Thanks to all the positive attention everybody gave my article about gender neutral pronouns I’ve had this post in the works for a little while. Mostly just bouncing around my head, but finally ready to post. Today we’re going to explore the world of English’s second-person pronouns, incorporating both the history of the English second-person and some fun with grammar—you too can talk like someone from a bygone era! Just ten easy payments of $0.00!
I. Old English
Old English was a pretty straightforward language, as fa p as pronouns went. There were four cases for pronouns to adapt to (each case defining the role of the pronoun in the sentence). There were also three numbers for first and second person pronouns: singular, dual, and plural.
A quick reference for cases and their uses in Old English before we proceed – case names will come up again, as they’re a quick way to identify the purpose of a noun or pronoun in the sentence.
Nominative: The nominative case governs verbs. Nominative nouns and pronouns (and their associated adjectives) are those which perform the actions – Dog bites man. You are fun (fun’s nominative because it applies to you). Thou art learning. In Old English the nominative forms of the second person are þu*, git, ge. (þ is pronounced like th, and the g in git and ge is pronounced like a y at the beginning of the word. So thoo, yit, and ye).
Accusative: The accusative case governs the object of a verb.** More familiarly, nouns and pronouns in the accusative case are called direct objects. Dog bites man. The truck hit you. Everybody hates thee. In Old English the accusative forms of the second person are þe/þec***, inc/incit***, eow/eowic***. (the c in þec, inc, incit, and eowic is pronounced ch).
Genitive: The genitive case governs possession**. Genitive nouns and pronouns “own” or demonstrate a relationship with another noun or pronoun. The woman’s dog bit the creepy man. Your spaghetti is delicious. To thine own self be true, and follow thy dreams. In Old English the genitive forms of the second person are þin, incer, eower.
Dative: The dative case governs indirect recipients of actions and the objects of many prepositions**. Indirect objects, to use the more familiar modern term. We went to the farm. John gave Maggie a bouquet of flowers. Happy birthday to you. I’ll stay away from thee while thou art in hospital. In Old English the dative forms of the second person are þe, inc, and eow.
* þ can be interchanged with ð in Old and Middle English without affecting pronunciation.
** There are uses of the accusative, genitive, and dative which fall outside these broad uses. Those I have listed are the most prominent uses of these cases. For more information on these uses, see this page by Peter Baker, which gives a good overview on Old English and its case system.
*** þec, incit, and eowic were by the later Old English period used almost exclusively in poetry, having fallen out of regular use as the accusative and dative cases ceased to be different in the first and second persons. Kind of like how thou and ye are rarely employed in modern Standard English outside of poetry (and nowadays, even their use in poetry is passé.
So Old English had a very simple division between its second person pronouns (and first person pronouns, but they don’t matter right now) – either singular, dual, or plural. The dual, describing two people and two only, was already on its way out by the time Old English first hit paper, and was an occasional relic found in some later texts that occasionally surfaced again in certain Middle English dialects but ultimately died.
During the Old English period, þu and ge and their attendant forms were really easy to distinguish. Þu and its forms were always singular, while ge and its forms were always plural. To illustrate the use of þu, here's the first line of the Lord’s Prayer, which in standard West Saxon Old English looked like this:
Ure Fæder, ðu ðe eart on heofnum
(Our Father, thou who art in the heavens).
In terms of the second person, Old English is far less interesting than it is in the third person. But once the Normans invaded and William the Conqueror did his conquering thing, Middle English borrowed some interesting new practices from the continent.
II. Middle English
Middle English simplified the second person a bit, combining the dative and accusative fully. Due to the way spelling was in flux, particularly the loss of þ/ð from the language, there are a greater number of possible spellings for Middle English. Working with the cases, they are as follows:
Nominative: þou/thou, ȝe/ye.
Accusative/Dative (hereafter Objective): þee/thee, ȝou/you
Genitive: þy(n)/thy(n), ȝower/your.
Again, Middle English followed Old English in that thou and its forms were singular while ye and its forms were plural. Except then English decided it wanted to borrow grammar from the French, which has led to a headache for everyone ever since who has ever wanted to use thou correctly: the T-V Distinction.
The T-V Distinction
Now, if you’re familiar with languages like Spanish, French, Italian, and German, you know that some languages have formal and informal versions of the second person.
To briefly step away from English, let’s explore Spanish for a moment, as it does a good job illustrating the distinction and how it operates (French is more analogous, in that tu and vous map directly onto how Middle English used thou and ye, but Spanish shows us some of the limits of the system and I'm more familiar with it).
