Politeness in Early Modern English: the second person pronouns


The fate of the second person pronouns [i.e. you and thou and thee] in the history of English. This story illustrates the interaction of morphological change and social factors. The fact that personal pronouns exist in most of the world's known languages has persuaded linguists that pronominal reference to speaker, addressee and a third person [i.e. he, she, it, they] is a universal feature of human language. This statement suggests that the system of pronominal reference is fundamentally stable. Now while this is likely to be the case, it is also true that the forms that fill the pronominal system have been involved in tremendous changes in the history of English. Since Old English, phonological (i.e. sound) change combined with morphological levelling (i.e. the loss of formal distinction marked in inflection) has wrought considerable change in the shape and sound of the pronoun system as a whole.


1               case            old english  middle english modern english

sg      nominative     u                  thou                    you

          accusative     e                  thee                    you

          dative             e                  thee                    you

          genitive          in                 thy/thine              your

pl      nominative     ge                  ye                       you

          accusative     eow               you                     you

          dative             eow               you                     you

          genitive          eower             your                    your


Compare the paradigms for Old, Middle and Modern English. Notice that the Modern English forms of the second person pronoun do not show number contrast; they are absolutely invariant except for the possessive (and even here it is identical for both singular and plural). In fact, in Old English too there is some replication of forms, but not as much as there is in Middle English. One of the most interesting questions in the morpho-syntactic history of English is how this highly differentiated system came to collapse so completely.


Why did the system collapse?


Part of the answer lies in the social function of pronouns. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the singular and plural Middle English pronouns had developed an additional pragmatic function, controlled more by social concerns than by grammatical ones. In other words, the choice of pronouns was not determined solely by the grammatical designation of person (first, second, third) or number (singular, plural). Instead, what somebody chose in order to address another person signified her assessment of that person's status and relationship with her. After all, the second person pronoun is arguably crucial to effective spoken communication with an addressee. (Have you noticed how difficult it is to sound polite on one hand and friendly on the other if you don't use a person's name when you are talking to them? It is rather like avoiding use of the address term you.)


As early as the thirteenth century, the old oblique non-nominative plural forms (ye  and you ) were used to address single individuals (not groups of addressees). This development may well have been influenced by French courtly practice, which itself was based on Latin modes of address. The important clue to understanding this development is the word courtly, since the choice of you  to address an individual signified the speaker's high regard for the addressee as one of equal or superior social status. Because you  tended to be the preferred option mainly in upper-class or courtly contexts in the Middle English period, thou  increasingly came to be associated with lower status. The status-oriented distinction of second person pronoun usage is by no means unusual. In many languages, like German and French, there is still a regular pragmatic distinction between the polite so-called "V" option (Sie, Vous, Usted, Lei/Loro ) and the more familiar "T" option (du, tu, tu, voi) to address an individual. In fact, patterns of address in different languages tend to be as complex and socially-sensitive as their cultural-specific norms of politeness may dictate. So languages like Japanese and Shona have complicated honorific systems, of which the pragmatically dictated syntax of address is just a part.


By the fifteenth century, the use of you/ thou was an established index of social status. But it also acted as a marker of interpersonal relationships. (Notions of superiority/ inferiority were not solely dependent on rank or social class, but were applied to family groups too.) The choice of you/ thou during this time was governed by more contingent, context-dependent pragmatic as well as established social rules -- requiring a certain sensitivity of judgment on the part of the speaker. In fact these rules still hold; think about your response to the ways different people use your name. For instance, if your name happens to be James Penberthy, how would you react to being called 'Jimmy' or 'Penners' by a person you'd just been introduced to? In other words, the hearer can quite accurately calculate the speaker's attitude towards him by her choice of address form (whether name or pronoun). Consequently, the socially-oriented contrast of you/ thou  developed interpersonal meanings.

        You came to be associated with respect and formality in its appropriate public setting; but

        You could signify distance even coldness in emotional terms if used inappropriately or unexpectedly.

        Thou was used to address one's social inferiors, but

        Thou was also used reciprocally between equals in a private setting. So it became established as a marker of familiarity or intimacy.

