Sunday, August 1, 2010

What happened to "thou"?

Larry Trask on what happend to the pronoun "thou," quoted in a
Language Hat post from 2002:

English-speakers began to use 'you' as a respectful singular in the
13th century, probably under French influence. Except in conditions of
intimacy, 'you' quickly became established as the ordinary way for an
upper-class speaker to address an equal, as well as a superior, and by
the 16th century 'thou' was all but non-existent in upper-class
speech, except in addressing obvious inferiors. Naturally, this usage
began to be copied by the middle class, and by the 16th century 'thou'
was likewise rare in middle-class speech, except in addressing obvious
inferiors. But 'thou' lingered long among working-class people,
especially in rural areas, and it still survives today in parts of the
north of England, where it has reportedly become something of a badge
of solidarity.

None of this requires any particular explanation, but one point does:
why did the non-reciprocal use of 'you' and 'thou' in power-based
relationships disappear? Now, as Brown and Gilman argue in their
famous paper ["The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity." In Ed. T. A.
Sebeok. Style in Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960. 253-277],
there has been a steady trend (now mostly gone to completion) in
European languages to replace the older non-reciprocal power-based use
of T and V pronouns with a newer reciprocal solidarity-based use.
Something similar appears to have happened much earlier in English,
with the added twist that `thou' was driven out of the standard
language altogether. Nobody knows why, but Leith has an interesting
suggestion. He proposes that 16th-century England, in comparison with
most other European countries, was characterized by a fluid and
prosperous middle class, in which rapid rise was possible by
entrepreneurial success. England, he argues, therefore lacked the
comparatively rigid social structures typical ofother countries, at
least as far as the middle class was concerned. Whereas every speaker
of French or Spanish knew his own station and knew that of everyone
else, so that power-based non-reciprocal usage could be readily
maintained, a middle-class English person was by comparison insecure:
he could never quite be sure whether a stranger was an inferior, an
equal, or a superior. Therefore, Leith concludes, the reciprocal use
of 'you' rapidly took hold among the middle class as the safest
option, as a safe way of avoiding giving offense to a person one might
need to do business with or ask favors of.