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Did English ever have a formal version of “you”? (english.stackexchange.com)
294 points by psawaya on Feb 11, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 193 comments

Second person used to be:


   Thou      Ye, You

   Thee      You

   Thine     Yours

   Thy       Your
Which correspond to the nominative, objective, and possessive cases accordingly.

By the way, the "Ye" is not related to the "Ye" in store signs that say "Ye Olde...". Y was sometimes used by typographers instead of the Old English letter Þ(Thorn), which makes a "Th" sound, so those store signs should be pronounced as "The Old..."

The usage of "You" instead of "Thou" began in the 14th century. It was originally used in token of respect when addressing a superior, and eventually began to be used when addressing equals.

EDIT: Removed part about "you all", because some things I said were wrong and others I will have to look up.

Interesting. So the way we learned the Lord's Prayer, it seems to use the informal: "Thy will be done". But that doesn't correlate with addressing God as "LORD", does it?

Edit: I looked this up and found this page: http://brandplucked.webs.com/theeandye.htm

It seems to infer that "thou, thee" etc. are only about distinguishing between singular and plural. There's no mention of them being an informal form, at least not in the King James Bible.

Even more:

"As William Tyndale translated the Bible into English in the early 16th century, he sought to preserve the singular and plural distinctions that he found in his Hebrew and Greek originals. Therefore, he consistently used thou for the singular and ye for the plural regardless of the relative status of the speaker and the addressee. By doing so, he probably saved thou from utter obscurity and gave it an air of solemnity that sharply distinguished it from its original meaning. Tyndale's usage was imitated in the King James Bible, and remained familiar because of that translation."

Then more from Wikipedia - the plot thickens!

"Early English translations of the Bible used thou and never you as the singular second-person pronoun, with the double effect of maintaining thou in usage and also imbuing it with an air of religious solemnity that is antithetical to its former sense of familiarity or disrespect."

Also, apparently French uses the informal (see "toi" in the Lord's Prayer), whereas Dutch uses formal (U/uw).

Korean has many grades of "you" that can manipulate politeness and formality somewhat independently. Most younger people in Seoul today would speak to a stranger using a grammatical register that is both informal and polite. It communicates the idea that we can be "at ease" instead of at attention with each other, but we're not going to be presumptuous about being old buddies. We'll be casual, yet polite.

But I was surprised to hear people addressing God in a Christian prayer using a form of you that is both more formal than the form I described above (no surprise so far), yet less polite (there's the surprise.) It's not an impolite form, just a form that makes it clear in a formal ("at attention") setting that you are speaking to a peer, not a superior.

Korean honorifics were puzzling enough to me without this mystery, and it was only later that I discovered that Western languages that still distinguish between a simple formal and informal you seem to always choose the latter.

I've always speculated that the Korean pronoun choice is a result of translating the Western practice to Korean. I've never been able to test that, though, because older Korean religions such as Buddhism don't talk directly to any deities (that I've ever witnesses, anyway), so there isn't any form of "you" used at all.

How about Mugyo?

The "our Father" part (in English) is the problem. The consensus is that the Aramaic word used in the original (whether or not one believes that the original ever issued from the mouth of a particular person; this is linguistic rather than religious) would have been abba (transliterated, of course), which is more like "Papa" or "Dad" than "Father", at least in relatively modern usage. A familiar form of address, in other words. (Not so familiar that a little bit of flattery wouldn't be in order before asking for your allowance, etc.) How that relationship translates into pronouns varies by culture; some would maintain the more formal or respectful form even within the intimacy of the household.

When that translation was made, father was not considered formal. Words like papa weren't in use and dad was considered baby talk.

Any formalness ascribed is due solely to changes in the vernacular.

> [The page] seems to infer

You mean, it seems to imply. You're suffering from the common confusion between "infer" and "imply". Generally, a writer or speaker implies, while a reader or listener, or an observer of a situation, infers something about what was said or observed.

The confusion stems, I suspect, from the fact that there are contexts in which either word could make sense. Consider:

   (1) Are you inferring that layoffs are coming?
   (2) Are you implying that layoffs are coming?
It's easy to imagine a situation in which either of these questions could sensibly be asked. They are different questions, however. "Are you inferring" asks whether you have seen or heard clues that lead you to strongly suspect that layoffs are coming. "Are you implying", on the other hand, asks whether you have intentionally said something from which I might reasonably conclude that layoffs are coming.

