“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:
Three stages of reductive development of the singular pronoun in English
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.]
Emily Saltz © 2020, made with blot.