Development of the Second-Person Pronoun


Sara Malton


Copyright 2001


The development of the second-person pronoun in English has been a complex process, one which shows the variation available within what is considered a “closed system.”  In the Middle English period, the distinct singular and plural forms were increasingly used to signify social rather than grammatical relationships. Yet, by the early eighteenth-century, this distinction was levelled in standard usage, and you assumed the functions of both the singular and plural forms.


Old English distinguished between singular þu (ME thou) and plural ge (ME ye, later you). Yet, notably, OE also contained dual pronouns to represent ‘you two,’ as opposed to ‘you many.’ Barber and Mustanoja explain how, into the Middle English period, second-person pronouns were still distinguished by number and case, thou/thee the singular forms (nominative/objective) and ye/you the plural forms, but the dual form was lost.  During the sixteenth century, however, this nominative/objective distinction in the plural form would be levelled at the expense of ye.


With the increasing influence of French, the use of ye/you was used to designate not merely the plural form, but also social difference. Indeed, the social resonance of the second-person pronoun eventually came to be more significant than the singular/plural distinction. As early as the thirteenth century, you was used as a singular pronoun of address denoting respect, one analogous to the French “vous.”  Wales and Millward note the particular influence on this development of French courtly literature, which consistently employed “vous” as a pronoun of polite address. Mustanoja suggests that this deferential custom has its origins in the plural of majesty, although, according to Blake, this influence has yet to be firmly established.  Nonetheless, in his survey of the use of you and thou in ME literature, Blake suggests that authors such as Chaucer and Malory became increasingly sensitive to pronoun usage, as changes in the system “opened up the possibility of nice discriminations in language use” (539).


Although many recent studies have complicated the issue, it has been widely viewed that the adoption of  you as a polite form led to the pejoration of  thou and thus occasioned a development of a “power semantic” (Brown 255) in which thou became “a mark of contempt or a social marker” (Blake 536), the term of address often given by a social superior to an inferior. Thee was also used among equals of the lower class; the nobility would typically use you among themselves (Brown 256-57; Leith 107; Barber 208-9).  In this way, the use of pronouns came to serve as a means not only of distinguishing one social group from another, but also as a means of consolidating affiliation, even among family members. While thoroughly acknowledging the “solidarity dimension” of pronoun usage (110), Wales, like many, insists that the use of you and thou was hardly this straightforward, pointing out that “in English usage, right from the beginning, there was always considerable fluctuation between thou and you forms in the singular” (114). Both Hope and Wales show that thou could be used to mark a range of emotions other than contempt; it could also express familiarity and intimacy. Yet although, as Wales suggests, a “master’s thou need not only indicate “condescension,” but familiarity” (114), it is certainly important to consider who has the ability to exercise choice when it comes to pronoun usage.


Sceptical about the argument Brown and Gilman make for a close correspondence between the power semantic and hierarchical social structure, Wales is among many who argue strongly for “the possibility that there was some semantic overlap between  [you and thou] even as their values changed from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century” (115). This overlap in meaning and usage may have led to the eventual dominance of you: since you and thou may have been used interchangeably in informal speech, one form may no doubt have become redundant.  


Yet the eventual levelling of the singular and plural second-person pronoun can be attributed to a variety of factors. Increasing upward mobility may have also contributed to the eventual dominance of you, which, by the early eighteenth-century, generally took over all of the functions of thou/thee. In the Middle English and Early Modern periods, members of the expanding middle class sought to imitate polite forms of speech and to avoid those usages that would associate them with the lower classes.  By the seventeenth century, polite society typically shunned thou, which had become the marked form. This was in large part the result of the use of  thou and thee by religious groups such as the Quakers, who saw the older pronoun form as that which emphasized the equality of rather than the social distance between all individuals (Leith 108, Crystal 71). The continued use of thou and thee was, interestingly, the subject of much scrutiny and led to the development of a new verb, to thou, and a verbal noun, thou-ing.  In a telling example from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), the working-class heroine at one point “dropped the more formal ‘you,’ with which she had addressed Miss Benson [her new guardian], and thou’d her quietly and habitually” (137).


Increasingly seen as an old-fashioned form, thou thus became largely confined to Biblical and religious contexts or other specialized instances of address. It can often be found in literary contexts into the nineteenth century, particularly those which, as in Ruth, above, are associated with intimate relationships (“Were I with thee . . .” muses the speaker in Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!”). The older usage can still be found in certain dialects; West Yorkshire, for example, retains the use of tha/thee (Hogg 144). Number has also been nearly universally lost, although in certain dialects plural forms such as youse and y’all (especially in the southern United States) exist.