Maybe addressing God informally is a sign of trust and spiritual intimacy.

By the way in the Hungarian language the informal 'te' is used to address not just friends, family and God, but also the king/queen. (Well, was used when there was a Hungarian monarch.)

Apparently almost every language has its own way: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T–V_distinction

In German, the informal is used and I was told it's because it is "God the father."

And in parts of America, people call their father Sir.

In Italian, the informal 'tu' is used. No idea why, or what the history of that is.

Same in french, in this case I think it implies that God is "part of the family" so to speak, someone very close, not a stranger.

"Vous" is formal but it doesn't necessarily mean that "tu" is informal, it just implies a certain form of intimacy.

Also, I'd like to point out that using the plural "you" as polite/formal also kind of works with plural "we" as in the "royal we": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_we

I'm not sure if both are directly related though.

Biblical Greek has no formal, only singular/plural. Same with vulgar Latin. Latin and Greek are rude languages and the our father is a rude prayer, so tu/toi/thou are perfectly appropriate.

Curiously, unlike Dutch, German uses informal. "Dein Wille geschehe..."

French also uses informal. "... c'est à toi qu'appartiennent le règne"

I was always under the impression that it was meant to be the more personal/intimate form in the Lords Prayer to reflect the use of Abba for 'father'

That seems fair, and actualy logical from the persective that `god` is above all and with that has his own introductionary terms of reference. That said the English language has many logical traps and pitfalls with its exceptions to rules. You can even say religion defies logic in many ways. So to have a logical reference to religion via `lord` not only makes logical sense, in a language with logical exceptions in reference to a subject with logical exceptions. Guess two negatives do make a positive. That all said "praise be" still seems odd as no reference towards what is praised is indicated.

But I do love the thy, thee,thine olde English, has period character and if you use those terms, or indeed any term that is out of fashion in todays evolving languages. Well you either seem educated or odd by others in general. Though word racisim comes in many forms.

A couple of other English pronoun tidbits:

- The third person plural set (they, their, them) was borrowed from Scandinavian (it's pretty uncommon for languages to borrow 'core' vocabulary such as pronouns).

- Old English (Anglo-Saxon) also had dual forms of the pronoun. Those were lost by Chaucer's time though. Not sure if they are reflexes of early PIE dual forms or a more recent development from Proto-Germanic.

[Sara Malton] [1] has some interesting ideas about how the you/thee distinction developed in the semantic dimensions of power as well as familiarity in Early Modern English.

There are many new 2p. plural forms developing in English that vary regionally and socially, e.g y'all, you guys, yous, you'uns (-> yinz), all y'all.

[1]: http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/6361Malton.ht...

What value does abbreviation "PIE" add to a discussion for relative laymen?

I'm guessing it stands for "Proto-Indo-European", a phrase I'll bet nearly no one outside advanced degree word nerds (invoked lovingly) uses or has heard.

Sorry for the soapbox.

If you ever have studied comparative-historical linguistics, you know the abbreviation is frequent and necessary. So, the question is, what are the chances that someone familiar with it might use it and not even think about it? Your response assumed it was fully conscious. In any event, we're in the land of acronym pandemonium here, between CS, Data Science, Web terms, etc. PIE is a drop in a big bucket.

Medical, wow. The same abbreviation is used within different sub specialities frequently. The fact that any patients leave any facility alive when their doctor sends them for a test, with a referral that spouts acronyms, abbreviations and generally aliterate scrawl is amazing. Eg. Phx COPD, Ca 10/12 Tx RT. C+ CT ?PE. And assuming you can read it, this is a good one. Some specialists even invent their own abbreviations, diligently reusing existing ones. And then they are surprised when asking for an MRA gets an MR angiogram rather than an MR arthrogram. Medical abbreviations must die.

The point is that it's highly likely the subset of Hacker News that has studied comparitive-historical linguistics is small, and that the usage of field-specific jargon is exclusionary and obfuscatory.

I studied rhetoric and technical communication for some time, and know quite well the usefulness of field-specific terminology for initiated readers. This, however, is not a comparitive-historical linguistics symposium and, as a multidisciplinary forum, I find no reason we should not to expect commentators to write to their actual audience.

Down-vote all you like, it doesn't change the fact that jargonistic writing for general audiences is rarely necessary and most often laziness.

