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Morphological change


Second person pronouns in English A system of honorifics, as in continental European languages in which there is one pronominal form for formal address and one for familiar address, never really caught on in English, despite a French model to follow. It is true that there were separate forms for the second personal pronouns in the singular and plural. It is also true that the singular was used for familiar address and the plural for more formal address. However, the English system showed one feature which is incompatible with a pronominally differentiated address system such as French, German, Russian, etc. It was possible to use the singular or plural form of address with one and the same individual on different occasions. Now one clear characteristic of continental systems is that you either use the T-form (familiar) or the V-form (formal) but you do not mix them. However, this is precisely what the English did. Hamlet uses different forms (thou versus you) when addressing his mother on different occasions.

If an address system is not exclusive — either one form or the other — then it loses its essential function of differentiating interlocutors on the grounds of pronominal address. Eventually in English, after Shakespeare, the systems collapsed and the plural form survived as the sole manner of direct address. The singular thou form is still found in some dialects of northern English and is common in religious usage, e.g. in prayers.

The original distribution of pronominal forms is given in the following table. The survival of you as the only second personal pronoun is somewhat surprising as this is an originally oblique form. One reason may be its former phonetic similarity with the singular form — thou /ðu:/ and you /ju:/ — before the Great Vowel Shift shifted this and it was lost as a pronoun anyway. There was also a phonetic equivalence between the oblique singular and the nominative plural, thee /ði:/ and ye /ji:/.

Singular Plural
Nom. thou (du) ye (ihr)
Acc./Dat. thee (dich) you (euch)

There are many varieties of English which retain a distinction between singular and plural for second person pronouns. These have one of two systems. The first is the above (quite a rare situation). The second is a simplified system which shows 1) lack of case distinctions, 2) one singular form you and 3) alternative plural forms which are either the inherited nominative plural (ye) or a morphological compound (yous, y’all /jɔ:l/) or a combination of these two options (yees).

Singular Plural
Nom./Acc.Dat. you ye, yees, yous, y’all

The following table summarises the situation across vernacular varieties of English. With the exception of those conservative dialects of northern English which retain thou/thee, there are no special object forms of these pronouns. A genitive form may, however, be found as with y’alls in South African Indian English.

  Singular Plural
English thou (N), thee (W, SW) you, ye
Irish English you ye, youse, yez
Scottish English you yous, yous yins
Newfoundland English you ye
Southern American English you y’all, y’uns
African American English you you, y’all
Caribbean English you unu, wuna, yina, etc.
South African English you youse, y’all
Australian English you youse
New Zealand English you youse
Pacific Creole English yu yupela

In many non-vernacular forms of English world-wide the phrase you guys can be used for both genders to refer to more than one addressee.

Unrecognised morphology In a contact situation it may happen that speakers of the receiving language may fail to recognise the morphological structure of a borrowed word. This has happened with a small group of Scandinavian verbs which were borrowed in the north of England in the late Old English period. Here the reflexive pronominal affix -sk was not recognised by the English and the reflexive verbs were treated as monomorphemic non-reflexive verbs. An example is Old Norse batha-sk which appears as Middle English bask ‘to bathe in sunlight'; another case may be the verb busk from Old Norse bua-sk.

Morphological misinterpretation This is, in a way, the reverse of the previous phenomenon. It can be seen clearly with some French loanwords in Middle English where the final /s/ of a lexical word was misinterpreted as a plural affix (as in English) and removed for the singular form of the loan. An example is Old French cerise which turns up in Middle English as cherry without the final /s/ (in the singular).


Aronoff, Mark and Kirsten Fudeman 2004. What is Morphology? Maldon, MA: Blackwell.

Bauer, Laurie 1988. Introducing Linguistic Morphology. Edinburgh: University Press.

Booij, Geert 2007. The Grammar of Words. An Introduction to Linguistic Morphology. Second edition. Oxford: University Press.

Carstairs-McCarthy, Andrew 2001. An introduction to English morphology. Edinburgh: University Press.

Spencer, Andrew 1991. Morphological theory. Oxford: Blackwell.