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Pronoun change as social change: TIL how you” absorbed thou”

Thou” as as a second person plural didn’t drop out of usage in English arbitrarily, but in response to the social meanings implied by its usage — e.g. using it started to sound too stilted and formal, and possibly because it became a shibboleth for Quakerism during times of severe [Quaker] conflict.” (Apparently many Quakers still use thou”!) Pronoun systems often shift as a result of ongoing power plays for social differentiation: We can learn a lot from histories of language change.

From language log:

[Just] because you’ had come to be used for polite or formal address to a single individual by the mid-17th century, that doesn’t mean that thou’ had fallen out of use. Fox notes that this habit hath corrupted the Modern Languages’, and indeed, quite a few European languages had by then started using the 2nd person plural form to address single individuals in formal (polite, high-status, etc.) contexts without ever losing the distinction between 2nd singular and 2nd plural in more informal or familiar contexts. French and Greek (and probably others) maintain that system to this day. The thing that English did that was weird (although Dutch and Brazilian Portuguese have done something similar) was losing the original 2nd singular form altogether.

According to this poster:

thou Three stages of reductive development of the singular pronoun in English

  1. Use of the 2. person plural pronoun (ye/you) for addressing people of higher rank adopted from French into English (at court) in the Late Middle English period when French-speaking ruling class gradually switched to English
  2. Usage of plural forms for addressing individuals gradually extended to other social classes during Early Modern English period due to sociolinguistic factors (Middle class gained strength during the 15th century, a big part of the old aristocracy gets destroyed in Wars of the Roses → new aristocracy emerges out of Middle class, restructuring of society) by the 16th century the plural pronoun had become the common form of address and the singular thou the marked form:
  • To indicate rank/inferiority (becomes less and less frequent during 17th century)
  • Singular of contempt emerges (when trying to insult or getting angry at someone), especially during trials at court (reinforced through political and religious fights and treason trials in the 16th century)
  • Ironic use of polite (e.g. plural) address
  • Marriage pronoun: husband addressing wife with singular, but wife uses plural for addressing husband (very frequent during 16th and 17th century due to puritan belief that women are inferior to men)
  1. Generalization of plural object pronoun you as only form of direct address also during Early Modern English period

The Extinction of Though

During the 16th century the use of the singular thou had already been reduced to a few marked contexts: a husband addressing his wife (Puritanism), a superior talking to a person of very low rank, and the use as singular of contempt (especially during trials at court). According to Finkenstaedt 1963: 223 no formal reasons of the language were responsible for the complete loss of thou, but changes in the society of the 17th century:

Severe conflict with the Quakers about use of thou was a contributing factor, people tried not to use thou in fear of being mistaken for a Quaker Strong influence of the philosopher John Locke who believed in tolerance and the equality of all people → fundamental respect for the individual forbade use of condescending language (e.g. singular thou) Position of woman in marriage started changing, puritan ideals lost importance → loss of thou in marriage

The reference is to Finkenstaedt, Thomas. You und thou: Studien zur Anrede im Englischen.(Mit einem Exkurs über die Anrede im Deutschen). Vol. 10. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, 1963.]

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