In this case acronym is not being used jargonistically, it's being used to avoid writing out "Proto-Indo-European language" and perhaps more importantly acts as a useful indicator that this is not a novel concept in the field. It is seen frequently and unambiguously in any discussion about linguistics.

I recommend you avoid throwing around accusations of laziness: if you're genuinely not aware that PIE stands for Proto-Indo-European language, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PIE acts as a perfectly good source.

(I hadn't intended to make this such a conversation, apologies to tikwidd for building a mountain...)

I've assistant edited academic journals and spent years as a copywriter/editor at a consulting firm that worked in many specialized industries. That accusation was leveled with purpose and from experience.

This is not only about the acronym above, though PIE does have many meanings[1]. That an acronym has a specific meaning to a specific group is why it is jargon. That it is "not a novel concept in the field" further reinforces that and is justification for writing it out, given the audience. It's really that simple.

The primary effect of acronyms on a non-indoctrinated audience is to reduce the writing's accessibility.

Simply, this is not a linguistics conference nor journal forum, and it is inappropriate to assume the folks here will know field specific acronyms.

1: http://www.allacronyms.com/PIE

What should people do? Write it out in full once then use the initialism? Once per post or per thread?

Does it make any difference that it is spelt in full in the linked question?

> From the top of my head, Danish "de" (practically never used), German "Sie", Chinese "您", French "vous", Spanish "usted" are a formal way of addressing someone, especially if one isn't familiar with the addressee. Did English ever have this? It sounds as though Proto-Indo-European might have had this (based on my 4 examples), but perhaps someone can enlighten me?

You think the use of PIE is bad, just wait until they bust out the ASCII IPA.

(I am thick as 2 short planks but I've heard of PIE. HN should be a place where people like me need to work hard to keep up.)

I think recognition of "PIE" as "Proto Indo European" in this context is a reasonable thing to expect of moderately sharp people with a liberal education.

Even the ones studying linguistics on some language other than English may not necessarily be used to some random TLA, in the same way most of people in the world would have no idea which topic in schools is called PE in some north american dialect.

What does the Texas Library Association have to do with it? ;)

I knew what it meant and don't have any advanced degree. I suspect that's because the very first comment to the linked question is, literally, "PIE = Proto-Indo-European"

If you don't read the page people are talking about, don't be surprised if you can't follow the conversation.

That comment was added after this thread started, as I read through the comments before adding my own.

"25 PIE = Proto-Indo-European – hydrogen Jan 26 '11 at 2:57"

I'm referring to the linked page. That's the one you're supposed to read, not just the HN comments.

I don't think its possible to discuss linguistics at any more than the most superficial level without encountering PIE. Or the history of Persian Empire-ish area where it developed. Or computer related linguistics. Or the history of linguistics or natural language processing, since this discovery was a "triumph" about a century or so ago. People living in indo-european geography with frankly weird languages not derived from PIE are usually inordinately proud of it and glad to tell you all about PIE and how their weird sounding language isn't related to PIE, even if simply don't care. Research results occasionally make it into popular journalism and invariably discuss PIE "This is what language sounded like 5000 years ago, it'll blow your mind" type stuff. There are also "easy read" popular science type books like the David Anthony Horse Wheel and Language. Those are all separate areas where I've independently run into it. It seems I'd have had to work hard to avoid it.

There are probably others. Archaeologists would probably run into it and people into old english lit are likely to roll the clock back, perhaps genetic analysis of migration would inadvertently discuss PIE.

Its like demanding we talk in detail about an obscure deep dark corner of the C programming language without confusing slang like "pointers" or "function". Well, good luck with that.

Even worse this isn't a discussion about lisp lambdas this is specifically a discussion about a weird corner of historical linguistics. Demanding that it be presented in "up goer 5" format isn't going to work.


Singular: Thou would like Bob to give thee thy ball. It is thine, and then thou will feel good about thyself.

Plural: Ye would like Bob to give you your ball. it is yours, and then ye will feel good about yourselves.

Not really sure how to ask "Are you okay?" of a singular person, though...

You need to change the conjugations as well.

Thou wouldst like Bob to give thee thy ball. It is thine, and then thou wilt feel good about thyself.

Art thou okay?

Generally thou forms ended in -st or -t: do/dost, are/art, shall/shalt, go/goest. Third-person forms ended in -eth: do/doth, go/goeth.

