In Shakespearean English, thou/thee/thy/thine were used for second person singular, and you/your/yours were used for second person plural. In modern English, you is used for both singular and plural. Why did English stop using thou?

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    For that matter, why was it replaced by the dative plural? Why was the singular/plural distinction replaced by a familiar/formal distinction and then by an inferior/peer distinction. Why does thou linger in some Northern English dialects? "Why" isn't usually a question that can be answered. – StoneyB on hiatus May 22 '13 at 2:15
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    @StoneyB: I'm sure some factors could be pointed out that helped you usurp the place of thou and some intermediate stages described. – Cerberus May 22 '13 at 5:23
  • The singular/plural to familiar/formal, at least, can be observed in other languages, too. E.g. French and Finnish do the same. German did, too, but nowadays 3rd person plural is used instead of 2nd person plural in formal contexts. – Ansgar Esztermann May 22 '13 at 8:29
  • To add to @AnsgarEsztermann 's point, it's call the T-V Distinction. – acattle May 23 '13 at 0:10
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    @Anixx: as StoneyB said, thou does linger in some Northern dialects: you still hear tha occasionally here in Yorkshire. – Colin Fine Jun 22 '13 at 12:57

I will attempt to answer this, but please understand that it is more of a guess since the comments to your question are correct. This may not even be the kind of question that can be answered here.

Remember that thou was more than just the "second person singular" - it was later an informal pronoun as well, and picked up connotations of referring to someone of lower social standing than yourself. We can see different usages frozen in time in different contexts (religiously, thou lingered with a different connotation than it did in the phrase "holier than thou" or "Get thee gone!"). The meaning probably still continues to change*.

Once "thou" had the connotation of suggesting the lower social status of someone, you can see how this would become problematic in a society that was becoming increasingly egalitarian (and perhaps still is). At some point, the old "familiar" usage is polluted with a tinge of disdain/inferiority that was inappropriate for the context and it was preferable to borrow another form to show that the speaker was not presuming his own superiority.

  • Note that Darth Vader says, "What is thy bidding, my master?" in a context where he is kneeling in submission to his master. A usage that, if it is not outright wrong, seems to hint at the complexities of the relationship as well as bringing in religious overtones and a "cool factor" that wouldn't exist with "What is your bidding, my master?" Or, perhaps, the meaning has reversed and "thou" is meant to show additional deference.
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    The usage of thou/thee/thy as an honourific second person pronoun (in conflict with its historical usage) seems to stem from a misconception that using archaic language makes speech more formal. – acattle May 23 '13 at 1:41
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    @acattle: Why would that be a misconception? Has this been studied? – hippietrail May 23 '13 at 4:12
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    @hippietrail I don't have any studies to back up my statement but anecdotally archaic language tends to be used extensively in highly formal contexts; legal, scientific, and academic. Even seeing a Shakespearean play is a somewhat formal event. The misconception is that archaic always means more formal (the counter example being that "thou" is historically less formal than "you"). – acattle May 23 '13 at 5:03
  • Hmm I wouldn't've assumed an "always" rule but would agree that people would perceive a general tendency. Perhaps related to how Latinate words seem more formal, Latin being entirely archaic now. – hippietrail May 23 '13 at 5:09
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    @acattle Archaic language doesn't make speech more formal, but it is incredibly common in the history of religion (or rather of liturgy, if you want to be precise) to take the archaic language of traditionally entrenched older ritual text as the starting point of a consciously archaising hieratic register. Indeed, when people find "thy" more formal sounding, it's because it's characteristic of the familiar but now unproductive liturgical register of English grounded in the KJV and the Book of Common Prayer. Remember that the language of even the KJV was actually consciously archaising! – Branimir Ćaćić Jun 22 '13 at 5:36

There's an answer here to this frequently-asked question.

In fact, lots of people kept using thou and got into trouble for it.
This is one reason the Quakers emigrated to Pennsylvania.

  • I appear to be unable to log in as my non-exile persona, so I will probly continue to be in exile for a while, until I get tired of it. – john lawler in exile Dec 23 '14 at 0:53
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    "In fact, lots of people kept using thou and got into trouble for it." That is extremely interesting-. Could you elaborate on that. – tobiornottobi Jan 2 '19 at 19:39
  • Look up Quaker persecution in England, late 17th century. Quakers refused to use "you" for nobility, insisting on singular "thee". This went along with their refusal to use noble titles. This was not a popular attitude with The Crown, which threw hundreds into prison, and was glad to get rid of them to Pennsylvania, which guaranteed religious freedom. – jlawler Jan 4 '19 at 1:06
  • Rather than making this answer reliant on the linked answer (from english.SE) always remaining as it is now, it would be better to quote the relevant parts of the linked question/answer that address this question. – V2Blast Jan 6 '19 at 4:09

I believe @MarkD's answer is on the right track. I have noticed that in Shakespeare it is quite common for one character to address another as "thou" who in turn addresses him as "you". Particularly I have noticed it between masters and servants and men and women.

