The Change Affecting the Second-Person Pronouns
beginning, in Old English, the rules controlling the use of the
second-person pronouns were straightforward:
and its variant forms (thee, thy, thine) were used in
talking to one person (singular);
and its variant forms (ye, your, yours) were used in
talking to more than one (plural).
and ye were used as the subject of a clause:
thou/ye saw me;
and you were used as the object of a clause: I saw
things began to change during Middle English. The first change was
the emergence of you as a singular, noticeably during the
second half of the thirteenth century. The same kind of development
had already taken place in French, where vous had come to be
used as a polite form of the singular, as an alternative to tu;
and it seems likely that the usage began in English because the
French nobility began to think of the English pronouns in the same
second change took place some time later: during the sixteenth
century the difference between the subject and the object forms
gradually disappeared, and you became the norm in both
situations. Ye was still in use at the end of the century,
but only in contexts which were somewhat literary, religious, or
anyone talking to one person, there was a choice in Early Modern
English: thou or you. And quite quickly the language
evolved a set of social norms, based on the distinction. We can see
them already present in Le Morte Darthur, written between
1461 and 1470. In Book VII, we read of Gareth arriving at Arthur's
court. The king asks Gareth what he wants, addressing him with ye,
which would be the expected polite form to an apparently upper-class
said Arthur, and ye shall have your asking.
then demands food and drink, as if he were a beggar, and this makes
the king immediately change his tone, shown by a switch to
Now, sir, this is my petition for this feast, that ye will give
me meat and drink sufficiently for this twelvemonth, and at that
day I will ask mine other two gifts.
fair son, said Arthur, ask better, I counsel thee, for this is
but a simple asking; for my heart giveth me to thee greatly,
that thou art come of men of worship, and greatly my conceit
faileth me but thou shalt prove a man of right great worship.
Gareth's robust reply temporarily restores the king's confidence –
but not for long:
Sir, he said, thereof be as it be may, I have asked that I will
Well, said the king, ye shall have meat and drink enough; I
never defended [denied] that none, neither my friend nor my foe.
But what is thy name I would wit?
cannot tell you, said he.
That is marvel, said the king, that thou knowest not thy name,
and thou art the goodliest young man that ever I saw.
when Gareth later reveals himself to be the king's nephew, does
ye return as Arthur's normal mode of address.
David Crystal. The Stories of English (Penguin Books,