I'm translating a historical fiction novel set in Medieval times. The formal and informal forms of treatment (T-V distinction) play an important role in the plot so I considered the best option was to use 'thou'-'ye'. However, respecting the verbal conjugation:

I start
Thou startest
He, she, it starteth
We start
Ye (or you) start
They start

... make the dialogues a bit difficult.

  1. Would it be acceptable to use 'thou startest' and 'ye start' but 'he starts'?

  2. How appropriate would it be to keep 'you' instead of 'ye'?


In the original text, there is a sharp contrast between two couples of different generations, with the older couple using a formal registry and the younger couple (incidently, the son of the older couple) preferring a more informal registry. This is part of the generational conflict (traditional and conservative vs. modern and liberal) that moves the plot. There are two particular instances where the sentence (in modern English) would simply be 'you, madame', but one character says 'thou, madame' while the other says 'ye, madame'. Hence my decision to use these forms.

On the other hand, I do not wish to burden the text with more archaisms, hence the idea of maintaining the verbal conjugation as modern as possible.

  • 3
    Worth reviewing the answers to this question before you commit to a particular style: Did English ever have a formal version of “you”?. – Dan Bron Dec 19 '16 at 18:27
  • 2
    It needs careful handling. Use the pronouns and keep the modern verb forms as much as possible: thou should instead of thou shouldest, etc. Ye is a no-brainer since the verb forms are unchanged. Read other authors to see how they've managed it. – Mick Dec 19 '16 at 18:32
  • No one recognizes the you/thou distinction in English (except for possibly some very small communities like some older Yorkshiremen and Quakers at 'meetings'. Thou comes across today as 'faux Shakespearean'. To show a respect distinction, you have to 'entirely do something else'. I suggest 'yes ma'am' for formal address, and a blunt 'yeah' for informal/impolite. – Mitch Dec 19 '16 at 21:31
  • Oh...but this is historical fiction, set in medieval times? Then maybe you/thou is appropriate here. But it will sound literally medieval. – Mitch Dec 19 '16 at 21:33
  • You mentioned that you're translating. Is one option to keep the formal addresses from the original language? An astute reader will likely pick up the differing forms of address without needing exposition to explain it. – TriskalJM Dec 20 '16 at 18:34

Who is the audience for this translation? Would they be comfortable reading Shakespeare?

Shakespeare (early modern English) used thou goest, he goes, and used you as a subject pronoun quite often (probably more often than ye). So it sounds like you want to use Shakespeare's pronouns and conjugations. Modern audiences are probably more familiar with these than with true Middle English pronouns.

If you can keep the dialog vaguely Elizabethan, so the use of thou doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, you might be fine. For a novel set in Mediaeval times, I don't see anything wrong with semi-Elizabethan dialog combined with modern English narrative.

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Obviously, this is a difficult matter to resolve. I've thought on it .

The translation will be in Modern English, so, older pronoun usage will stick out like a sore thumb.
A possible solution is to use "you" for second person (as in Modern English), except when formal address would be required. When formal address is required, the speaker could use "vous".

"You, Madame" contrasting with "Vous, Madame".

I believe this would be less of a burden on the modern reader than a resurrection of older pronouns. Current verb forms could be retained
I realize that this is not the direction intended. But, obviously, that direction has produced no answers. I see no good destination for the use of older pronouns.

This is no stretch, using French. Many times in my life I have heard English speakers use vous, votre, merci , oui etc. to indicate respect to the addressee.
Other generational language differences are easier in Modern English, they are all around us. For example:

"Vous, Madame" contrasting with "You, ma'am".

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