TRISTAN ROBERTS discusses the unique ‘you’ through the ages and language clarity.
Nevile Martin Gwynne, author of the prescriptivist grammar book “Gwynne’s Grammar", reportedly stated that changes which "are not in the direction of greater richness, clarity, and precision" (Epstein, 2014) should not enter the English language. Some may see this as a great opportunity to improve the language, for example introducing the dialectal “youse” to Standard English.
I, He, She, We, Double U?
In current Standard English, we have singular and plural personal pronouns. The plural form of “I” is “we”, the plural form of “he” and “she” is “they”, and the plural form of “you” is… also “you”. “You” is a unique pronoun, according to the authors of Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002, p. 426), due to a historical extension of the pronoun from plural to singular.
Indeed, in the Middle English of the 1500s, “thou” occupied the position of singular second person pronoun, while “you” was the plural form. One theory for why this fell out of use was the increasing desire for formality, as historically “you” was sometimes used as singular in formal contexts (Pensalfini, 2014). Whatever the reason, a gap in the clarity of English may have appeared.
Even further back than that, Old English had a category of pronouns specifically for referring to a group of two people (Nosowitz, 2016). As useful as a category such as that may be in the English of today, it’s likely best to tackle one problem at a time.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists “youse” as a plural form of “you” that appeared in the 1900s and is common in both the UK and Australia (OED Online, 2015). It is derived, predictably, through the addition of the plural ending “-s” to the second person pronoun “you”. The first examples listed suggest that the term originated in Ireland before spreading to other areas.
American linguist Paul Reed asks, “why would we have one word for something as fundamental as singular and plural?”, and points to several terms, “youse” included, as examples of cases where dialect speakers have taken it on themselves to fix the problems of Standard English (Nosowitz, 2016).
Mummify a Language to Preserve Quality?
Similar to Middle English, French has a distinction between the singular and plural second person pronouns. There’s the singular “tu” and the plural “vous” pronouns. Also like Middle English, the second person plural “vous” is also used as singular in formal speech.
One difference between Middle English and French, and perhaps the one that prevented the second person pronoun distinction from dissolving, is the presence of the Académie Française. According to their website, this organisation has been the official authority on the French language since the 1600s.
Jonathan Swift, author of the famous Gulliver’s Travels, once proposed an official Academy of English in 1712. His proposal was based on prescriptivist thinking, concerned that the English language had become filled with “Abuses and Absurdities”, and wanted for the Académie Française to serve as an example of saving the language. Perhaps if such an academy had existed in England before “thou” had died out, prescriptivism would have prevented the distinction between pronouns from being lost.
Studies have suggested a popular aversion to “youse” as a fresh alternative, however. Elena Sheard, a linguist at the Australian National University, organised a study into the ideologies and stereotypes surrounding the word “youse” in 2019. In this study, individuals who claimed to never use the word “youse” described it as sounding “uneducated” and “not a word”. The word was seen by participants to be associated with “deprived and disadvantaged” social groups (Sheard, 2019), and 2/3s of participants said that they would never use the word.
Australian lexicographer Susan Butler (2014) suggests that the historical “lowly status” of Irish English is the reason that the poor pronoun never found itself standardised, and instead maintained its reputation as an improper colloquialism.
The need for a distinction itself has been disputed by some. One particular linguist, Otto Jesperson, reportedly described the difference between singular and plural second person pronouns as a “useless distinction” (Braier, 2015).
Another popular alternative is “y’all”, an extremely prevalent term in the American South (Nosowitz, 2016). The Oxford Online Dictionary (OED Online, 2015) places this term as far back as the 1800s, although it too is noted to mark informality. “Yinz”, a compounding of “you ones”, is another example from America which serves the same purpose (OED Online, 2015). Many speakers of British English loath allowing terms with American origins into their language, such as journalist Hephzibah Anderson (2017), who criticises many Americanisms as “meaningless” and “ungainly”.
To split or not to split
Perhaps, then, a return to “thou” would be best. Nevile Martin Gwynne himself justifies his disdain for split infinitives by saying that "Shakespeare never needed to split an infinitive" (Epstein, 2014), so a return to Middle English’s solution to the problem might be preferable. Along with it, the distinction between the subjects and objects of sentences can be reintroduced, which are covered by the Middle English “thee” and “ye”.
The gaps that have appeared in the English language present a difficult problem for prescriptivists. The English language has unquestionably changed over time, arguably for the worst, so the question now is this: should we preserve the language as it is in its current state, or should attempts to make the language more “precise” be welcomed? Prescriptivism failed to prevent “thou” and “thee” and “ye” from falling out of standard use, but an aversion to change may still prevent the introduction of an accepted replacement.
Written by Tristan Roberts
Clayton, D. (2011). Strictly english: The correct way to write and why it matters. National Association for the Teaching of English.
Epstein, J. (2014). Book review: 'gwynne's grammar' by N.M. gwynne & 'the sense of style' by steven pinker; good grammar is crucial to clear thinking, say the language grumps. nonsense, say cognitive scientists. nobody seems to know why intelligent people write inscrutable prose. Dow Jones & Company Inc.
Huddleston, R., & Pullum, G. K. (2002). The cambridge grammar of the english language. Cambridge University Press.
Sheard, E. (2019). Variation, language ideologies and stereotypes: Orientations towards like and youse in western and northern sydney. Australian Journal of Linguistics.
Swift, J. (1712). A proposal for correcting, improving, and ascertaining the english tongue. London.