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From the top of my head, Danish "De" (practically never used), German "Sie", Chinese "", French "vous", Spanish "usted" are a formal way of addressing someone, especially if one isn't familiar with the addressee. Did English ever have this? It sounds as though Proto-Indo-European might have had this (based on my 4 examples), but perhaps someone can enlighten me?

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PIE = Proto-Indo-European –  hydrogen Jan 26 '11 at 2:57
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In Norwegian "De" is polite second person singular (not really used much anymore, we use the informal "du" usually), while "de" is third person plural. I though the polite form were capitalized in Danish too? –  Stein G. Strindhaug Mar 22 '11 at 10:25
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Thou is still used in some northern English dialect, notably Lancashire: english.stackexchange.com/questions/25288/… –  Hugo Jul 17 '11 at 9:39
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"De" is capitalized in Danish, and certainly useful when asking elderly people for directions. –  Thomas Ahle Jun 22 '12 at 0:39
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No one's yet mentioned that you can observe the you-thou distinction in action if you consider social rank as you're reading Shakespeare. –  Merk Oct 19 '12 at 8:34

6 Answers 6

up vote 357 down vote accepted

Yes it did, and the formal version was (drumroll, please....) you.

In Early Modern English, thou was the singular and you was the plural. Plural you came to be used as a polite form of address (similar to the French vous, which is also used for the plural), but over time this polite form became more and more common, eventually displacing the singular thou altogether.

This explains a peculiarity of traditional Quaker speech, which one often hears in films set in the early Americas. The Quakers opposed making any distinctions of rank, so they insisted on addressing everyone as thou, not as you. The irony is that today we perceive thou to be archaic and formal, while the original intent is to be more informal.

Update: we don't know if there was any politeness distinction in PIE. In any case, the distinctions that exist in the modern European languages are not inherited from PIE, since the oldest recorded IE languages (Latin, Greek, Sanskrit) did not have separate polite pronouns. The current European system apparently began with the late Roman Emperors and became widespread in the Middle Ages.

Non-IE languages often have more than two levels of distinctness. In Thai and Japanese (the only two languages about which I can speak with confidence), there are a variety of different pronouns that can be used depending on the exact nature of the social relations between the interlocutors, and the system often extends not just to the 2nd person pronoun but to the 1st and 3rd person pronouns as well.

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Damn, thy (excellent) edit ninja'd me. –  Cerberus Jan 24 '11 at 17:34
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Hindi (or Urdu) also has three levels of politeness, as do (according to the Wikipedia article on this, which is called the T–V distinction) Dutch, Czech, Bengali, Turkish, Basque, and dialects of Catalan. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 24 '11 at 18:15
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There is a hypothesis that y'all is now emerging as a formal version of you in certain dialects. See here: "Thomas Nunnally (1994) has offered a second hypothesis for the emergence of yall as a singular. He suggests that it may well be expanding to fill the role of a polite singular, just as you did several centuries ago. He points out that many of the citations of yall singular show the form occurring at the edges of discourse — in greetings, partings, and so forth." –  RegDwigнt Jan 26 '11 at 10:49
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"Thou" is still sometimes used as the singular/informal form of you in some parts of northern England, notably in Yorkshire. "Thou" and "thy" are pronounced "tha" and the corresponding -rt and -st verb endings are not used. Such use is archaic (even comical) elsewhere in England. –  Will Harris Jan 26 '11 at 22:06
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@RegDwight: Y'all as a singular has been around for a long time. Dan Simmons wrote a horror novel Summer of Night about a bunch of children growing up in Southern Illinois in 1960, and in it there's a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who sometimes uses y'all as a singular. At first, I thought the author didn't know what he was talking about. But I did some research, and discovered that indeed y'all was used as a singular by people in the lower socioeconomic classes in that region (where Dan Simmons grew up in the 50s and 60s). –  Peter Shor May 15 '11 at 12:29

Yes. As far as I know, you actually is the formal, originally plural version (ye/you/your) and thou was the informal version (thou/thee/thy/thine). Over time, thou became impolitely informal and is now no longer used, though interestingly enough nowadays it might even be perceived as more formal than you because it's archaic and survives almost exclusively in liturgical language.