The development of the second-person pronoun has generated much critical debate. Studies cluster largely around the middle Early Modern period; the frequent employment of pronoun switching in Shakespearean texts renders them a common site of analysis and hypothesis. Brown and Gilman’s 1960 study and their subsequent development of “politeness theory” (1989) marks landmark work in this area. 


However, since Brown and Gilman, many have argued for a much more fluid, complex set of relations between second-person pronoun address and social relationships. Seeking to point out the difficulties posed by a universal model such as that put forth by Brown and Gilman, Wales examines the multifaceted interrelation between the “pronoun system and social networks” (108). In attempting not only to chart but also to explain the reasons for the take-over by you of all the functions of thou, Wales makes the important point that while this shift has come about in English, the distinction remains common in Continental French (tu), German (du), and Russian (ty). Unlike English, in these languages, “even today, momentary shifts are rare” (114).  A different case, however, could be made for Quebecois French, in which the use of “vous” when addressing superiors or strangers has, in recent decades, become increasingly less imperative.


Jonathan Hope is among many who have difficulties with the numerous approaches that treat “dramatic dialogue as if it were speech” (1993, 83).  Hope seeks to analyse “accounts of ‘real’ conversations” in order “to mitigate the distortions in our knowledge of early Modern English” (1993, 83). Hope takes issue with the assertion made by Wales and others about the scarcity of evidence of spoken English, turning from literature to early court records for more “authentic” illustrations of the use of you and thou in Early Modern English. Nonetheless, he is consistent with Wales (1983), who is sceptical about studies’ heavy reliance upon literary text, which, of course, may exploit through “literary selectiveness” (108) the dramatic potential of the social weight carried by you and thou.






General Surveys


Barber, Charles.  Early Modern English. London: Andre Deutsch, 1976. 204-213.


Crystal, “The thou/you question.” The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

·          A clear introductory overview of the central aspects of this development, with a list of instances of  “Significant Switching” in Shakespeare.


Hogg, Richard M. “Phonology and morphology.” The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 1. Ed. Richard M. Hogg. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 67-164.


Knowles, Gerry.  A Cultural History of the English Language.  London and New York: Arnold, 1997. 55-57.


Leith, Dick.  A Social History of English.  London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 1983. rpt. 1986,1987.  106-110.


Mustanoja, Tauno F.  A Middle English Syntax.  Helsinki: Societe Neophilologique, 1960. 124-28.



Theoretical Analyses


Brown, Roger and Albert Gilman.  “The pronouns of power and solidarity.” Style in Language. Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok.  New York: MIT, 1960. 253-76.

·          Critical turning-point study, informing much of the work since and generating much debate.


Finkenstaedt, Thomas.  You and Thou. Studien Zur Anrede Im Englischen. (Mit Einem Exkurs Über Die Anrede Im Deutschen).  Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1963.


Wales, Kathleen.  Thou and You in Early Modern English: Brown and Gilman Re-appraised.” Studia Linguistica 37 (1983): 107-25.



Studies of Primary Materials


Hope, Jonathan.  “The use of thou and you in Early Modern spoken English: evidence from depositions in the Durham ecclesiastical court records.” Topics in English Linguistics 13: Studies in Early Modern English.  Ed. Dieter Kastovsky.  Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1994.  141-52.


---.  “Second Person Singular Pronouns in Records of Early Modern ‘Spoken’ English.”  Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 94 (1993): 83-100.


Raumolin-Brunberg, Helena. “Forms of address in early English correspondence.” Socio-Linguistics and Language History: Studies based on the Corpus of Early English Correspondence. Eds. Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg.  Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996. 167-181.



Literary Studies


Barber, Charles. “Thou and You in Shakespeare’s Richard III.” Leeds Studies in English, New Series. 12: 273-89.


Blake, Norman.  “The literary language.” The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 2. Ed. Norman Blake. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 500-541.


Brown, Roger and Albert Gilman. “Politeness theory and Shakespeare’s four major tragedies.” Language and Society 18 (1989): 159-212.


Burnley, David. A Guide to Chaucer’s Language. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983. 17-22.


Calvo, Carla.  “Pronouns of Address and social negotiation in As you like it.  Language and Literature 1 (1992): 5-27.


Sell, R.  “Politeness in Chaucer: suggestions toward a methodology for pragmatic stylistics.” Studia Neophilogica 57.2 (1985): 175-85.


Wales, Kathleen.  “Generic ‘Your’ and Jacobean Drama: The Rise and Fall of a Pronominal Usage.”  English Studies 66 (February 1985): 7-24.