For example:  A wife might signal her recognition of her husband's legal pre-eminence as the head of household by addressing him as you  in public contexts, but in private, thou  would be the most usual marker of reciprocal intimacy. Thou  could carry negative connotations however, to convey contempt or scorn:


              you                                          thou

address to social superiors <-----> address to social inferiors

address to social equals    <-----> address of social equals

                 (upper class)                             (lower class)

address in public           <-----> address in private

formal or neutral address   <-----> familiar or intimate address

respect, admiration         <-----> contempt, scorn


By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the system was becoming unstable, increasingly vulnerable to pragmatically subtle manipulation. In addition to pragmatic factors, the choice of pronoun was also subject to a degree of grammatical conditioning, so that thou  seems to have been favoured as the subject of auxiliaries (can, may, shall, will) while you  was preferred with lexical verbs (want, think, do, prepare).


The evidence for rules of usage?

Rather mixed.. In Shakespeare's Richard III,  for example, the use of thou  illustrates asymmetrical relations of status (that is, superior to inferior) as well being used to signal heightened emotional tone and intimacy, strongly influenced by register, topic, the relationship between interlocutors, and quite a number of other factors having little to do with status or power.

http://the-tech.mit.edu/Shakespeare/richardiii/richardiii.1.2.html  Scene 2, Richard of Gloucester and Lady Anne


But literary texts do not mirror real life directly; they combine observation of everyday human behaviour with poetic expression which results in the subjective construction of a fictional world. So in trying to investigate the loss of thou  in the Early Modern period, it is necessary to look for other types of evidence which might lead to a more promising answer. Data like court records, which are more or less faithful transcripts of speech, give some idea of the social constraints operating between speakers from a wide cross-section of social backgrounds. The following reported exchange about the theft of some sheep comes from Hunstanworth records, from the Durham ecclesiastical court, around 1560. It illustrates the social tensions symbolised in pronominal usage quite sharply:


       <Mr Antony> Dyd not thou  promess me that thou  wold tell me and the parson of Hunstanworth who sold George Whitfeld sheep?

<Roger Donn> I need not unless I woll

<Mr Ratcliff> Thou  breaks promess

<Roger Donn> You will know yt soon enowgh, for your  man, Nicoll Dixson, stole them, that ther stands, upon Thursday bifore Christenmas then last past.

Donn said that he [Ratcliff] shuld never be able to prove hym a thief. . .

<Roger Donn> For although ye  be a gent., and I a poore man, my honestye shalbe as good as yours.

<Mr Ratcliff> What saith thou ? liknes thou thy  honestye to myn?


In this exchange, Roger Donn's linguistic acknowledgement of his lower status puts him at a disadvantage as he tries to assert that his integrity is as valid as that of his more powerful adversary, for his adherence to you  amounts to a tacit acceptance of his social inferiority. Ratcliffe then turns Donn's dilemma into a paradox. His final questions cast doubt on the possibility that a poor man of lowly status may be as rich in integrity as the gentleman. The doubt is conveyed in the taunting repetition of thou, which is designed to keep Donn in his place.


The controlling force of social status in the choice of you/ thou  is variable though. Private letters, which approximate the dyadic face-to-face communicative situation better than most other written texts show patterns of thou/ you  usage which are increasingly dictated not by social factors but by pragmatic ones. These pragmatic factors seem to apply at a micro-level, to signal the shift of topics of conversation within the text itself. Take the example below, a letter from Katherine Paston to her son William in 1624:


       [1] My good child the Lord bless the ever more in they goinges ovtt and thy Cominges in. [2] I was very glad to here by your first letter that you wer so saffly arrived at your wished port, [3] but more glad to read thy louing promises . . . which I hope . . .shall always redound to thy chiefliest good. . .[4] I could wish that you would settel your self to certin howers tasks euery day you rise. . .[5] this I thought good to put the in mind of. . .believing thou wilt do this for my sake but more cheefly for thyn owne. . .farwell my sweet will: for this time: by thy louing mother Katherine. . .[6] remember my good respect to your worthy master. . .


