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English and (I believe) Brazilian Portuguese have to varying degrees lost T-V distinction via adoption of the formal second-person pronoun for both formal and informal situations. English completely lost "thou" and "thee", and Brazilian Portuguese largely lost "tu". I ask because modern languages seem to be gradually expanding use of the informal second-person pronoun to cover more situations traditionally using the formal, losing T-V distinction in the opposite way.

It's easy to imagine a cultural decrease in formality leading to a protracted loss of the formal pronoun, but it's fairly difficult to imagine the forces that would lead to a loss of the informal. Was there a period of increasing formality that saw loss of the informal pronoun in English and Brazilian Portuguese?

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    Why is it difficult to imagine forces leading to the loss of the informal pronouns? Increased formality is one way to word it; another is to suppose that informal pronouns gradually became more and more familiar (used with family and close friends, but with everyone else it’s safer to use the formal ones lest anyone take offence), eventually becoming derogatory (oi, you there!) and being ousted completely. That’s roughly the opposite of what’s currently happening in many societies, where the formal is becoming distant and cold, so the informal is safer, but both are perfectly likely. Sep 22, 2022 at 7:49
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    @PerryWebb the loss of the 2nd person singular in English seems to have occurred after English (at least fashionable London English) adopted a T-V distinction (possibly under French influence), so at the time of its loss (in the de facto contemporary standard) it was a loss of the informal singular
    – Tristan
    Sep 22, 2022 at 9:40
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    @Lambie Did you bother to actually read the question? It specifically talks about Brazilian Portuguese, and says that it largely lost tu, which is completely correct by number of speakers. Iberian and African varieties of Portuguese are completely irrelevant to the question. Oct 8, 2022 at 8:53
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    @Lambie Incorrect. Vós is still used dialectally in northern Portugal, which is very much within the Lusophone world. And at the time when it was lost throughout most of Portuguese, it was not the default formal second-person pronoun; the battle was not between tu and vós, but between tu and você. You can argue whether você is second or third person as a pronoun, but it functions at least pragmatically as second-person. Oct 8, 2022 at 13:33
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    @Lambie So by your logic, tu is presumably also a third person pronoun in the south of Brazil where it’s commonly used with third-person agreement? There are different ways to define what person a pronoun belongs to. Which verbal form it takes for agreement purposes is one, formal; which real-world referent it is used to refer to is another, pragmatic. The two do not always coincide. Oct 8, 2022 at 13:58

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There are a few situations where the "T" pronoun in a T-V distinction (e.g. thou/you, ty/vy, tú/usted...) might become socially proscribed and avoided:

  1. if its usage implies that the hearer is below the speaker in the social hierarchy, in a society where drawing attention upon this would be considered belittling.
  2. if higher class speakers already use the "V" pronoun among themselves, even when there's no hierarchy between them. As such, the usage of the "T" pronoun becomes associated with the lower classes, and stigmatised.
  3. if the "T" pronoun implies more familiarity than people are generally comfortable with, making its usage feel invasive towards someone's personal space.

English likely lost "thou" due to a mix of those three factors.

Regarding Portuguese, it's worth to note that even in Brazil plenty speakers use "tu", depending on their actual dialects; for example the pronoun is practically non-existent in Paulistano dialect, but commonplace in Gaúcho. In the dialects that lost it, the process was likely similar as in English (i.e. "tu" was seen as too familiar, belittling, and something that stigmatised groups would use). The language eventually redeveloped the distinction with "o senhor" (roughly "sir") as the new respectful pronoun, and in a few dialects (as in e.g. Santa Catarina) you see a three-way distinction between:

  • tu - familiar, non-hierarchical
  • você - distant, non-hierarchical
  • o senhor - hierarchical

Because of that, even with how common "você" has become, it's possible that "tu" will still survive for longer, as there is no pressure to remove it for sounding belittling or "low class" any more.

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The most interesting theory I've heard (with regard to English) is that it was caused by an increasing tendency for people to leave their rural homes and move to a city. It became ordinary for people to use the formal almost all the time because it was the appropriate choice in the context. It became a habit.

So it's highly likely that, in a manner of speaking, there was a period of increasing formality in the culture that caused the informal form to wither.

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