When did you use which pronoun?

In the section "How did "you" come into play? it was said that in general "you" was the polite form and "thou" the familiar one. There have also been set up two general rules. These Rules are further explained and illustrated with examples; furthermore, a third rule is drawn up.

The considerations about "thou" and "you" (nominative) are of course valid for thee, thy/thine and you, your (objective, possessive), too.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The term rule does neither mean that the guidelines I make up were binding, nor that they are exhaustive; I simply try to describe the conventions in the Early Modern English period! Deviations from this "unwritten rules" were often the case.

First Rule: "The superior said "thou" and received "you" (=reverential you or reverential V), the inferior said "you" and received "thou" ".

In general you can say that "you" was the pronoun for the 2nd pers. plural as well as the "singular of reverence" and of "polite distance" (Brown and Gilman, "Pronouns of Power and Solidarity", 252).

To receive the reverential you the addresse needs some basis of power, for example a high social status in society deriving from:

  • birth
  • wealth
  • a high position in the church/the state/the family
  • sex
  • age

On the basis of this information we can imagine some contexts in which a person received "you":

the person

  • belonged to the nobility - Read here who belonged to the upper classes or to the lower classes!
  • was addressed by a slave or servant
  • was addressed by other members of the upper class (reciprocal V)
  • was addressed by his (or her) children
  • was addressed by his wife

Second Rule: "High solidarity rendered the use of "thou" more probable". This means that "thou" (always used for a single person) was used to address a familiar person (=T of intimacy) or somebody with whom you shared certain features (same social status, profession, family etc.). Brown and Gilman describe that "very gradually, a distinction developed which is sometimes called the T of intimacy and the V of formality" (Brown and Gilman, "Pronouns of Power and Solidarity, 257). According to these two points, contexts in which a person was addressed with "thou" could have been for example:

the person

  • was a slave/sevant, addressed by somebody with higher or the same (or lower) social status
  • was addressed by his parents
  • was addressed by a familiar (friend, lover)
  • was addressed by her husband [Sometimes a husband addresses his wife with "thou" while she replied with "you", according to the doctrine that he was her master, but this was definitely not always the case; (cf. Barber, 209).]

A Third Rule could be: "Thou was used to indicate certain emotions". With regard to politeness theory, Brown and Gilman state that "affect strongly influences politeness (increased liking increases politeness and decreased liking decreases politeness)" (Brown and Gilman, "Politeness Theory", 159). The fact that decreased liking decreases politeness supports the thesis that "thou" was also used to express anger or to insult sombody (="contemptuous T").

The fact that increased liking increases politeness does not contradict the thesis that "thou" was also used to show certain emotions (for example love) or to express intimacy. Bearing this in mind, "thou" could also be used

  • to express anger or contempt
  • to express love and affection
  • to insult somebody (also somebody of higer social rank)

"Between equals, pronominal address was reciprocal[...]. During the medieval period, and for varying times beyond, equals of the the upper classes exchanged the mutual V and equals of the lower classes exchanged T Brown and Gilman, "Pronouns of Power and Solidarity, 256). This was due to the fact that the use of "you" as 2nd pers. sing. pronoun was introduced at the top of society and gradually spread down the social hierarchy (cf. Development of "thou" and "you").

As "you" was the neutral form and "thou" could be used as a marker of intimacy, affection or contempt, "you" is also called the marked and "thou" the unmarked form (cf. Brown and Gilman, "Politeness Theory", 177).