In contrast, in the novel "The Man Who Ended War" (1912) has this exchange between an American journalist and a servant girl in London:

" I was very much in­ter­ested in the story your mis­tress told me of the falling shut­ter," I said, slip­ping a half crown into her ready fin­gers." I should very much like to know if any part of the old shut­ter is by any chance in ex­is­tence."

The maid's eyes glis­tened, as she glanced sur­rep­ti­tiously at the coin in her hand. " Wreck's down in t' wash'oose," she said.

" You're from the Coal-pits or the Mines," I said, smil­ing as I heard her di­alect. A dim flush showed in her sal­low cheek. " I'm fra about there, sir. Hast ever been there ? There's none like it."

" I've been there," I an­swered, smil­ing again. " There's some fine men there." Her eyes lighted once more. " Hap­pen thou might like to see wreck ? Canst, if thou wish."

She clearly does not see "thou" as referring to someone of lower social standing since she is using it to address a man of higher class whom she sees as a source of tips. Perhaps using "thou" is not seen as condescending by those who speak her dialect and as a result has not fallen into disuse.

Interestingly, in modern Russian the word for "thou" is used much more widely than "thou" is used in Shakespeare. But, it is used in an egalitarian way. Only a large age difference allows one person (the elder) to address another as "thou" while himself being addressed as "you". Other than that the choice of "thou" or "you" is dictated by the relationship between the speakers with both using the same word. If they are family members, fellow college students, or brothers in arms they both say "thou". If they are professor and student or customer and clerk in a store or government official and citizen, they both say "you".

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    It is also common for a Shakespearean character to use both "thou" and "you" to the same (subordinate or intimate) character, within a line or two. – Colin Fine Jan 2 '19 at 23:01

Note: the usual caveats of asking why about language change apply.

All the answers making some social theory about T-V, social class, bibles and so on fail to explain why these factors would not apply to every other language and society with T-V, social class and bibles.

In fact, the rise of you - the 2nd person accusative - to replace thou, thee and ye is far more compatible with the broader loss of case and morphology in English, obviously not total, but enough to make English fundamentally different than Old English and most other Germanic languages.

As we see here, the collapse of the 2nd-person singular and plural went hand-in-hand with the collapse of the 2nd-person nominative and objective.

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you seems to have an exact parallel in Dutch, and also in Haitian Creole - a Romance language - and the accompanying use of word order like SVO. And indeed there is a Middle English creole hypothesis, and systematic loss of case in Dutch.

An argument can also be made that there was collapse happening in Dutch, Old French, Old English even earlier, because French subject and object forms are collapsed for 1st and 2nd person plural, and Vulgar Romance and English accusative and dative collapsed.

This process is, by the way, still ongoing in Modern Scots, one of the languages most closely related to English. Another somewhat similar case is that of você in Brazilian Portuguese.

  • Interesting theory. In the same vein, you could argue that the modern Scandinavian languages developed from a Norse-Low -Saxon-pidgin that made them lose most inflection characteristics and introduced many Low Saxon words. – tobiornottobi Jan 2 '19 at 19:49
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    Though, I disagree about that "All the answers making some social theory about T-V, social class, the Bible and so on fail to explain why these factors would not apply to basically every other language and society." Such a change does not have to happen but it can. We shouldn't it? Not every language has to develop in the same way. – tobiornottobi Jan 2 '19 at 19:52
  • The best proof is Dutch. The standard variety has lost du and exchanged it with jij including the 2nd plural verb ending. And Dutch didn't develop from a creole/pidgin. – tobiornottobi Jan 2 '19 at 19:54
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    Why would loss of case lead to you usurping thou? Especially given that personal pronouns are the one place where English does preserve case. – TKR Jan 2 '19 at 20:42
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    I don't know if there's another explanation for you usurping ye, but that's a paradigm-internal change and doesn't necessarily have anything to do with that whole paradigm ousting that of thou. I'm just not seeing the connection with case here. – TKR Jan 2 '19 at 23:29

I listened to this podcast where Teresa Bejan, a grad student, claimed "thou" fell out of favor because it was too informal. It was too informal because people were infatuated with royalty.

A monarch referred to himself as the royal "we". People wanted to use the plural "you" to confer formality. It always helps to compliment someone you don't' know! So this became the more formal version. Eventually thou became associated with a downgrade, and people forgot about the royalty thing. So everyone just used "you" to avoid making a fau pax in conversation.

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