Second person singular

JAMES A. LANDAU Netscape. Just the Net You Need. JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM
Sat Jun 28 22:02:38 UTC 2008

On Fri, 27 Jun 2008 13:22:06 Zulu minus 0700 Benjamin Barrett <gogaku at IX.NETCOM.COM> wrote:

>This may have been discussed here before, but the explanation I recall
>is that the Friends (Quakers) believed everyone should be equal, so
>they used "thou" (familiar) in situations where everyone else used
>"you" (formal). In order to escape from being labelled a Friend,
>"thou" was shunned. This is something I *heard* in a class, so please
>take it with a grain of salt. BB
>On Jun 27, 2008, at 5:55 AM, Joel S. Berson wrote:
> A correspondent on another list asks:
>> Are there any really good in-depth studies or explanations of why
>> the second person singular went out of use in English in
>> this  period? [That is, the 18th century.]
>> It remained in use in most other languages, so the explanataion must
>> be peculiar to English speakers.
>> Was it just that the second person plural is shorter and has fewer
>> consonants e.g. "you know " rather than "thou knowest" - or is there
>> a better explanation?

I like the explanation Barrett quotes, but I don't think it was the Quakers.  During the 17th Century the Quakers were a fairly small and definitely non-militant group.  During the Restoration Charles II thought they were cute,a nd remember this was soon after the blood and guts religious fighting of the Cromwell era.

I think it more likely that "thou" etc. fell out of use as a result of the Puritans, or perhaps as a reaction against the Puritans during the Restoration.

Maybe the Puritans thought that the distinction between "thou" and "you" was an artifact of the Established Church and therefore against the Puritan religion.  Alternatively, the resurgent Cavaliers under the "Merry Monarch" Charles II may have felt that the distinction was Puritan and now that the country wasn't divided so harshly by religion it was time to greeet everyone as equals.

Does anyone have evidence for or against this?

An odd coincidence of timing, just as English was losing the familiar/formal distinction in the second person, Spanish was establishing it.  The formal "usted" form (as distinct from the "tu" form, which is now the familiar) arose, as best as I can determine, not earlier than the publication of Lazarillo de Tormes (1555?) which uses "Vuestra Merced" (later shortened to "usted" and still abbreviated "Vd") as the term of address to the reader, or more exactly, to the lordship(?) to whom Lazarillo is supposedly addressing.

It is interesting to note that in the second person plural, in Spain the "vosotros" form is used for familiar and "ustedes" for formal, but in Latin America "vosotros" does not occur and "ustedes" is used to all plural audiences.

           James A. Landau
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