The second person pronoun in Early Modern English

By Cheratra Yaswen, c. 2003

Old English had both plural and singular second person pronouns. By Late Middle English, the singular, second person pronoun had evolved into thee and thou, while the plural, second person had evolved into you and ye (Lass, CHEL, V.II, 117). The story of the loss of thee and thou and its replacement with you in Modern English is not an entirely clear one (Lass, CHEL, V.III, 148); through various hypothesis and educated guesses, we can piece together some ideas about what might have caused this loss.

By the thirteenth century, you was sometimes replacing both thee (used in the object position) and thou (used in the subject position) (Blake, 536) among the upper classes. It might at first appear that these pronouns were being used interchangeably and at random but closer inspection reveals a probable semantic distinction between the two pronouns. Many scholars suspect that the English were trying to create in English a form of second person address similar to that of the French T-V system (Walker, 75). In this system, vous was used not only as a plural pronoun but also as a singular pronoun as a sign of respect when addressing oneís superiors and equals, while tu was used to address social inferiors as well as those with whom the speaker (or writer) shared some intimacy. It is generally thought that, initially, you was used in English similarly to vous in French, while thee/thou was used similarly to the French tu. (Some speculate that the use of you in the second person singular may have begun as a result of the "plural of majesty" [Blake, 536] but this opinion does not appear to be widely held.)

However, it appears that, by the time of Early Modern English, or perhaps even Late Middle English, you became the neutral or unmarked second person singular pronoun while thee/thou was marked, at least among the upper classes. The two pronouns no longer functioned as a strict T-V system, if, indeed, they ever had. There is some discussion amongst scholars about exactly what was marked by the use of thee/thou. Roger Lass suggests that, among the upper classes, thee/thou was used to mark "asymmetrical... status relations... and... as a general indicator of heightened emotional tone, intimacy, etc." (149). By the seventeenth century, thee/thou seems to have been used most often to denote either "intimacy (if used reciprocally) or contempt (non-reciprocally)" (Lass, CHEL, V.III, 149) and the connotations of choosing thee/thou over you seem to have had a less direct correlation to social status.

Many of the conclusions drawn about the distinction between thee/thou and you are drawn from a careful study of literature from the various periods in question, most notably Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer, Malory, and Shakespeare. Through observations of context (social status of the character speaking, tone of a situation, levels of intimacy, emotional qualities, etc.) in which the authors chose to use the marked instead of the unmarked second person pronoun, scholars are able to make some generalizations about the semantic differences between thee/thou and you. However, there are some problems with this method of studying the thee/thou, you distinction.

Firstly, the form of a particular genre may typically call for one or the other pronoun. For example, courtly romances generally used you throughout (Blake, 539) while Elizabethan sonnets tended to lend themselves to the use of thee/thou (Busse, 134). While some of these formal variations may be attributable to the differences in tone in various genres, itís not safe to assume that they are. For example, one might expect Shakespeare to have used more T forms in his comedies, with their lower class characters, but this does not prove to be the case, though some other authors, such as John Lyly, in his play Alexander and Campaspe, does chose to have his lower class characters use thee/thou (Walker, 378).

In addition, as we can see above when we compare Lyly to Shakespeare, the whims of individual authors can affect their decisions about when and how to use thee/thou and when and how to use you. As Norman Blake points out, there may have been differences between thee/thou and you which authors could have exploited to convey subtleties of tone, mood, and situation within their works but, "The problem is to know whether a particular author does use these forms in a meaningful way" (537). If we extrapolate understandings of the thee/thou, you distinction form literary texts, we are again left to hypothesize without ever having the certainty of knowing if our hypothesis are correct.

We must also remember that literary works may not accurately reflect how language was actually used during any given period; this is especially true of language as it was spoken. Many artistic and individual considerations may have affected authorsí word and syntactical choices. Even if they were attempting to portray casual or spoken language in an authentic way in their work, they may not have been skilled enough to do so. In addition, until relatively recently, those who were literate were those within a limited elite within a society. Their writing may accurately reflect upper class usage but may not accurately reflect those of the lower classes.

