English historical ling

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Jun 21 14:38:05 UTC 2001

I am looking for studies on the loss of the you/thou distinction in early
modern English, in particular, when it began, what sources we have for
detailed documentation of the loss, and when it can be said to have been

I am not a historical linguist, nor even a scholar of English, but I have
seen a claim (By M. Silverstein) that the loss of 'thou' can be attributed
to the fact that Quakers in 17th century England used only 'thou' forms
('thee, thine, etc.)  and eschewed 'you', and therefore other speakers
avoided 'thou' usage and switch to exclusive use of 'you'. (In fact modern
Quaker usage, such as it is, has "thee" as the nominative and accusative,
and 'thine' for possessive; there's no 'thou' there at all; I assume this
is dialectal; northern?)

My problem with this is that I have seen evidence that the loss of 'thou'
began earlier than the time when Quakerism arose.  One can see in
Shakespeare's works, e.g., that 'thou' usage declined dramatically from
early works to later ones. (I have some stats on this that show this
roughly, but it's merely percentages and doesn't rely on sociolinguistic
situations, i.e. who is speaking what to whom.  The poetry, sonnets etc.,
even if written later, have a lot MORE thou usage, because of the genre:
"How do I love thee"  etc.)

George Fox wasn't even born when Shakespeare died, and Quakerism didn't
spread until mid-century, 20 or 30 years after Shakespeare died.  So I
can't see the pragmatic use of 'thou' by Quakers as the CAUSE of the loss
of this distinction, only perhaps hastening it.  Silverstein is not so
much interested in the fine points of this as he is in showing how the
"ideology" of Quakerism (egalitarianism, simplicity, plain speech etc.)
in fact effected a HISTORICAL CHANGE in English.

This is, to me, a *strong claim* and I'd like to be able to refute it; but
not being a scholar of early modern English, I lack the sources to show
this, other than the stats I got from a very kind volunteer, which I'd be
glad to share with anyone who wonders what they are.

Thanks much,

Hal Schiffman

                          Harold F. Schiffman

Professor of Dravidian Linguistics and Culture             Acting Director
Dept. of South Asia Regional Studies                  Penn Language Center
820 Williams Hall, Box 6305                   715-16, Williams Hall Box  6305

                        University of Pennsylvania
                        Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-5825                                        (215) 898-6039
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Email:  haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn                       plc at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
WWW:  http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/    http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~plc/


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