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I am learning another language and that made me think of English pronouns. In the first person there is both "I" and "me", so that I can say "I like snakes" and "snakes like me". However, the second person singular only has "you" for these two sentences: "You like snakes" and "snakes like you".

My question is, why does the second person singular only have one form for these two grammatical use cases whereas first person and third person (we/us) each have two? Is there some reason, perhaps psychological, historical, or otherwise, why English developed this way? I think some, but not all languages also have this characteristic.

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    Related reading: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 18, 2022 at 3:55
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    Nobody seems to have picked up on this, but 'we/us' is first-person plural, not third person. Third-person has 'he/him', 'she/her', and 'they/them'.
    – Angelos
    Commented Jul 18, 2022 at 23:13
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    @Robbie: You are wrong. My native language is English and I am also a professional writer. I am extremely comfortable with English but not really well-versed in formal grammatical terms. I also was careful to give an explicit example because I know there are other forms of you such as "thou", so I wanted to give a simple example in which substituting "I" would work in one and not the other. As for the other language, I was thinking of Portuguese, but I did not want to say it because I am not 100% sure there isn't some subtlety in Portuguese that I am missing.
    – user457746
    Commented Jul 19, 2022 at 20:41

3 Answers 3

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The simplest explanation is that in Middle English the unstressed forms "ye" (subject) and "you" (object) were both pronounced the same, /jə/. This led to confusion as to how they should be used, and ultimately elimination of one form.

More specifically, we can see in written sources that there was a sporadic confusion between "you" and "ye" in the 14th and 15th century, and subsequent confusion that in some cases led to regular use of "you" used as subject and "ye" as object, as well as authors using both without a clear distinction.

The OED says (under you):

Originally the accusative and dative plural of the second personal pronoun ... There have been two major changes in the use of you pron.:

(i) Use as a plural subject form, in place of ye pron. This process apparently began in the 14th cent., and you pron. became the dominant form in this function by at least the end of the 16th cent. in most written language. It has long been the invariable form as both subject and object form in almost all contexts in the modern standard language.

(ii) Use as a singular form, originally as an object form and later also as a subject form.

...

Use of you as a plural subject form, and conversely of ye as a plural object form, appears to date from the 14th and 15th centuries respectively, occurring at first rather sporadically ... This may partly have arisen from homophony of unstressed forms of each pronoun (see above on forms), and hence reanalysis. In some early instances you may have been exploited as a more distinctive form in contexts where inversion of usual word order occurred, but the precise circumstances are unclear.

There are other related questions but often the answers are not particularly thorough. But see Why are both "ye" and "you" used as subjects in Anne Bradstreet's To My Dear and Loving Husband?

This is very common across languages, especially in less commonly used plural forms, and it varies which are merged: French has nous/nous (we/us) and vous/vous (you/you) but ils/les (they/them), while German has wir/uns (we/us), ihr/euch (you/you), but sie/sie (they/them). (Russian has more cases but there are still a few duplicates, although some languages have preserved distinctions in all cases.)

Reference: "you, pron., adj., and n.". OED Online. June 2022. Oxford University Press. (accessed July 18, 2022).

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In addition to Stuart F's discussion of the second person plural "you" which has for the last 300 years been the only form in most types of English the (now obsolete) second person singular has nominative and accusative forms "thou" and "thee".

This means that a person in the 1600s would have turned your sentences into "Thou likest snakes" and "Snakes like thee" which have the form you expect from the first person singular.

The reasons that Standard English dropped the first person singular are complex and rooted to some extent in the politics of the late 1600s but some regional dialects preserved it in a slightly altered form until at least the late 1900s.

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    Surely thou jestest! Ic erst wist thee the gestour on reading thine assertion that Standard English hath of olde its first person singular ydropped.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 18, 2022 at 13:36
  • @tchrist I jest not, however a f*** up indeed have I made!
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jul 18, 2022 at 23:45
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    Err, first person is I/we(/me/us), right? You/ye/thou/thee are second person and it's the 2nd person singular (thou/thee) that's obsolete?
    – ilkkachu
    Commented Jul 19, 2022 at 8:10
  • @ikkachu sure is, see my comment answering tchrist. Also I hadn't realised that I'd made two errors. Comes of contributing to EL&U when I'm in bed and supposed to be going to sleep!
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 6:25
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Possibly this is due to the influence of French. Compare: Vous vous appelez Gaston? Non, je m'appelle Claude. Blame it on William I and the battle of Hastings.

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