You and Thou question 6

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Post  Mar1e on Mon Apr 25, 2011 12:21 pm

In morphology, our period sees a gradual but comprehensive decline in the use of the second person singular pronoun thou (in subject position) and thee (in
object position) although, as the linguist Roger Lass has noted, the history of this
form remains ‘intricate and not well understood (alternatively, not entirely coherent)’.1 What is clear is that the opposition of thou/ thee and ye/ you which
was a staple feature of Middle English is almost gone by the eighteenth century,
except in certain specialist registers and in some parts of the north. As thou slips
away moreover, it takes along the matching verb ending -(e)st of forms such as
thou goest, thou thinlest, thou seest, which in turn contributes to that general
reduction of overt inflectional morphology which, as we have seen, had been
under way since the Old English period. In the same vein, the earlier -(e)th/ -(e).
verbal marker for the third person singular present tense first comes to alternate
with the originally northern -(e)s, and is gradually displaced by it. As the
following chapter will examine in detail, forms such as he goeth, she telleth are

therefore gradually replaced by he goes, she tells, via a stage of coexistence when
the same writer can use both in the same passage, and sometimes with the same
verb. Although here an inflectional marker is retained (he goes, she tells), the
overall inventory of English inflectional morphological strategies is again reduced
during this period.

The evidence provided by electronic corpora is nevertheless able to give us a more rounded picture of both of them, but it has also raised some new questions for further studies. Some of these questions are related to other processes of change as, for instance, in the Early Modern English pronoun system (including the disappearance of the pronoun thou). This process will also be traced in the light of corpus data, and the evidence of change and variation which it can illuminatingly provide

• Verbal endings are by no means the only linguistic systems in Tudor English
which make use of the same form for both the solemn and the rural.

• as in the Lord’s Prayer, thou has continued as a regional form until the present day especially in the north and west of England.

• English, just like the other Germanic languages, used to have two second-person pronouns, thou in the singular and you in the plural.

• In Middle English (see p. 107), the use of the plural you started to spread as the polite form in addressing one person.

• Social inferiors used you to their superiors, who reciprocated by using thou. In the upper ranks you was established as the norm among equals. Thou was generally retained in the private sphere, but could also surface in public discourse.

• Helsinki Corpus tells us that thou continued to recede in Tudor English.

• the use of the subject form thou dropped from nearly 500 instances in the First Early Modern English period (1500–1570), to some 350 in the second (1570–1640).

• a full range of genres continued to use thou in the sixteenth century: not only sermons and the Bible but also handbooks, educational treatises, translations of Boethius, Wction, comedy and trials.

• Thou also occurs in sermons and the Bible, as well as the Boethius translations, which are sampled from all three Early Modern English periods in the Helsinki Corpus.

• in the seventeenth century thou can be found in letters exchanged by spouses, and parents may use it when addressing their young children

• As you came to be used in the singular as well as in the plural, the traditional
number contrast was lost in the second-person pronoun system in supra-local uses of English. As a result, as in Modern English, it is not always clear whether you refers to one or more people. DiVerent varieties of English have remedied the situation by introducing plural forms such as youse ,you all, or you guys.

• In the eighteenth century, the distinction was often made by using singular you with singular is (in the present tense) and was (in the past tense); in the plural you appeared with the corresponding are and were.

• Another consequence of the loss of thou was an additional reduction in person marking on the English verb. The use of thou as the subject of the sentence entailed the verb being marked by the -(e)st ending, as in JeVrey’s -s thou tellest, thou may’st, thou dost.

• Marking the second-person singular was systematic in that it also extended to auxiliary verbs (e.g. thou wilt), which otherwise remained uninfl ected for person. It is, in fact, the second-person singular that justifes us talking about a system of person and number marking in English verbs, because it also applies to past-tense forms (as in thou . . . didst defne). As we saw in the previous section, the third-person singular endings -(e)th and -(e)s only applied to present-tense forms in Tudor English, just as -(e)s does today.

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