In Ireland it's fairly common for people to use "you" as the singular and "ye" as the plural. It's less ambiguous but definitely not considered proper.

Art thou okay?

Art thou of good contenance this day?

"Y'all" is a contraction of "you all" [1], but let's not forget about "you guys" or "yous guys".

[1] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=y%27all

One addition: "thine" was used instead of "thy" before words that start with a vowel sound, and similarly "mine" instead of "my" before words that start with a vowel sound.

Some English dialects retain these distinctions leading to (somewhat forced) sayings like

"Don't thee tha me, tha them that tha's thee" - a Yorkshire admonishment against over familiarity.

In my hometown it's quite common to hear "'ow's tha bin?" ("How've you been?") and "sithee later" ("see you later").

According to Merriam-Webster, "you all" is very clearly related to "y'all" [1][2]

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/y'all

[2] http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/you_all

It was eth (voiced th), not thorn (unvoiced th). But I was _very_happy_ to see someone else knew this.

The glyph for Eth looks like delta (as in calculus) with an extra cross atop it, so, distorted, looks very much like a script y.

You can see at least thorn still in use in Icelandic, by the way.

thine is also the prevocalic possessive, "thy anvil" must be written as "thine anvil", similar to a/an.

I'm posting this for posterity because this thread has long since fallen off the front page.

I was wrong about the pronunciation of "Ye Olde". When it is used as a spurious indication of antiquity, the Oxford English Dictionary says it should be pronounced (jiː əʊld) or (jiː ˈəʊldiː).

Since posterity is for a long time, you should know that you were correct in the first instance.

The OED merely reflects the fluidity of the English language, even when that language picks up idiocies such as 'Ye' being pronounced 'ji'.

Thorn is a fascinating letter, and I'm glad you drew attention to it in your original post. Sometimes I wish English would begin to re-incorporate some of those old words, or (as in this case) a letter.

"Thee" is actually "to you" or "for you".

(I thought I knew less English than I actually do!)

Almost. It's a difference between subject and object, like I versus me or he versus him.

Thou is the subjective form. "Thou art wise." Thee is the objective form. "My lord did kiss thee in the garden."

Thee can be any object, such as the object of a transitive verb in the above example.

Agreed. I just tried to give a simple (but rough) explanation, but when one tries to do that there always is something "lost in translation".

Greetings from a speaker of a linguistic oddity that doesn't have a universal form of the word "you".

My native language -- Sinhalese -- has two forms: written and spoken. The written form, which has a grammar very similar to Latin, does have a universal "you", but the spoken form, which is largely grammer-less except for tense, does not. You literally cannot address someone without knowing their status/relationship to you. This leads to some difficult and sometimes hilarious situations:

- Children, family members and lovers are often addressed "oya". Using this on your boss or teacher could lead to problems. More acceptable when used by women and girls than by men.

- There's no way to informally address a superior without a salutation or a name. This leads to people repeatedly using a person's name or salutation in the same sentence. E.g. "Sir, should I have that report sir asked for on sir's desk before sir leaves for sir's doctor's appointment?"

- Some old fashioned couples have entire conversations (and sometimes marriages) without using second person pronouns because they don't have a single version they feel comfortable with.

- Male friends of roughly equal age tend to call each other "machang" -- a term that is well known to those who have known Sri Lankans, and roughly translates to "dude".

- There's no safe version of "you" that a young man can use on another that he has just met. Most risk using "machang", but could result in offense if addressing someone of higher social standing. This is solved by constructing sentences that avoid the word entirely.

- Most children, especially from my generation, do not feel comfortable using second person pronouns on their parents. They just repeat "mother/father" wherever the word "you" is supposed to appear.

- Sometimes the sentences are spoken with the word entirely omitted (like in Latin) -- "Can come over here?", "Did lock the door?"

There's a bit of similarity to Polish here. While a lot of other languages in the region (including ones that are closely related) use the plural "you" as a formal address, this sounds quite unrefined in Polish (or like a Soviet holdover). And addressing a superior/stranger with the singular "you" is completely out of the question.

That means, just life in Sinhalese, it is correct to address the individual in the third person with the most appropriate title (and falling back on Sir/Madam when the title isn't known). E.g. "Could Sir help me find the nearest bus stop", etc. (The Polish for Sir/Madam here is the same as Lord/Lady).

