Language and Life
Looking for a Plural
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
Social and political events affect language. This causes variety and sometimes ambiguity in our language. One instance of this is in the English words for singular and plural you. Among speakers of English, you find many ways of addressing you plural.
Here are a few:
you, youse, you'uns (you ones), youse guys, you all, y'all, y'all all
The “standard” form is you for both singular and plural. But this is ambiguous, sometimes even confusing. So everyone is looking for plural in English!
We used to have a plural. Remember “religious English?” Thou, thee and ye, you. This wasn't religious, really, just old. Those were the words everybody used back then, 400 years ago. When we hear these, we are hearing the remnants of someone else's language bleeding over into ours.
Back then, thou was the singular and ye was the plural. As an object, thee was the singular and you the plural. This is the way that set of pronouns looked:
subject object subject object
thou thee ye you
You recognize: “Ye have heard it said...” and “Go ye...”
Then singular “Go thou and do likewise.” or “thou knowest...” This is for the subject form. The singular object form: “I thank thee...”
Then the plural object “So send I you...,” which in our language would be “So I am sending you.” You is the same here, but everything else has changed. Now the old plural object is the subject and everything else has dropped out. It serves as singular and plural, subject and object! No wonder everybody is looking for a plural. How did we lose the distinction?
The plural You was applied to the King. The king and everybody used to be addressed as thou. But as “Majesty” became more majestic, the King was addressed as plural. Nobles began applying the plural to each other to linguistically enhance their importance in the society.
The king was still more important so they began another distinction for the king by using the third person, as in Majesty or Your Majesty, instead of directly addressing the king.
The Strong Form
The object is called the strong form. The object you became the dominant word, just as in our time the strong form me, is often used “incorrectly” as the subject: “Me and Johnny are going to the park.” Similarly, the subject I is misused today as an object: “The gift is from John and I” (instead of the “correct” object form: “from John and me”). So because of confusion, object and subject are switching places!
So “you” was applied to the King for strength (object) and respect (plural). (Then it was gradually extended to nobles who were “lords” and “ladies,” “big” and “respectable”. And it helped that in the feudal order, they were rich.)
Then with Anglo-Germanic equality, everyone was gradually addressed as “big” and “plural” You. In the same pattern today all men are called gentlemen and addressed as sir to be nice, even though they are not kings or nobles! Even a trace of royalty is heard with nobles in “If it please your lordship.”
In the same way the title mister or master came to be applied to all people. Master is now commonly applied to younger male children.
The title of address for women went through a similar change. A woman was addressed as Mistress, which came to be shortened to Miss. Dialectic differences also produced the pronunciations mizziz and miz. It was written Mrs. Still used today, it is pronounced variously as miziz, mizriz, miz.
When there developed a common desire in modern times to drop the distinction between the married and unmarried titles Mrs. and Miss, it was decided to use Ms. But how to pronounce it? They (whoever “they” were at that time) decided to pronounce it Miz. This made a difference for some dialects but for millions of Americans that was how they already pronounced Mrs.
The same “royal” pattern occurred in all European societies and languages in the Middle Ages. Thou was applied to personal, intimate or inferior people. All European languages did this, and many maintain the distinction today. You may recognize these forms:
French: tu vous
German: du Sie
Spanish: tu usté/usted
Portuguese: tu voce
The Iberian culture was even more “polite” and extended the third person to everybody. We mentioned how in English, the king came to be referred to in the third person as Your Majesty. Spanish and Portuguese extend this 3rd person usage to all people. This is an example of a social euphemism: you are referring not to a person, but to his majesty. The Spanish form, for instance, derives from Vuestra Merced, “Your Mercy, a formal title, like Your Grace (commonly used for Archbishops) or Your Worship (Usd for mayors in England), and similar in English. The vuestra is the plural possessive, yours, equivalent to vos or vosotros, “You ” plural. (Vosotros itself is a derived form, meaning “You others.”)
In Spanish, the plural usted (from Vuestra Merced) is used with the 3rd person verb, like he and she. A new plural of the plural, ustedes, is now used now for you plural! Note that the medieval “importance” is shown in German by capitalizing the plural pronoun now used for singular. I have wondered if the Spanish practice of capitalizing the abbreviation (Ud.) is an indication of this also.
This form of reference is dying out in American forms of these languages. Continental Portuguese still retains this usage. Everybody is still “the lord” or “the lady.” In Portuguese you would ask, “Would the sir (the lord) like a drink?”
Some African languages have gone through a similar process. Some languages even have alternative forms for you plural because of the various social uses. Swahili has three acceptable forms of the verb for you plural. One of them is the same as the third person singular object form!
The English usage developed out of the formal use of you, where the object plural strong form was used for honor. This form came to be used for all forms of singular and plural. So everyone is looking for a plural. We are still experimenting with possibilities in the varieties of the English language. This illustrates how social considerations affect language.
Glaswegians and Houstonians – English Placename Adjective Forms
Accent, Dialect and Language
Related on the Internet:
Thou – Wikipedia
This article was originally published the series “Language and Life ” in the cross-cultural communication journal Afri-Com, January 1997
This version posted on Thoughts and Resources 26 August 2005
Last edited 27 June 2012
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1997, 2005 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.