6

In the Elizabethan era, "thou" was universally used as well as "you". "Thou" represents intimacy. In French, "tu" is still used. The same for German "du".

Why did "thou" become obsolete?

  • 1
    1. Do you suspect that there indeed are vindictive members? I did experience a spate of down-votes after someone was offended by the proposals I had put forth in my answer. – Blessed Geek Oct 15 '14 at 0:02
  • 1
    Why does anything become obsolete? People stopped using it, just like (hopefully) 'whom.' – Ryan Oct 15 '14 at 1:41
  • 4
    This has been discussed here before. It was basically a sociolinguistic shift forced by concentration of capital and political power in a few hands, who made demands for "polite" speech, and later denigration of "impolite" speech. – John Lawler Oct 15 '14 at 2:11
  • 1
    Whilst it's true that most of the readership here are concerned with standard varieties of English - it should still be pointed out that thou is NOT obsolete in the North of England and in some parts of the Midlands. I also have a friend who says a hybrid between thou and you. It has the /j/ from you and the ou from ouch / thou: /jaʊ/! – Araucaria Oct 15 '14 at 9:39
  • 1
    The history of Quaker Plain Speech (which includes a refusal to use the plural you to a single person) got Quakers in lotsa trouble in the 17th century, and ultimately led to their founding Pennsylvania as a Quaker refuge. – John Lawler Oct 15 '14 at 17:52
2

According to the following source it was the use of you used first mainly as a sign of respect and then both as plural and singular form of address to replace thou gradually. (From Etymonline)

Thou:

  • Superseded in Middle English by plural form you (from a different root), but retained in certain dialects (e.g. early Quakers). The plural at first was used in addressing superior individuals, later also (to err on the side of propriety) strangers, and ultimately all equals. By c.1450 the use of thou to address inferiors gave it a tinge of insult unless addressed by parents to children, or intimates to one another. Hence the verb meaning "to use 'thou' to a person" (mid-15c.). Avaunt, caitiff, dost thou thou me! I am come of good kin, I tell thee! ["Hickscorner," c.1530]

  • A brief history of the second person pronoun in English can be found here.

You:

  • Pronunciation of you and the nominative form ye gradually merged from 14c.; the distinction between them passed out of general usage by 1600. Widespread use of French in England after 12c. gave English you the same association as French vous, and it began to drive out singular nominative thou, originally as a sign of respect (similar to the "royal we") when addressing superiors, then equals and strangers, and ultimately (by c.1575) becoming the general form of address. Through 13c. English also retained a dual pronoun ink "you two; your two selves; each other.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.