In an attempt to address this situation, scholars have turned to private correspondences for something more akin to private speech patterns, though this still does not address class issues. Here we do find evidence that thee/thou was used in discourse of a more intimate tone but, of course, letters between friends and family members tends to be more intimate by nature so, again, conclusions are based upon incomplete information. More recently, scholars have turned to late sixteenth century transcriptions of "authentic speech from [court] witness depositions" (Walker 376) to get a sense of both authentic and lower class speech patterns. Here, they have found that thee/thou is not used as a class marker but is used to express "anger or scorn" toward the addressee (Walker 377). However, one would expect such emotions to be strong and frequent in such a setting and one should therefore not extrapolate that thee/thou was only used to express such feelings toward addressees. Taking these two more authentic sources Ė letters and court depositions Ė together, we can, however, at least tentatively conclude again that thee/thou was most often used in situations of intimacy or contempt, as Lass states, though these uses may have been in common usage earlier than a study of literary texts might suggest.

By the eighteenth century, thee/thou had been almost completely supplanted by you and "is not really a living option in ordinary usage... by the middle of the eighteenth century you was the only normal spoken form" (Lass, CHEL, V.III, 153). Yet thee/thou did survive in a few specific situations. Some poets continued to use thee/thou, perhaps as an attempt to emulate the language of the Elizabethan and Jacobean poets (ibid.). Even the quickest perusal of The Norton Anthology of English Literature reveals that poets such as Tennyson were using thee/thou at least until into the 1860ís.

In addition, many Christian denominations continued to use thee/thou in prayer. This may be because of the respect accorded to the translation of the Bible authorized by King James, and the fact that, in many churches, hymns which used thee/thou were still sung. These two facts may account for the fact that some continued to associate the use of thee/thou (as well as, for example, the th verbal ending) with the treatment of spiritual and religious topics.

Thee/thou probably survived most vibrantly within the Quaker Religious Society of Friends and any discussion of thee/thou would be incomplete without mention of Quaker Plain Speech. The Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, is dissident Protestant sect that was founded in England in 1652 when the thee/thou, you distinction was still used by the general population. According to R. Bauman, Quakers adopted a policy of using thee/thou in all interactions for four reasons: to maintain linguistic purity (i.e. a singular second person pronoun); to remain in accordance with the speech they (erroneously) believed Jesus and his followers to have used; to avoid undue pride and to assert the equality of all people by refusing to accord anyone the status of being addressed as you; and to avoid the use of you to address people and thou to address God (Birch, 40-41). The irony is that, with the loss of the common use of thee/thou, its use in Quaker communities quickly began to be a distinguishing mark, setting Quakers apart from the wider community; this was in direct contrast to their intended egalitarian goals when they chose to use thee/thou (Birch 44) but it continued to be widely used by Quakers until well into the nineteenth century (Birch 46).

Works Consulted

Abrams, M.H.. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2, 5th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Birch, Barbara M. "Quaker Speech: a policy of linguistic divergence." International Journal of the Sociology of Language 116 (1995): 39-59.

Blake, Norman. "The Literary Language." The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume II: 1066-1476. Ed. Norman Blake. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Busse, Ulrich. "The use of address pronouns in Early Modern English."Actualization: Linguistic Change in Progress. Ed. Henning Anderson. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2001.

Lass, Roger. "Phonology and morphology." The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume II: 1066-1476. Ed. Norman Blake. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Oxford English Dictionary. <>

-- "Phonology and morphology." The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III: 1476-1776. Ed. Roger Lass. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Richards, Jack C., John Platt, Heidi Platt, eds. Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Malaysia: Longman, 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets and A Loverís Complaint. Ed. John Kerrigan. London: Penguin Books, 1986.

Walker, Terry. "The choice of second person singular in pronouns in authentic and constructed dialogue in late sixteenth century English." Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory: Papers from the Twentieth International Conference on English Language Reaseach on Computerized Corpora. Eds. Christian Mair and Marianne Hundt. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.

Wolfville Quaker Meeting. <>