9

Simple subject "I":

I went.

Replacing it with "me":

Me went.

That sounds strikingly wrong. We use it for fake "caveman talk".

However, there was a time when it worked like this:

1st person singular, subject/object:

"I"/"me"

2nd person plural (or polite, formal etc 2nd person singular, yes), subject/object:

"ye"/"you"

Speakers at that time would say:

Ye went.

and would find:

You went.

to sound wrong and weird in the same way we currently find:

Me went.

So what I'm wondering is, how did this "ye"/"you"-->"you" merger happen?

Was the "ye"/"you" form just much more rarely used at the time?

If so, I would expect the merger would have happened before the dropping of the "thou"/"thee" pronouns.

Is it known if this the case?

I would guess the question might be a little complicated by dialects developing differently in isolation, and then influencing each other later, but still, is there a general clear answer to:

Was "ye"/"you" merged before "thou"/"thee" was dropped?

  • 1
    +1 - evocative post. Browning and Marlowe and Shakespeare, The Rose, William Penn, King Charles, hats, The Fugitive, you and Thee. I wish I could upvote this more often. – anongoodnurse Dec 27 '13 at 2:24
  • I live in Co. Kerry in the South West of Ireland and Ye (You plural) is in common everyday use. – Mike Edgar Jul 8 '18 at 20:11
  • Could you expand a little on this? In the most commonly known version of "archaic" English, the distinction between "ye" and "you" is not one of number but one of case: as the question says, "ye" was used as a subject pronoun, and "you" as an object pronoun. But you seem to be saying here that in Kerry, "ye" is used as a plural form of "you". – sumelic Jul 9 '18 at 2:02
  • @sumelic (OP here) I actually already knew about the Irish("Hiberno")-English use of "ye"[ji] for the plural-"you". Gaelic has distinct 2s(tú) and 2p(sibh), so I'm guessing that when Gaelic speakers first learned English, they thought like: «Okay, the English word for "tú" is "you"... but what's the word for "sibh", then?» and then they saw "ye" in some archaic-style writing (Bible probably) and assumed that must be it. (That's just my guess, though ; never found any historical evidence or even anyone else forwarding the hypothesis.) – Owen_R Jul 9 '18 at 21:37
  • @sumelic (And as you would prolly expect, Modern Irish-English speakers are inconsistent about always using "you" for 2s and "ye" for 2p (I know personally cuz I've been living in Ireland for a while). They apparently also use "yous/youse"[juz] mostly just in Dublin and Ulster, and "yiz"[jɪz] in Leinster, and "yiz"[jiz] in north Connacht and parts of Ulster, but those are prolly inconsistent as well.) – Owen_R Jul 9 '18 at 21:40
7

In Old English, thou was used for addressing one person and ye for more than one, both as clause subject. Thee and you were used as object.

During the Middle English period, ye/you came to be used as a polite singular form alongside thou/thee.

During Early Modern English, the distinction between subject and object uses of ye and you gradually disappeared. Ye continued in use, but by the end of the 16th century it was restricted to archaic, religioous, or literary contexts. By 1700, the thou forms were also largely restricted in this way.

(Adapted from ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language’ by David Crystal.)

  • +1 But the Quakers rather famously maintained thee as both nominative and accusative. – StoneyB Dec 26 '13 at 22:23
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    So if I read your answer right, the beginning of the end for thou/thee came with the transition to Middle English, but the end itself didn't come until around 1700. The end for Ye essentially came 100 years earlier than that. So "Ye" left the language first. – T.E.D. Dec 26 '13 at 22:38
  • There's nothing technically incorrect in this post, but it doesn't really answer the question of how the object form "you" could come to supplant "ye" when the subject-object distinction has been maintained in other pronouns (even if only redundantly). – siride Dec 27 '13 at 2:44
  • Sooo, apparently yeah, "ye" had finished merging into "you" in "normal" speech by 1600, and "thou/thee" had finished dropping out of "normal" speech by 1700? – Owen_R Dec 27 '13 at 4:00
  • I question whether the subject-object distinction has been maintained in other pronouns. English pronouns have been unstable for centuries, and there is still variability in the use of who / whom, I / me and they. The disappearance of thou / thee was presumably the result of social change. The loss of ye may have been because of its similarity to you. – Barrie England Dec 27 '13 at 8:38
-7

There's a reason "thou" morphed into "you." First, look up the old letter known as thorn. That letter used to represent the sound "th" in English. But back in ye olden days, there wasn't a whole lot of writing going on.

As time went on and writing got more prevalent-- along with printed documents!-- the letter thorn was a pain in the keester to write and to carve into type, so it got simplified into the "y" we know today.

Still, back then, everyone who could read, knew that "y" was pronounced "th." But, what with the state of public education being what it always has been—

Once upon a time, "ye" was actually pronounced "the." And those old English words beginning with "y" were all pronounced with the beginning sound for "th," too. But print came along and then "thou" suddenly looked like "you," so-- of course!-- folks who were just getting the hang of reading began pronouncing the symbol as if it were the modern "y"— because they'd never even heard of "thorn." (Really, had you ever heard of it?)

And that's how it happened. The old pronoun "thou" which had easily kept its original pronunciation when thorn was around, became "you." And since everyone who wasn't a scholar was completely confused as to the proper use of thee, thou, thine, and thissen to start with, and got even more confused when they were spelled with a "y," entropy took over...

And there thou are, my friend. Today there are no more yorns. I hope you all feel more comfortable for it, if no less confused.

(Thou may consult the Oxford English Dictionary if thou don't believe me.)

  • 4
    This answer is horribly wrong. It's also got true facts mixed in with the mistakes in a complicated way, which makes it difficult to correct in a simple way. "Thou" and "you" have always been separate words. They have cognates in related languages (eg German "du/dich/dir" vs "ihr/euch", French "tu/te/toi" vs "vous", etc). One did not come from the other, and certainly not because of a linguistically unprecedented story of an entire population changing the way they pronounced a basic pronoun because someone misread some ancient texts. That's not how language change works. – Owen_R Jul 22 '16 at 5:47
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    You're not even conjugating the verbs correctly. It's "thou art/thou mayst/thou dost". When you write "thou are", that's as cringe-worthy a mistake (to those in the know) as writing "he are". Seriously, I'm being pretty harsh here, because I need to to clearly communicate this useful information to you: You're far too ignorant of this subject to be answering questions on it. You should first recognize your own ignorance and stop repeating confused, false stories about the subject (and then, if you're really interested in it, actually study it). – Owen_R Jul 22 '16 at 6:23
  • 1
    I'm trying not to be mean --we all can't help starting off not knowing what we don't know-- I'm just trying not to obscure the reality of the situation by being too polite. – Owen_R Jul 22 '16 at 6:26

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