Introduction to the use of "thou" and "you"


Why deal with pronouns of address?

In many European languages, which are related to English, two pronouns of address for the second person singular exist (2nd pers. sing.). For example in German, there are Du and Sie, in French tu and vous and in Italian tu and lei. Depending on the relationship between two persons, they either use the more familiar or the more formal one. Deriving from the Latin tu and vos, one uses the symbols T and V, which "stand for the existence of a familiar and a polite pronoun in any language" (Brown and Gilman, "Pronouns of Power and Solidarity", 254). This is also known as T-V-distinction.

In contemporary English, "you" is the only pronoun of address for the 2nd pers. sing. But this has not always been the case. Up to a certain point in time, two pronouns were used within the English language. Some might know the pronoun "thou" from Shakespeare's plays, Metallica Songs, Star Wars or in connection with language used in church.

Generally one can say that in Early Modern English, "thou" was used to address a familiar person (=T) and "you" was the more formal pronoun (=V).

Nevertheless, the use of "thou" and "you" has to be further specified and analyzed. After going through the sections on the development or the implications of "thou" and "you", you will be able to classify the usage in different contexts.

With regards to politeness theory, the use of “"thou" or "you" allows you to judge the behavior of persons in a dialogue. One useful application is the examination of the use of "thou" and "you" in Early Modern English plays. By the examination of the use of the pronouns of address in Shakespeare’s drama, you can draw conclusions about the social relationship and the mood of his characters in a certain situation. Especially the derivation from accepted conventions (for example somebody uses "thou" in a context where "you" is expected) is often of importance.

Furthermore understanding the use of "thou" and "you" in Early Modern English, as well as its development in earlier and later periods helps you to judge the contemporary use of "thou".