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If I’m not wrong, the verb conjugation in the past used to be:

I have           we have  
thou hast        ye have  
he/she/it hath   they have

This conjugation is closer to its equivalent in the German language:

ich habe         wir haben  
du hast          ihr habt  
er/sie/es hat    sie/Sie haben

The thing is: Every verb in every tense in German ends with -st in the second person singular, and as far as I know, in Elizabethan English the verbs used to end in this way as well in the second person singular (thou shouldst, canst, makest, eatest, composest, etc.).

Why exactly did the old thou disappear, as well as related forms thy, thee, thyself, and thine, as well as the corresponding verb ending -st? Same for -eth in third person singular (it hath, maketh, etc.), why did it just disappear from daily usage?

I’m a Brazilian and my mother-tongue is Portuguese, so I’m not well aware of the background of this, and I am very curious. These forms can be found in the old King James Bible and in the poetry of William Shakespeare, as well as in many other sources, but I would like to know exactly why they’re gone, and for what reasons.

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For precisely the same reason why the Brazilians replaced Portuguese tu sabes with você sabe instead. –  tchrist Jul 13 '13 at 18:39
    
In some regions of my country it is used the "tu" pronoun, but it is rarely used "correctly" (They would rather say: "tu sabe"). What is really "extinct" in here is the second person plural "Vós" (Vós sabeis). We use "Vocês sabem" instead. –  Ericson Willians Jul 13 '13 at 18:43
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Some forms of the pronouns persisted into the 20th century. My grandmother, born in small-town Pennsylvania (US) around 1900, used ye as the plural form of you into the 1970s, as did many of her relatives. –  bib Jul 13 '13 at 18:56
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You see the say thing where the Mexicans say Ustedes saben instead of the Spanish vosotros sabéis. The Argentine vos sabés is something else again, since that is meant to be singular. –  tchrist Jul 13 '13 at 19:54
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And in Yorkshire, you can still sometimes hear tha knows (i.e. thou knowest). –  Colin Fine Jul 13 '13 at 21:56

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I'm sorry, but in questions of language, and especially of language change, "why" questions don't usually have answers, other than "because that's what happened".

The Early Modern English forms you give had already changed - in Old English, the pattern was very like modern German, but the distinct plural forms had mostly dropped out of use before Shakespeare's time (you still find ye goeth in the King James Bible).

The remaining distinctions are -est and -eth vs -s. The first of these disappeared when thou disappeared. The second was a dialect difference: IIRC -s was Northern, and -eth was Southern, though it may have been more complicated than that.

Edited to remove a wrong claim.

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Where is ye goeth in the KJV? I can't find it. –  Simon Kuang Jul 14 '13 at 6:25
    
Maybe the question is meant to ask "how" instead. –  Simon Kuang Jul 14 '13 at 6:26
    
@SimonKuang: apparently nowhere. I did not check but posted from memory, and it appears I was wrong. The distinct -eth for the second person plural survived into Middle English, but not apparently into the Early Modern English of the KJV. –  Colin Fine Jul 14 '13 at 15:03

In the European languages during the age of nobility, it was almost always a wise thing to flatter one's addressee with noble terminology, including subjunctives, plurals, third persons, abstractions like Reverence, and assorted short subjects.

Essentially, the idea went, nobles are more ethereal, more distant, more sensitive, more, ... um ... noble than you were, and therefore if you were singular, they were plural; if you were second person, they were third; if you were indicative, they were subjunctive; and so on. This is normal behavior.

Anyway, in Europe at the dawn of Modern European languages, nobility were important. Just as there were laws regulating who could wear the best clothes and styles, there were laws regulating how polite one had to be to which kind of nobleman, in deed and words. Especially words.

The results included

  • Effective loss of 2sg pronouns and verb inflections in English -- replaced by the plural, erasing the number distinction -- as they were deemed unsuitable for polite company, and their use in public was taken as a mark of hidden Puritan sympathies. Or worse. This "plain speaking" got the Quakers banished to Pennsylvania, in part.

  • Remnants of third person formality in phrases like ma dame/mon sieur, if Your/Her Ladyship would permit, Vuestra Merced etc.

  • Gradual movement in High German from

    • Du bist [sg] - Ihr seid [pl] to
    • Du/Ihr [Informal sg/pl] and Er/Sie [Formal sg/pl] (Formal pronouns always capitalized) by 1800; (Tieck's plays are full of 2FormSg Er ist and Sie ist) to
    • Du/Ihr [Informal sg/pl] and Sie [Formal sg/pl] (Only Sie sind, always capitalized.)
      the modern norm, by 1850 or so.
  • Use of third person Usted/Ustedes in Spanishes for 2Form sg/pl, with later local variants on vos(otros), and local extensions of Ustedes for all pl 2nd person, Formal and Informal.

It's a normal enough pattern, as I mentioned. This kind of stuff happens all the time, in all kinds of languages. Politeness turns out to be complicated.

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Good, John. But I think you meant vos(otros) not (vos)otros — unless you’re thinking of something I’m not. I imagine you know that the third Iberian language, Catalan, follows the same pattern of polite 3rd-person forms in their vostè and vostès forms, which are just like the ES and PT treatments, and have the same v(ue/o)stra merced provenance. –  tchrist Jul 13 '13 at 22:49
    
Thank you. Always hard juggling a lot of stuff. –  John Lawler Jul 13 '13 at 23:44

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