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Interesting to note we typically address God in the familiar form, not the formal. –  moioci May 11 '11 at 22:31
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@moioci: As far as I know, the same is true in French, Romanian, Russian, Polish, and Hindi, all of which have T–V distinctions. –  Jon Purdy May 12 '11 at 2:31
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From my Bible-studyin' childhood, I recall Romans 8:15 (King James Version): For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. Years later, when I visited Israel, I was astonished to hear that "Abba" is the equivalent of "Daddy" in modern Hebrew. It put the New Testament into a whole new context for me... –  MT_Head May 15 '11 at 17:01
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The fact that Abba means Daddy in modern Hebrew doesn't mean that it always meant this in the Hebrew of New Testament times. See, for instance: Abba Isn't Daddy - The Traditional Aramaic Father's Day Discussion –  Kyralessa Sep 25 '12 at 16:37
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@JonPurdy And also in Spanish. –  Andrew Lazarus Dec 24 '12 at 7:04

It seems Middle English developed the distinction between formal (you) and informal (thou) versions: this distinction did not exist in Old English. The formal pronoun you was originally a plural form of thou; it can be seen in many languages that a plural form is seen as more polite, which is probably related to the Majestic Plural ("we, King blah blah, grant..."). German Sie comes from plural 3rd person sie; French vous comes from plural Latin 2nd person vos/vester.

Therefore current formal pronouns seem to be relatively modern, convergent developments. I have never heard of formal pronouns in PIE. In classical Latin and Greek, no real formal pronouns were in use either; in Japanese, on the other hand, there are said to be more complex forms of formal pronouns and other words.

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+1 You seem to mention a lot of what @JSBangs does, but it seems to be co-incidental/at the same time! –  Noldorin Jan 24 '11 at 17:35
    
@Noldorin: Thanks! Indeed it was. I could see his first version only; I'd have cancelled mine if I had seen his edit. –  Cerberus Jan 24 '11 at 17:41
    
Yeah, that's what I gathered. Also, I find it very interesting how the TV distinction only appeared in the Middle Ages, in both Romance and Germanic languages, but does not exist in any early IE languages, as you say. It seems to have all stemmed from the Late Roman Empire, but that doesn't easily explain why non-Romance languages have the distinction. –  Noldorin Jan 24 '11 at 17:46
    
@Noldorin: True. While the Germanic languages may have emulated the Romance languages, I think the Asian languages must have developed their versions independently. –  Cerberus Jan 24 '11 at 18:09
    
Absolutely. It seems highly likely that the Germanic languages were influenced by Rome, but that's it. The East Asian languages are totally unrelated of course, and (correct me if I'm before it appeared in Europe - or at least before there was significant contact between them. –  Noldorin Jan 24 '11 at 21:55

Just to clarify since I see it alluded to but not clearly said, you was, originally, the objective plural.

As said, originally, there was no "polite" form. Thou (thu, þu) was the singular subjective/nominative and ye was plural subjective/nominative. After the Norman-French Takeover, some began to try to graft the T-V distinction onto the English pronouns. This led to a lot of confusion and resentment. After it was all said and done, both thou and ye were dropped in favor of you serving as both the sing. and pl. as well as subj. and obj. forms.

Genesis 19:8 KJV is a good byspel to see the subj./obj. forms (Lot speaking to a crowd):

Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you (obj pl), bring them out unto you (obj pl), and do ye (subj pl) to them as is good in your (poss pl) eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.

Personally, I'm very glad that the "polite" form didn't take hold in English. I find it to be a pain when speaking other tongues. Many have informally solved the plural problem with y'all or youse or even you guys.

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If it never took hold, "I thou thee, thou traitor!" makes no sense. –  Jon Hanna Feb 8 '13 at 1:29

Actually, somewhat contrary to the fine answer selected above, you was not originally the form that paired with the familiar singular thee. Rather, the nominative (and vocative) form was ye. The now-common you was originally used in objective forms alone, so accusative or dative.

For example, Wordsworth draws the nominative–dative distinction when he writes in Lyrical Ballads vii: “Yet ye are seven! — I pray you tell, Sweet Maid, how this may be.” A vocative example by Shakespeare can be found in Richard II III. ii. 84: “Looke not to the ground, Ye fauorites of a King.”

The OED explains of ‘ye’ how:

In the earliest periods of English ye was restricted to the nominative plural. In the 13th cent. it came to be used as a nominative singular = ‘thou’, first as a respectful form addressed to a superior. This use survives in modern dialects, especially (in the form ee) in interrog. and imperative formulæ (e.g. Dee = ‘do ye’), but also in objective uses = ‘thee’ (e.g. Oi tell ee). When you had usurped the place of ye as a nominative, ye came to be used (in the 15th cent.), vice versa, as an objective singular and plural (= ‘thee’ and ‘you’).