In modern Castillian Spanish you have the informal singular túand the formal singular usted, and the informal plural vosotros and the formal plural ustedes. The use of the formal second person uses the same verb conjugation as the third person. Meanwhile, the informal second person has its own conjugation – tú quieres and vosotros queréis vs. usted quiereand ustedes quieren.
The T-V distinction is effectively class distinction built into language. The informal is used among friends and familiar people, or by someone from a higher social rank to someone of lower rank. Sir Edward Coke, in his 1603 prosecution of Sir Walter Raleigh, famously insulted Raleigh by saying “I thou thee, thou traitor!” Use of a formal pronoun is preferred in languages with the T-V distinction when speaking to someone on the stronger side of a power differential between speakers, when speaking formally or to someone older, or when you don’t know someone very well.
A quick fun fact about Spanish before we return to English: Spanish originally simply had tú and vos for singular and plural pronouns, just like English had þu and ge. Eventually vos began to be used as a formal singular. Spanish then formalized the singular use of vos further, using the phrasing vuestra merced (your grace, your mercy) in the singular and vos otros (you others) as the standard plural. This usage naturally generated a formal plural, vuestras mercedes. Vos otros eventually contracted to vosotros, and vuestra merced to vsted, which became standardized to usted. Many dialects of Latin American Spanish now dispense entirely with vosotros and use ustedes as an all-purpose second-person plural. Who knows whether some dialects might drop usted or tú and undo the T-V distinction.
English borrowed the T-V distinction from French, and thus entered the language a class divide through the second person. Middle English went along pretty well under this system, though the preference of thou when speaking to God remained (not unusual in T-V languages, like French, German, and Italian). An example, Wyclif’s translation of the first line of the Lord’s Prayer, shows the essential familiarity felt toward God during this time period:
Oure fadir, that art in hevenes.
The relative simplicity of the Old English system was replaced by a fairly complex and classist system in Middle English, with the earliest known employment of the T-V Distinction occurring in the early 13th century. As print entered the picture and English entered its modern phase, however, that complexity would explode.
III. Early Modern English
In Early Modern English the second-person reached its modern spelling, and over time began to take its current form. A quick reference:
Nominative: thou, ye
Objective: thee, you
Genitive: thy/thine, your/yours
And nowadays the second person looks like this:
Nominative and Objective: you
During the 17th century the use of thou began to fall out of favor in general use. The Reformation brought with it many changes, among them a quasi-egalitarian sentiment which held that the laity were no less equal than the clergy. This sentiment eventually broadened as the Enlightenment began and modern democracy began to take shape, expanding steadily through the 17th and 18th centuries to a general sense that regardless of social station, we should be equal in our respect to others and our pronouns. Of course, to equalize the pronouns would require eliminating one or the other – we could get rid of the formal, upper-class forms and be familiar with each other or we could get rid of the formal and make everyone feel like they were upper class.
By and large the latter option was chosen – we got rid of thou, made everyone a ye, and were all quite formal to each other. The result of this formality was an elevation of lower classes to the level of being worthy of basic respect, eventually deformalizing the idea of basic respect. The elevation of everybody to ye status created an informality of universal formality, leading to the point where to modern ears thou sounds formal because the only contexts where it registers are religious - calling God thou, well, using thou must be quite a formality because that’s God you’re talking to.
In some English dialects, such as those in Yorkshire, Westmorland, Durham, and Derbyshire, the use of thou has survived to the modern day outside of a religious context. The word has also survived in Standard English through certain stock phrases, such as “holier than thou” and “fare thee well,” as well as the aforementioned religious context. Further, as a parallel to how Standard English phased out thou, Quakers phased out ye instead, taking the egalitarian spirit by “plain speaking” and eliminating built in formality from the language. Most Quakers nowadays don’t do “plain speaking,” though those that do follow early Quaker practice which used thee for all cases and did not change the verb, resulting in constructions such as “Thee is my friend.” Don't do that. You'll sound like whoever made this:
At the same time that English began removing thou from the language, the objective you began to take prominence over ye, a process which would result in the modern standard usage of you in both the singular and plural. This use of you for both the singular and plural has resulted in different speech communities coping in different ways. You guys [U.S.], (all) y’all [Southern U.S., African-American Vernacular English], yous(e) (guys) [Ireland, Australia, Tyneside, New York (with guys)], yinz [Pennsylvania, Appalachia – derived from Scots-Irish you ones], you lot [U.K.], and ye [Ireland, Tyneside] are regional variations on the plural second person to distinguish it from the singular.