In other circumstances things tend not to be as strict. For example among equals of lower social rank (e.g. younger people), often singular grammatically implicit "you" can suffice. Or, when addressing one's closer superior kin, you would be only partially formal, for example: "Could [you] o mother, pass the salt". This example does not translate very well into English. It helps that Polish verbs carry the information about the pronoun of the person being addressed as part of their grammar (e.g. "I eat" = "jem", "you [singular] eat" = "jesz", "we eat" = "jemy", "they eat" = "jedzą", etc). The personal pronoun can be used explicitly for additional emphasis, but in some circumstances using an explicit singular "you" can be considered less polite (like pointing you finger).

There are other quirks when some level of familiarity is attained (and thus the formality can be reduced). In such a circumstance for example, to say "Could you pass the book?", one could say "Let it be that Sir passes the book", or even less formally, "Sir will pass the book." It sounds impolite when translated into English because in Polish, familiarity/closeness is expressed by an assumption of the other party's willingness to help.

That's extremely interesting! So people speak in the third person ("did mother want me to get mother's groceries"), or is this a second person still?

It's even more interesting when we remember that in western culture is rude to speak about a present participating person using third person pronouns (- "hey, I'm standing right here!").

Using "sir" everywhere you'd say "you" feels like the same sort of high respect that merkitt was describing in Sinhalese. I think the reason it comes across as rude is that the only context in which you'd be likely to hear someone do that in person is to mock. In the same way, some men become offended if you refer to them as "sir" at all, even upon first greeting, possibly out of a suspicion that they are being mocked.

You also get that kind of thing at snobby restaurants / hotels / other services that cater to the rich, "would sir like to see the wine list", etcetcetc.

Or if you are white in South East Asia..

"Western culture"... In Portuguese too you say to your teacher "can the teacher open the window please?"

If you're addressing mother, then it is second person. This is exactly how I would say this to my mother (translated to English of course). Some of the kids in the newer generations use the more familiar "oya".

American English also has some written/spoken differences. I.e. telling a child to finish eating we say "Did ya eat your breakfast?" but write "Did you eat your breakfast".

Hey maybe English speakers still use the archaic 'ye' - in phrases like 'didya' and 'doya'?

Isn't that just a pronunciation difference?

Or its a different word, and we say it but don't admit it. Lots of words we say but don't write down. My French friend says Americans don't speak, we just grunt. "Huh. Unh-uh. Uh-huh. Hunh-uh!" Never taught in school; we don't admit they are words but say them every day.

There are some similar mechanism in Japanese. "Anata" is generally considered to mean "you" (more formal than the informal"omae") -- but it is too familiar for general use (it can often be translated as "dear", depending on context). The safest approach is usually name+san.

Japanese is also often used without pronouns (in general it can be a surprisingly terse language for having rather few grammatical markers).

I have no knowledge of Sinhalese -- but from the description above it sound surprisingly similar to Japanese. Incidentally, Japanese is so different (grammatically) from many other languages that it is allowed as a "other" language when studying linguistics -- along with Maori and certain tribal languages. I wonder if Sinhalese wouldn't qualify as well.

Most Japanese pronouns are also associated with gender (as in, the gender of the person using the word, not who it's referring to). Anata is mildly feminine, omae is rather masculine. But like Sinhalese, polite Japanese goes to great lengths to avoid using the "you" pronoun, people are usually referred to by last name, title, job description etc instead.


There's no way to informally address a superior without a salutation or a name.

I have always found this really annoying.

Male friends of roughly equal age tend to call each other "machang"

It's interesting how the subsequent 'you' turn 'umba'.

Dude, you didn't tell me about the class.

The 'you' there is usually turned in to umba.

> [...] but the spoken form, which is largely grammer-less [...]

No need to deprecate your mother-tongue. I bet there's plenty of grammar, it's just different from the written form.

(I see a similar inferiority complex with speakers of Singlish here in Singapore. It's a great language, if you ask me.)

Why do you assume he meant it in a deprecatory (is that a word?) way? By analogy, when one says Lisp has no syntax it's not meant in a derogatory sense, on the contrary.

It is in fact a great language. For one thing, our alphabet is fully phonetic. And it's even arranged in a logical grid: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/sinhala.htm

It's also a great language to tell jokes in. We have a lot of delivery-based humor that gets completely lost if only the meaning is translated (which is often the case when the destination language is English).

