Why There Is No Polite Way of Saying ‘You’ in English
Other languages have polite second-person pronouns. English used to have one, too.
If you studied French at school, you may recall the mild culture shock that comes with learning the second-person pronouns. Tu and vous both translate as “you,” but can’t be used interchangeably. Provided you’re speaking to one person, you have the rather dicey task of assessing how formal you should be with your addressee, taking into account their age and status, as well as how familiar you are with them. This would seem cut and dry if you were talking to a toddler or a tax collector, but consider, for example, a co-worker who is close to you in age, yet ranks higher than you within your company. Use the familiar form and you risk seeming insolent. Use the polite form and you might give them a complex about how old they look.
This is a dilemma encountered not only in French, but in many of the world’s major languages, from Spanish to Russian to Arabic. In English, however, any individual whom you address is simply “you,” whether it’s the president or your pet rabbit. From this perspective, English seems comparatively egalitarian and laid-back, like a cool boss who lets everyone wear band tees to work. You might be wondering what makes English different. Is the uniform “you” indicative of something innate within Anglophone culture? Does this simplicity prove that English is better than other languages?
People agonize over how to begin an email; we don’t need the additional worry about which form of “you” to use.
Before we jump to any radical conclusions, let’s get one thing straight. The T/V distinction (the name given to this pronominal binary by linguists Robert Brown and Albert Gilman in their essay “The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity”) does indeed exist in English, but in most parts of the Anglosphere, it has long been obsolete. “Thou” is the equivalent of French’s tu, establishing familiarity and intimacy, while “you” corresponds to vous, creating distance and connoting respect. Somewhere along the way, the formal pronoun overtook the informal one and became the sole form of address in English. Technically, we’re all being unintentionally reverent of one another, even when we say “fuck you.”
O “thou,” where art thou?
So what happened to “thou”? It rears its head when we recite the 10 Commandments and excerpts of Romantic poetry, but drop it into casual conversation and at best you’ll be met with stares. Its history is a long one — its early form “þu” was present in Old English, as evidenced by Beowulf, which may have been written as early as the eighth century. At the time, it served exclusively as the second-person singular pronoun; formality wasn’t yet a concern. It wasn’t until the Middle English period that the T/V distinction began to appear, making “thou” and “ye” (later “you”) tools by which social hierarchies could be delineated. The writings of Geoffrey Chaucer provide helpful insight into how the second-person pronouns were used during this time. As Walter Skeat commented in his notes on The Canterbury Tales:
Thou is the language of a lord to a servant, of an equal to an equal, and expresses also companionship, love, permission, defiance, scorn, threatening: whilst ye is the language of a servant to a lord, and of compliment, and further expresses honour, submission, or entreaty.
While the emergence of the T/V distinction in English was most likely a result of French influence from the Normans who occupied England between 1066 and 1154, our system of address was far more fickle than its French counterpart. In English, the pronoun a speaker may use to address someone could change from conversation to conversation, even from sentence to sentence, depending on the purpose and emotion behind what they were saying. Consider the famous opening act from Shakespeare’s King Lear, which sees the princess Cordelia quickly turned from the title character’s favorite child to a disinherited exile. Lear first asks her, “What can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.” Only a matter of lines later, after Cordelia has refused to lavish him with praise in exchange for her share of the inheritance, he calls her “thou my sometime daughter.” Ice cold.
This instability is perhaps what led to the eventual demise of the informal term. After a while, “thou” had less to do with familiarity and more to do with belittlement: transcripts from 16th-century court cases show judges sometimes broke convention by “thou”-ing defendants whose crimes they found especially heinous. English speakers began to err on the side of caution in civil conversation by using “you” with all strangers and acquaintances so as to avoid causing accidental offense; this eventually became common practice even in the company of one’s nearest and dearest. When exactly this happened is unclear — the trend probably began with the upper classes and took some time to trickle down into the rest of the population — but it is certain that “thou” had become conspicuous in everyday speech by the mid-18th century. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary confirms that in 1755 the word was used “only in very familiar or very solemn language.” By the 19th century, it was already being discussed by grammarians from a historical perspective.
And thus the word fell into oblivion, never to be uttered again outside of the Lord’s Prayer. Or did it? “Thou” still retains some currency in certain dialects of Northern England, where it has morphed into “tha.” Phrases like Tha wot? (“You what?”) and Where’s tha bin? (“Where have you been?”) are not uncommon to hear in the rural hamlets of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The object pronoun, “thee,” has also been preserved, as evidenced by this video of a Yorkshire man giving a rhyming overview of the word’s usage. That being said, it’s unclear whether or not this means the T/V distinction also survives — a landmark 1962 survey of English dialects showed that some speakers viewed “tha” as a marker of familiarity, while others asserted that it could be used to refer to anyone, regardless of the speaker’s relationship to the addressee. Today, as its usage becomes increasingly rare, its connotations are only becoming more difficult to discern.
“Thou” art unfit for any place but hell
One question you might raise is why Anglophones never felt compelled to fill the void left by the departure of the T/V distinction. In her book Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: The Semantics of Human Interaction, Anna Wierzbicka suggests that the reason may be cultural, linked to the concept of “privacy” which is, in her estimation, “characteristically Anglo-Saxon.” She sees the usage of “you” as a “distance-building device.” Anglophones’ intrinsic standoffishness is visible elsewhere in our social customs, such as our preference for shaking hands as a greeting rather than kissing, which is normal in Mediterranean and Slavic cultures where the T/V distinction has by and large survived. Obviously, this argument is hardly bulletproof. Germans typically shake hands to say hello, too, yet in their language, the pronominal binary (du/Sie) is very much alive.
A more straightforward answer may be that there is no need to compensate for this linguistic loss. Sure, the absence of a T/V distinction in English can create the occasional nuisance for translators — for example, this moment from La Vie En Rose, in which Édith Piaf suggests she and her date switch from using vous to tu, has no satisfactory English translation (notice the subtitler opted for the vague “Let’s not be so formal”). But this is more or less where the difficulties end. People agonize over how to begin an email (too many exclamation marks? Would a smiley face be completely inappropriate?); we don’t need the additional worry about which form of “you” to use. Languages that observe the T/V distinction are actually in the minority on a global scale, and there are several languages other than English in which it once existed but has gradually fallen out of use, like Swedish and Irish. What’s more is that the internet age has ushered in something of a revolution in languages like French, German, Persian and Chinese — social media users posting in these languages exhibit a strong preference for the informal pronoun, even when the person they’re addressing is a total stranger. This would indicate that the practice of honoring social hierarchies through language is not long for the modern world. And the timing couldn’t be better, as third-person pronouns are becoming an increasingly serious point of contention. Let’s be thankful for “you” — one pronoun that isn’t quite so difficult to navigate.