In this extract, Katherine often switches between thou  and you . But it is not random; she uses thou  when she refers to her direct, intimate relationship with her son [1, 3, 5]. You  in contrast, tends to occur in the conventional phatic phrases which begin and end the letter [ 2, 6]. But she also switches to you  when she wishes to direct her son's attention to the more general advice she has to offer him [4]. Here, the topic is of a more general hypothetical nature, rather than having intimate personal relevance. Thou  in her usage, seems to indicate that the writer is drawing the addressee in towards her emotionally, while the switch to you  effectively distances the topic of conversation from the actual relationship between the correspondents themselves to more general issues.


From the end of the seventeenth century, thou appears to recede more and more, especially in the spoken language, while you  increasingly comes to be the normal mode of pronominal address. Thou of course still exists in English, but it is highly restricted to several special registers. As such, it carries different social meanings. Since it is most usually encountered nowadays in the religious language of prayer, and rituals like marriage ceremonies, christenings and funerals, it tends to be associated with an archaic, highly elaborate and almost formulaic use of language.


Religious language, especially Biblical usage, is one area which was not contaminated by the sociolinguistic significance of the thou/ you  opposition in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Thou  and you  simply signified the singular and plural pronouns respectively. This was partially due to the fact that the King James  Bible was already archaic in pronoun use in 1611, but its special status (together with the Book of Common Prayer ) helped to define thou  as 'religious'. The other special register in which thou  survives is the language of poetry. In the love sonnet, for example, thou  signifies intimacy, and it is this meaning which licenses its survival into even twentieth century poetry. Of course, for late twentieth century readers who are unaware of the history of the second person pronoun, the religious and poetic uses of thou  tend to mean the same thing -- archaic solemnity. Thou  also survives in some British English dialects, (for example, in rural and working class Yorkshire and Lancashire). In this primarily spoken domain, although it is arguably receding, it carries a very different meaning. It retains some of the oldest sociolinguistic connotations that the pronoun had in the fifteenth century, namely as a term of address used reciprocally between people of the same social standing, in the same locality or community. The choice of you instead of thou is often reserved for outsiders or strangers to these communities, so pronoun shift (from thou  to you ) from addressee to addressee is controlled by pragmatic factors.


While traditional paradigms in the pronominal system have been eroded, there have been other (equally socially motivated) changes that have embellished or enriched it. One which has begun to diffuse into standard written English after spending centuries in a range of spoken varieties is the singular use of the plural third person forms they, them.  Now the most recent wave of diffusion may very well be due to the increasing perception of the sexist use of the English language. So, it is quite common to encounter they  or them  as the usual pronoun for nouns like person, somebody, someone, which are not gender-specific. An index of the extent to which this pattern of usage has begun to filter into standard spoken language is that a recent Minister of Education was heard to use it in a television news interview, talking about the right of a parent (nonspecific as to mother or father) to choose his or her child's school. And in an introduction to a radio program, the announcer described 'The Tingle Factor' as 'a program in which a guest chooses music which sends a shiver down their  spine' (Radio 4, August 1, 1991).


A slightly different motivation appears to have been behind the adoption of the numeral one as an alternative first person pronoun. Notice that this pronoun patterns with the third person form of the verb: one feels that one has to keep up appearances. The shift operative here is a semantic-pragmatic transfer of one  as a third person (usually) neuter pronoun with specific reference; as in I thought of buying a desk. This one seems suitable.  to a distancing strategy to refer to oneself.


It is important to observe that since pronouns are used in isolation very seldom, but more often than not are connected with a following verb: she has, I want, they are, one does;  it ought not to be surprising that changes in the pronominal system have had important implications for the organisation of verb endings. So for example, the disappearance of the Middle English thou/thee  forms leads unavoidably to the loss of the distinctiveness between singular and plural in the second person form of the verb: from thou wast  to you were  for both singular and plural. In fact, Alexander Pope argued that the number distinction should be maintained on the verb, even if one used you  to refer to a single individual, and for some time he used the pattern you was, but abandoned it when his contemporaries condemned it as inelegant and vulgar.