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In my mother's language there are two words for "you" - for singular form and for plural one. I want to translate a joke which happen to rely on this particular characteristic of my language.

What words should I use to say e.g. "How can I serve you?"

Is "Ye/Thou" still recognizable or is it too archaic?

Edit: An example: Let's suppose I am a fan of FC Barcelona, the soccer club. Me and my friends are in England to see the Champions League finals. There is a pub with "Manchester United fans only" sign on it and we hear some loud yells coming from inside. I ask my friends if they are willing to go in with me and they say "Yes, sure, we are just behind you. Go!" So I grab my FC Barcelona scarf, go inside and see many MU fans in the middle of the party. Suddenly place goes silent and all the gazes point at me.

That is the point when bartender should say "How can I serve YOU?" in a way that makes me realize my friends are not with me. So, what says bartender?

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Puns are notoriously untranslatable. In this case, there is no "singular" form of "you". It is already singular. –  Marcin May 30 '11 at 15:51
    
I should add that I've never heard a pun translated from a slavic language into English that was remotely funny in translation. I would discourage you from this effort. Sorry to be so negative. –  Marcin May 30 '11 at 16:14
    
@Marcin: Don't be sorry. Maybe I will find some replacement, not exactly a form of 'you'. –  Bartosz Rakowski May 30 '11 at 16:18
    
Yeah, you've done about as much as you can to convey the sense of this in written English. It's going to come off even less well in spoken English unless you're a great comedian. You probably should try to rewrite this in a way that doesn't rely on the pronoun. –  Marcin May 30 '11 at 16:22
    
"Y'all", as a contraction of "you all", is the only word in contemporary English that addresses the second-person plural in one word. That being said, most contemporary speakers insist that y'all is singular, and "all y'all" is the plural. I think the joke could be funny with "y'all", but that doesn't address the singularly-exclusive, second-person plural. C'est la anglais, I suppose. –  user41796 Apr 3 '13 at 23:53

7 Answers 7

up vote 6 down vote accepted

There isn't a good way of making this singular - the joke only really works in other languages.

The nearest you could get is the barman saying "How can I serve you, sir" which would imply one person, but not really strongly enough to get the joke.

There is a definition in the Douglas Adams for the feeling you get when you storm into the Captain's cabin and announce "we are taking over the ship and all the crew are behind me" when you suddenly realise you are on your own.

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+1 For mentioning Adams –  snumpy May 31 '11 at 18:23

Ye/Thou is not appropriate in modern day language (except in highly specialized contexts.)

The best approach would be to add another word, for example: "How can I serve you folks?" or "How can I serve you all?" (Though this latter has tones of "y'all" which is a southern American English idiom.)

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(a) "You all" is standard English (b) "folks" is dialectical. –  Marcin May 30 '11 at 15:25
    
what about singular form? –  Bartosz Rakowski May 30 '11 at 15:49

There isn't any way to distinguish second-person singular from plural, at least not formally. You would have to add something to make that meaning clear.

To specify that you mean an individual, you could use a construction like this:

What can I do for you yourself?

To specify a group, something like this:

What can I do for you all?

Note that context would probably give enough clues as to whether you meant singular or plural. But the above will serve in cases where context does not make it clear.

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I meant singular form. It should be clear to a person I am speaking. –  Bartosz Rakowski May 30 '11 at 15:49

In some colloquial dialects (Irish, I think), "yourself" can be used to indicate "you" in the singular. "So, how's yourself then?"

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(1) "Ye" is a variant spelling of "thee". I'm not aware of any dialects that pronounce "ye" as it is written.

(2) Thee and thou are archaic, except in specific dialects, such as some in Yorkshire (apparently).

(3) There is no standard way of distinguishing between plural and singular second person usage, other than additional words to provide context.

(4) There are dialects that use "Yous" (primarily from the North of England) or "Y'all" (primarily Southern US).

(5) It is unnecessary in English to draw the distinction between singular and plural unless the context demands it. When necessary to refer to one of a group, simply use the name or a gesture to indicate that you mean solely that person. An expression like "All of you" or "you all" may be used to indicate that you are referring to the group. A dialectical word for a group like "folks" may also be used.

(6) I recently came across the usage "You people" for this purpose in an American novel from the 1950s. These days this usage would be comprehensible, but seem hostile. Avoid it unless you wish to convey hostility.

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Could you provide some example for a singular form? –  Bartosz Rakowski May 30 '11 at 15:52
    
@Bartosz: No, there is no more singular form than "you". You could say "only you", or "solely you", but that goes beyond merely indicating singularity to indicating the exclusion of all others. That would be rather emphatic for ordinary polite usage. –  Marcin May 30 '11 at 16:09
    
"Ye" is not a variant spelling of "thee". It is a pseudo-archaising variant spelling of the different word "the". "Ye" is also an archaic form of "you" (technically the subjective case) but more or less died out before "you" can to be singular as well, so is always plural, except perhaps in Scots dialect. –  Colin Fine May 31 '11 at 15:02
    
@Colin: I stand corrected. –  Marcin May 31 '11 at 16:48
    
I went to junior high school in 1949 in NYC, actually Harlem. We had a very strict English teacher named Madeline Murray. (Not the atheist) She taught us the singular form of the pronoun "you." It was thou. Where art thou going? etc. It may be ancient and archaic, but Miss Murray taught it none-the-less. –  user41795 Apr 3 '13 at 23:27

In Pittsburgh, they say "yun" and "yuns" (I assume they are contractions of "you one" and "you ones"). Outside of Pittsburgh, well, you're on your own...

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2  
Outside of Pittsburgh, yun are on your own. :) –  ErikE Apr 4 '13 at 0:00

Specifying singular is not as straightforward as specifying plural in a situation like this, unfortunately. You might be able to salvage the joke like so:

You've sure got guts, coming in here alone. [maybe followed by, or preceded by, What can I get you?]

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protected by tchrist Apr 4 '13 at 0:19

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