English historical ling

Dorine S. Houston, Director igclanguages at earthlink.net
Tue Jun 26 18:23:58 UTC 2001

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
This may not be supported by resesarch, but I have always understood
that 'you' had the value of politeness in singular usage in early modern
English comparable to 'vous' in French, and that people got so polite that
they used 'you' rather than 'thou' with everybody, so that being polite to
everybody became the norm and 'thou' was lost.

This is parellel to a trend in certain dialects of contemporary Spanish.  In
general, 'tu' is the intimate singular, 'usted' is the formal singular;
is the intimate plural and 'ustedes' is the formal plural.  Tu/vosotros uses
the second person vverb conjugation forms and usted/ustedes shares the
conjugation with the third person pronouns (el/ella, ellas/ellos).  *  Note that
I have not used the appropriate acute accent marks here as some people's
email systems will translate their usage as unreadable 'junk'.  In Colombia,
I have observed that at least some people now use only the 'usted' forms
even with their closest iintimates (brothers and sisters).  I have asked two
well educated Colombians of my acquaintance about this trend. (BTW, one
of them is Licenciada as a teacher of Spanish as a Foreign Language at a pres-
tigious Colombian university.)  Both have indicated that this is indeed a trend
and that it stems from a sense of respect for everybody.  This sounds very
similar to what I had understood occurred in English--a memory that stretches
very far back, perhaps to my undergraduate days in the Dark Ages.

In contrast, I have observed that the opposite trend is occurring in Spain.  As

young adult in the early 70s, I lived in Spain for several years teaching EFL.
At that time, people used tu/vosotros among friends and usted/ustedes with
their elders and 'betters'.  Hence, my friends addressed me as 'tu' but students
of my age, and even students much older than I--grey-haired to my wetness
behind the ears--addressed me as usted.  I was instructed by my supervisor to
address all students in the adult classes, regardless of apparent age, as usted,
and all in the children's classes (none over 12) as tu.  In recent years, my

has greyed and my skin has wrinkled.  However, I have observed that young
Spanish students who come to me to study ESL, upon figuring out that I know
Spanish, otherwise treat me with all the respect due to my age and position, but
address me as tu and do not show any other sign of disrespect with it.  About a
year ago I asked a young Spanish man (not a linguist) about the trend and he
indicated that he thought using usted was a habit of his parents' generation but
not of his.  (His parents' generation would be my generation.)

During that same youthful period, I became friends with a young French woman,
a fellow teacher.  When she invited me to Marseilles to spend part of the summer
vacation with her family, I had a chance to put my college French to the test.
about a week, I asked her mother about the matter of tu/vous and the social
(I had been applying Spanish rules and addressing my friend's teenage and

siblings as tu and her parents as vous; she and I code-switched when together,
we both spoke fairly good Spanish and each other's languages to a lesser degree
primarily used Spanish together with a smattering of both French and English
in.)  Her mother told me that 'la politesse francaise' demanded that one use
with children--and she repeated 'even with children' quite firmly a few
times--but that
se tutoyer was a university student's fashion 'mais n'est pas la politesse
When I decided to amend my ways and address the younger sibs as vous, they
by saying that I was a friend and should use tu and that their mother was too

In other words, we see a trend in two related Indo-European languages to reduce
the separate usages and conflate them into a single one.  In both European
cited, greater informality is shown to be the trend according to these

whereas in America greater formality, similar to the loss of thou, is the trend.

I cite only personal anecdotes, of course, and have never explored the subject

research--as an ESL teacher I tend to focus on more contemporary trends.
However, they may represent a possibility to consider.  I hope to read more on
the topic as others better red in historical English than I make their


"Harold F. Schiffman" wrote:

> 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
> completed.
> 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
> Fax:  (215) 573-2138                                      Fax (215) 573-2139
> 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/
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dorine S. Houston, Director, Institute for Global Communication
1300 Spruce St., Philadelphia, PA 19107 USA  215-893-8400
E-MAIL: dshouston at earthlink.net   FAX:  215-735-9718

More information about the Histling mailing list