoun and "nin" the formal one. The similarity in these languages is that the speaker uses the plural form for the singular second person to show courtesy or distance.

The English second person pronoun is, however, not always so simple. As late as the 17th century, English, too, had sophisticated forms of the second person pronoun. Although the rule was not followed strictly, the standard for them were as follows:


subjectobjectpossessive adjectivepossesive pronoum


subjectobjectpossessive adjectivepossessive pronoun

By and large when addressing the second person, they used the "thou" form for intimacy and "you" form for formality. Shakespeare's plays vividly show this distinction. The majority of his sonnets also clearly demonstrate the difference. When he is informal with his young noble friends and patron, he uses "thou" to address them. When he is distant from him, he uses "you". Sometimes, however, the two forms at used for rhyming purposes in his poems as well as his plays.

The subsequent century saw the gradual disapearance of the "thou" form. Nowadays this form is used only in some versions of the Bible or by very few groups of people like Quakers. Contrary to a common assumption, this form is used to show singularity of the unique being in whom they believe or to show intimacy within the group. Why did English drop the "thou" form? It is hard to determine the causes of this gradual change. By deduction, it is probably because (…) -teously or to keep a certain distance by using the "you" form. As it is the only form of the second person pronoun now, it alone does not indicate intimacy or formality.

Compared with other languages, English is easier to learn and use in this aspect, but it is harder to interpret into languages that distinguish the formal second person pronoun from the informal. The rule of thumb is to be courteous and use the formal form, unless the English speaker is distinctly informal, using casual words or endearing terms. To interpret the second person pronouns from other languages into English is simple, it is always the "you" form. This requires the English listener to try to fathom the degree of intimacy or formality by other, probably more subtle, indicators.

Author Unknown

See also Pronoun Loss as a Form of Deflection by Suzanne Aalberse

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