Main page content
What’s up with "you"
From: Translation Bureau
On this page
Other languages have at least two ways to say “you.” And some have even more. French has “tu” and “vous.” German has “du” and “ihr” and “Sie.” Spanish has “tú” and “usted” and “vosotros” and “ustedes.”
But English has only “you.” For one person or several. For a subject or an object.
It wasn’t always that way. Old English had three second-person pronouns, with different subject and object forms. And Middle English had two: the singular “thou” (object: “thee”) and the plural “ye” (which was gradually replaced by its object form “you”). So how did “you” end up as the sole survivor? It seems that we owe our lone second-person pronoun to two main factors: French … and snobbery.
After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, French exerted a considerable influence on the English language. For one thing, thousands of words came into English from French.
But vocabulary isn’t all we borrowed from those refined and courtly Normans; they also introduced us to a new way of using pronouns. They used their plural pronoun “vous” to speak to two or more people; but they also used it to show respect to one person of high status. And they used their singular pronoun “tu” to speak affectionately to a close friend or family member; but they also used it to speak down to someone of lower rank, such as a servant.
Evidently, we liked the idea of using pronouns to show social rank. Over the following centuries, we gradually adopted the same practice in English, using “you” like French “vous,” to show respect when speaking to a stranger, to a superior or to a social equal (among the upper classes). At the same time, we began to use “thou” like French “tu,” to show intimacy with a friend or family member, or to talk down to a social inferior. This usage became well established in English by the 13th century and continued into the 16th century.
As part of this process, “thou” even came to be used as a verb meaning “to address someone as ‘thou’ ” (often as a sign of contempt). A good example can be found in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, where a character is urged to call a rival “thou” to suggest that the rival’s status is inferior: “Taunt him with the licence of ink: if thou thou’st him some trice, it shall not be amiss.”
And at the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh for treason in 1603, the prosecutor made a point of insulting him with these words: “All that Lord Cobham did was by thy instigation, thou viper! For I thou thee, thou traitor!”
Over the 16th and 17th centuries, city people gradually stopped using “thou,” largely out of snobbishness and a consequent fear of offending. Because the upper classes called one another “you,” the members of the growing middle class began to do the same to show their rising social status. At the same time, it became dangerous to use “thou,” which was seen by many as insulting. In a 1660 book, one Quaker wrote that members of his faith (who used the familiar pronoun with everyone to show their belief in equality) were often beaten by “proud men, who would say, 'What! You ill-bred clown, do you Thou me?'" By the 1700s, as a result of these social pressures, “thou” had disappeared altogether from Standard English except in poetry or religious texts.
Ironically, the result for today’s English is that “you” and “thou” have switched roles. The once lowly “thou” is now seen as formal, elegant and refined because it belongs to the language of poetry and prayer. And “you,” the pronoun of status in Middle English, is now the universal pronoun used to address any person (or even any animal or object). In short, it has become just a commonplace word.
Language is always evolving, and there are many English words whose meaning or use has changed over time. Do you have a favourite example to share with us?
The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.
Leave a comment
Please consult the “Comments and interaction” section on the Canada.ca Terms and conditions page before adding your comment. The Language Portal of Canada reviews comments before they’re posted. We reserve the right to edit, refuse or remove any question or comment that violates these commenting guidelines.
By submitting a comment, you permanently waive your moral rights, which means that you give the Government of Canada permission to use, reproduce, edit and share your comment royalty-free, in whole or in part, in any manner it chooses. You also confirm that nothing in your comment infringes third party rights (for example, the use of a text from a third party without his or her permission).
Comments are displayed in the language they were submitted.