From the top of my head, Danish "de" (practically never used), German "Sie", Chinese "您", 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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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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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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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.
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 contrast, here’s its note about you:
The historical forms given for you are:
Whereas the historical forms given for thou are:
It looks like Georgia doesn’t like ȝ (U+021D
Hm, I don’t imagine there’s any way to get the font’s small capitals? That would certainly be useful.
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):
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.
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:
Then the nobility started to require more politeness, and
Similar remarks can be made, mutatis mutandis, for Spanish tu/usted and French tu/vous
protected by RegDwigнt♦ May 15 '11 at 16:17
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