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Outside of the dialectical form used in the Southern US, "y'all," has English ever had a plural "you"? If not, how does English get around using this form?

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Also related: What does “thy” mean? –  RegDwigнt Apr 22 '11 at 15:39
    
In PA they say yinz instead of yall, which is even stranger to me en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yinz –  JD Isaacks Apr 22 '11 at 17:14
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You underestimate the power of y'all. It can mean any of the following: Single "you"; plural "you"; "us" or "we"; any usage of "all", "all y'all", "you and your friends". And some more, I'm sure. –  MrHen Apr 22 '11 at 21:01
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@gbutters I was about to say "yous" as an answer lol. Slang but I think it widespread enough thanks to movies that many understand 'hey yous guys'. :) @MrHen. I think ya'll are right about that one..and yes i'm one of those crazy annoying Texans that spell it ya'll. lol –  Garet Claborn Apr 22 '11 at 23:27
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up vote 41 down vote accepted

You and ye used to be the plural forms of the second person pronoun. You was the accusative form, and ye was the nominative form.

Because of this, you still conjugates verbs in the plural form even when it is singular; that is, you are is correct even if you is only referring to one person.

Thee and thou used to be the singular forms. Thou was the nominative form, and thee was the accusative form. Thy and thine were the genetive forms, and their use followed the same rules as a and an.

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In something akin to the "euphemism treadmill" effect, the You/Ye form, always used for politeness even when referring to one person, came to be used more and more until Thou/Thee was thought rude. –  Joel Spolsky Apr 22 '11 at 21:08
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Printing press would have been another reason. 'th' was printed using 'y', so thou would have been you. People start reading it that way, and saying it the same way as well. –  migo Apr 22 '11 at 23:30
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"Used to be?" You haven't spent much time in Ireland, I see ;) ...and judging by the comments, neither have the rest of ye –  username Apr 22 '11 at 23:36
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There's some argument that says thee/thou fell out of use because the (unpopular at the time) Quakers started insisting on using it. (There were philosophical reasons to avoid the formal ye/you, I guess.) It thus became indicative of being a Quaker, which made everyone else stop using it. One article mentioning this is "Language and the Culture of Gender" (Michael Silverstein, 1985) which also blames social forces for "they" and "their" taking over as gender-neutral 3rd person singular. Using "he" to mean gender-unspecified became indicative of unpopular political views, so that usage died. –  Havoc P Apr 23 '11 at 0:36
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@migo: I really don't believe that printing had anything to do with the disappearance of "thou". I don't think the use of "Y" for "þ" was actually very widespread or lasted very long, and anyway, at the time when "thou" was going out of use (much later), most people could not read –  Colin Fine Jun 1 '11 at 16:38
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You is the plural.

Thou is the singular form of you.

Thou has now disappeared from common use and is used only to address God.

The process resulting in the use of the singular pronoun to express intimacy and the plural pronoun to mark respect or social distance is termed T-V_distinction, after the Latin tu and vos and is found is many languages, especially of the Proto Indo European family tree.

See for instance, in addition to the Latin form above:

  • French: tu => vous
  • German: du => ihr (2nd person plural) or Sie (3rd person plural)
  • Mandarin 你 (nǐ, you informal) => 您 (nín, you respectful) compared to (nǐmen, 你们, you to several persons).

Even some languages that seem not to comply exactly (because they don't seem to use the 2nd-person plural) actually hide a form a compliance.

  • Spanish: tu => vos (obsolete, 2nd-person plural archaic form).
  • Italian used to use voi (2nd person plural).
  • The você of Portuguese is a contraction of vossa mercê (your mercy) which is an implicit 2nd person plural.

All in all, English has pushed T-V distinction so far that thou is not used anymore in common speak.

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In Spanish, vosotros (or os for direct or indirect objects) is the 2nd person plural. Vos is still used in Argentina instead of , and used to be a more formal form of . –  snumpy Apr 22 '11 at 15:48
    
@snumpy. You're right. My wife being Panamanian, I sometimes forget that Spanish is spoken in Spain as well ! Will correct at once. Thx. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 22 '11 at 15:54
    
Note that German "Sie" is 3rd person plural, 2nd person plural is "ihr". –  starblue Apr 22 '11 at 20:09
    
Italian now uses "Lei" (3rd feminine person, singular) as a courtesy form. "Voi" (2nd plural) sounds now archaic and, when used, expresses even more social distance than "Lei". (that is, you'd use it for a king, pretty much nothing less) –  tacone Apr 23 '11 at 0:06
    
@snumpy And don't forget the verbal forms, like "vos sos" (you are), coming from "vosotros sois" –  belisarius Apr 23 '11 at 7:34
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'You" was originally plural, "thou" was the singular.

There was a shift to using the plural as the polite form, eg. monarchs say 'we' for I, so gradually the 'you' plural began to be used by everybody.

Exceptions are/were Quakers who stuck to the thee/thou since they didn't recognise anyone as better than each other and people from Yorkshire who didn't recognise anyone as better than them.

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Always wondered why them damn Yorkies spoke like that lol –  FumbleFingers Apr 22 '11 at 17:47
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In middle English, there were informal terms for "you" singular (thou/thee) and informal "you" plural (ye/you). So for awhile there, in Chaucerian times, you could make the distinction grammatically. The formal 2nd person pronoun was "you" for both singular and plural.

In the transition to modern English, for politeness' sake or simplicity, we got rid of the formal/informal inflections and just went with the formal pronouns. It really isn't a problem because context and verb endings will almost always make clear whether singular or plural is meant (there's no grammatical need for a "y'all").

Note that in other languages like Japanese, we see that pronouns can often be dispensed with entirely.

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As others have said, Thee and Thou were the informal terms. But in a bizarre switch, Thee and Thou are now considered more formal. I see two forces at work to bring this about.

First, early English bibles (at least the King James edition) used Thee and Thou when addressing God, to emphasise a personal, informal relationship with God. Nowadays, the relationship to God is considered more formal, and the old bibles themselves are considered formal, so when people today use Thee and Thou to refer to God, it feels to be a formalism.

Second, thee and thou are used in Shakespearean writing. People have a respect for Shakespeare, and afford a certain formalism to all his writing (even the parts that are designed to be informal). So there again, thee and thou seem Shakespearean and therefore more formal.

So now it's switched, with thee and thou feeling more formal, and you seeming less formal.

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Being a transplant in South Central PA, I've heard locals used "you'ins" or "y'uns" referring to more than 1 person.

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This is covered at english.stackexchange.com/q/83643 and at english.stackexchange.com/q/69341 –  MετάEd Jan 16 at 20:47
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