Early modern grammar:

Choice II: the second person pronoun


Distribution of thou in PDE

§       old poetry

§       addresses to God

o      seems formal

o      misleading to apply this in EmodE


in OE:

§       ðú singular, plural

o      reflects NUMBER


ME (< French)

§       Y

o      to superiors,

o      reciprocal for upper classes/courtly,

o      to strangers and/or where social power in doubt

§       T

o      to inferiors

o      reciprocal between lower classes

§       function of STATUS


Examples of who might use T (Adamson)

§       king to subject

o      though Shakespeare’s often use Y to noble subjects

§       courtesy?

§       pragmatics: powerful supporters

§       husband to wife

§       parent to child

§       master to servant

§       servant to servant

§       intimate to intimate



Examples of who might use Y (Adamson)

§       subject to monarch

§       wife to husband

§       child to parent

§       servant to master

§       upper class to upper class

§       stranger to stranger


Through EmodE

§       u/c reciprocal use of Y ->

§       standard use of Y

o      “the neutral term of singular address”

§       leaves T “increasingly marked by affectivity”

o      asymmetrical social relations

o      heightened emotional tone

§       anger, intimacy

§       Adamson: Hotspur and his wife (“exasperation and affection”)


So eventually, T “more often responsive to

§       emotional tone

§       topic

o      than to social factors” (Lass)

o      i.e., unstable


A shift from Y to T “turns addressee into

o      inferior

o      intimate” (Lass)

o      sometimes hard to tell: in MM, Duke calls Escalus you and Angelo thou (from Adamson)

§       reminding Angelo that he’s lower born and owes his place to the Duke’s favour?

§       as a stage direction signalling confidentiality, physical closeness; as a marker of intimacy

A shift from T to Y “turns addressee into a

o      superior (respect)

o      stranger (coldness) (Lass)

o      sometimes hard to tell: when the Duke shifts back to you

§       is he back into public announcement mode? supporting Angelo’s dignity in his new position?

§       or signalling coldness because Angelo was reluctant to accept the commission?


Shakespeare’s sonnets: thou -> you -> thou




Main sources and/or further reading


Lass, Roger. “Phonology and morphology.” Volume III of The

          Cambridge History of the English Language. 1999.


Adamson, Sylvia. “Understanding Shakespeare’s grammar: studies in small words.” Reading Shakespeare’s

dramatic language: a guide.  Ed. Sylvia Adamson, Lynette Hunter, Lynne Magnusson, Ann Thompson and Katie Wales. London: Arden, 2001.

Magnusson, Lynne. “A pragmatics for interpreting Shakespeare’s

sonnets 1-20. Methods of historical pragmatics, ed. Susan M. Fitzmaurice and Irma Taavitsainen. Mouton de Gruyter: forthcoming.