Now (in all uses) only dial., arch., or poet.; in ordinary use replaced by you pron.

Illustration of Forms:

a. OE ge, gie, gee, ME ȝie, (gie, ge), ME ( ME–17 Sc. printed ze) ȝe, ME ȝee, north. yhe, ME–15 north. ȝhe, ME–16 yee (ME jȝe, hye, ME iȝe, iye, (i)he, 16, 18 dial. yea), ME– ye.

b. In combination, proclitically or enclitically, with other words, as: †ȝet = ye it, yare = ye are, y’have; d’ee, dee = do ye, hark’ee, harkee. Now dial.

1 a. The pronoun used (as the plural of 2nd singular thou pron.) in addressing a number of persons (or, rhetorically, of things), in the nominative (or vocative).

†2 b. In apposition to self (ye self, ye selven = yourselves): see self pron. 2. Obs.

1 c. In apposition to and preceding a n. (or adj. used absol.) in the vocative.

2 a. Used instead of thou in addressing a single person (originally as a mark of respect or deference, later generally: cf. thou n., you pron.).

2 b. In apposition to and preceding a n. in the vocative.

3 a. Used as objective (accusative or dative) instead of you (in plural or singular sense).

†3 b. Used redundantly (‘ethical dative’). Obs.

In contrast, here’s its note about you:

Originally the accusative and dative plural of the second personal pronoun: see thou n. for the declension of the 2nd person pronoun in Old English and Middle English. Between 1300 and 1400 it began to be used also for the nominative ye pron which it had replaced in general use by about 1600. During the 14th century it also appears as a substitute for the singular obj. thee n. and nominative thou n., being originally used in token of respect in addressing a superior, but later also to an equal, and ultimately generally: compare thou pron. 1. Thus you is now the general pronoun of the second person, nominative or objective, singular or plural.

The historical forms given for you are:

Forms: OE–ME eow, (OE ieow, iow ME ȝeau, heou, heow, how, ȝehw) ME eou, ȝeu, ȝew, ME ou, hou, ȝu, ME iou, æu, ew, heu, eo, oeu, howe, ȝeow, ȝuw, ov, ME ow, owe, ȝiu, ME eu, yu, (15 Sc.) ȝou, ME iow, ȝue, ȝuu, ȝouȝ, yuu, youu, yhow, ME ȝowe, ȝhow, ȝo, (15–16 Sc.) ȝow, ME–16 yow, ME ȝoue, ȝewe, ȝhu, yowe, yoow, yw, yo, yewe, Sc. yhu, yhw, ME–15 youe, 15 iow, 16 yew, ME– you, (18 dial. and vulgar yah, yer, also yez pron.).

Whereas the historical forms given for thou are:

OE–ME ðu, OE–ME þu, (ME tu, tou, -te), ME (þe, þeou), ðhu, ME þou, ME–15 thu, (ME þouȝ), ME þow, ( -tow), ME–15 thow, ME, 15 (18 dial.) th-, th’, (ME thowe), ME– thou. (Mod. dial. thau, thaw, thah, tha; theau, theow, thoo, thu; tau, taw, ta, tay; teau, teaw, teu, too, tou, tow; doo, dou, du, etc.: see Eng. Dial. Dict.)

There’s a lot more than that there if you check out the OED entries for ye, thou, and you.


Postscript

It looks like Georgia doesn’t like ȝ (U+021D LATIN SMALL LETTER YOGH) very much.

Hm, I don’t imagine there’s any way to get the font’s small capitals? That would certainly be useful.

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What happened in English pretty much happened in German, and other European languages.

Both German and English started off around 1500 or so, with singular and plural second person pronouns:

  • English þu / ye and German du / ihr

Then the nobility started to require more politeness, and
as is always the case, the unnobility found ways to comply.
In doing so, they followed two basic principles of sociolinguistics, viz:

  1. Third person is more formal (and therefore more polite) than second person.
    Form a polite version of second-person pronouns from third-person forms
    -- and the more elaborate, the better
    (English Your Ladyship ~ Her Ladyship, German polite Er/Sie ist -- 3sg, cf Tieck, ca 1800)
  2. Plural is more formal (ditto) than singular.
    Form a polite version of second-person pronouns from plural forms
    (English polite you in singular, "royal We", German polite Sie sind -- 3pl)

Similar remarks can be made, mutatis mutandis, for Spanish tu/usted and French tu/vous

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protected by RegDwigнt May 15 '11 at 16:17

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