Funnily enough these forms are considered informal.
IV. How to Use Thou
Now here’s the fun part – a quick tutorial on how to use thou so you can sound all old fashioned and maybe annoy your friends and family (or even attempt to start a revival of the word in the standard language if that’s your thing, I’m not judging – unless you want to reintroduce the T-V distinction with it, in which case I’m totally judging).
So, here’s a quick primer:
Nominative: Thou – use it in situations where you would use I: thou art amazeballs, thou couldst rule the world, I know thou foundst the Christmas presents, thou sneaky child.
Objective: Thee – use it in situations where you would use me: she’s talking to thee, get thee to a nunnery, what’s wrong with thee?, have at thee!, I love thee.
Genitive: Thy/Thine – our first difficulty, but not insurmountable. Use thy where you would use my, but only if the word starts with a consonant sound: thy car, thy phone, thy ten-speed vibrator. Use thine in any situation where you would use mine, and any situation you would use my when it precedes a vowel sound: that car is thine, thine iPhone, thine orgazmatron 10,000.
See how easy that was? You’re already doing well. Now, what if you want to use verbs, though? We can’t all go talking like the Hulk, not conjugating our verbs and saying things like “Thou smash!” Fortunately, verbs are pretty easy too.
Let’s start with the present tense.
Thou gets its own verb form, which is pretty easy to do with any verb. There are some odd verbs, but not that many. Instead of you are, thou art; instead of you have, thou hast. Thou takes the basic form of just about every verb (the bare infinitive) and sticks an -(e)st to the end – thou playest, thou findest, thou beatest, thou getst, thou canst, thou mayst, thou dost, etc. Just don’t use –(e)th. That’s a third person singular thing and sounds really funny – Tony Stark asking Thor “Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” is funny because he doesn’t know when to use an –(e)th ending and only associates it with being old-fashioned. Don't be like Tony. Pay attention to your non-STEM classes.
If you want to issue commands, that’s also very simple. You take the bare infinitive and just use it. Go thou to the store and buy me some maxi-pads, please. (Thou) Eat thy vegetables right now! (Thou) Fuck thyself.
The future tense is also easy. Thou wilt or thou shalt + infinitive and you’re good. Thou wilt get an A in this class. Thou shalt not be a jerk.
The past tense, however, is a little difficult. But, you’ve already mastered the present, future, and imperative, so the past won’t be too difficult. There are two main ways to do the past tense, and they depend on how the verb makes its past tense.
If the verb changes its vowel (drive-drove, eat-ate, seek-sought, feed-fed for instance), we call them strong verbs. Strong verbs do nothing different with thou – Thou drove, thou ate, thou sought, thou fed.
If the verb adds a t or -(e)d to make the past tense, though, we call those weak verbs. Examples of weak verbs include play-played, work-worked, rap-rapped, knock-knocked. Weak verbs add an –(e)st to the end. Thou played(e)st, thou worked(e)st, thou rapped(e)st, thou knocked(e)st. Basically, you get to choose whether you use the e or not, and how many syllables you use. Taking playedest as an example, you can say thou play-ed-est, thou played-est, or thou playedst (bold is the stressed syllable, depending on pronunciation).
Then there are the weirdo verbs. Go becomes went, so thou wentst. Be becomes was/were, so thou wast or thou wert (whichever you care for). Have becomes had, so thou hadst. Do becomes did, so thou didst. Ought only changes for thou, but only in the singular (it becomes thou oughtest in both present and past). Dare becomes dared, but for thou becomes durst (which works for any singular in the past – I durst, she durst, thou durst). Will becomes wouldst, shall becomes shouldst, and can becomes couldst.
And that’s pretty much all you need to know about how to make verbs work with thou. I have one more thing before we’re done and you can unleash your thou powers on the world – contractions! Just a quick list of some useful contractions:
Thou’lt – thou wilt
Thar’t – thou art
Thou’st – thou hast
Thou’dst – thou hadst, thou wouldst
Artn’t – art not
Dostn’t – dost not
Hastn’t – hast not
Armed with this knowledge, now you can all go forth and sound really, really cool. Or really, really old-fashioned. Or really, really pretentious. Or really, really weird. Regardless of how you sound, though, now you’ll be able to follow Shakespeare more easily, insult people better (insults just sound that much more venomous when preceded by thou – must be some latent T-V distinction still hanging around), and laugh when movies, books, and tv shows do it wrong, which is the greatest joy of all.