Some of our original deficiencies: we didn't have punctuation or even spaces before they were introduced by European colonists (Portuguese, Dutch and British, in that order). So our ancient writings LOOKEDKINDOFLIKETHISANDWENTONFORPARAGRAPHS.

I think that's a "feature" of lots of writing systems, punctuation and spaces and lower case and other formatting is one of those things that's obvious only in retrospect.

And the grammar is probably a lot less obvious. The classroom experience teaches most of us to look for things like adfixes (prefixes and suffixes) and "parts of speech" and call that "grammar", but grammar is much more than that. In a language like English, for instance, stress, intonation, elision, contraction and "white space" all have grammatical significance (with rules for use that evolve over time, have dialectical variations, and are almost never taught directly). Squiggles on paper (usually) don't capture much of that.

Fun fact: The mix of Sinhalese - English is called Singlish here.

This relates well to one of the fascinating things I realized while learning German: the fact that so many English and German words and sounds have phonetic connections, coming from their common Germanic ancestry.

For example, the letter "d" in German corresponding to "th" in English:

  die/der/das -> the
  drei -> three
  Donner -> thunder
  Ding -> thing
  daher -> therefore
and, most relevant to this discussion:

  du -> thou
I'm sure this connection can be better explained than I'm able to, but it was a mini-epiphany for me while studying the language.

This is the result of the High German Consonant Shift [1]. English - many accents, at least - retain the dental fricatives (th-sounds) that were shifted to alveolar stops (d and t sounds) in High German. Dental fricatives are relatively rare sounds among the world's languages. Icelandic and European Spanish are the only languages I can think of that have dental fricative phonemes.

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_German_consonant_shift

There are a few other languages with dental fricatives, including Arabic, Danish and Greek.

Shibboleth. (Hebrew, apparently).

Part of the explanation is the convoluted history of the people who lived in the British isles.

Originally, it was inhabited by gaelic-speaking Celts. Some of their words that are still used today ():

plaide -> plaid

tàrmachan -> ptarmigan

triubhas -> trousers

peata -> pet

Then, it was conquered by the Romans. Latin words that found their way into English (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Latin_words_with_Engli...):

honor -> honor

imbecillus -> imbecile

inferus -> inferior

vulgus -> vulgar

Then, after the fall of the Romans, Britain was conquered by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who brought the old German words mentioned below.

After this, the area was Christianized, and the priests and proselytizers brought even more latin with them because that was the language of the Church.

After this, large portions of England were conquered by the Vikings, who introduced more Scandinavian-origin words that others have mentioned here. In fact, King Canute was once simultaneously king of England, Denmark, and Norway.

After the Vikings, England was conquered by the Normans by William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings. The Normans were Viking raiders who settled in northwestern France and who had turned in francophones. They introduce french-origin words like:

boef -> beef

mouton -> mutton

veal -> veal

porc -> pork

After which, all these language influences congealed, vaguely, into the English we know and love today.

For this graphed: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Origins_of_English_PieCha...

Edited for formatting.

Somebody once pointed out to me that you can see class distinctions written into the language this way. The words for farm animals tend to be Germanic (the conquered Germanic people were the farmers). So German kuh -> English cow. German schwein -> English swine. German huhn -> English hen.

But the words for prepared foods tend to be French in origin (the French conquerers were the ones who needed fancy terms for their food). So, as you pointed out, beef, mutton, veal, and pork are all French words.

I think you'll find that the majority of the British isles, including some of what is now Scotland, was populated by one of two peoples - pre Celts (Picts traditionally being named as one of those peoples) and P-Celtic speakers. The P-Celtic languages are the forefathers of Welsh, Breton and Cornish. Gaelic is not directly related to these languages[1], and indeed the Gaelic speakers in Scotland mostly migrated from Ireland - Scottish and Irish Gaelic being extremely closely related. Your list of "loan words" is therefore pretty late in acquisition. You can probably list the amount of actual P-Celtic loan words in regular use on 10 fingers. There's a massive body of evidence that the P-Celtic languages took a while to die out. A Celtic language was spoken in Cumbria (Cumbria itself coming from the same Celtic root word as Cymru, the Welsh name for the country "Wales"), and the traditional Shepherd counting systems[2] based on the P-Celtic counting system are still used even today to a certain extent.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celtic_languages [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yan_tan_tethera

Interesting! I think Dutch (Mix between french, german and english) is even closer to English. I am not an expert, just thinking out loud.

  de -> the
  drie -> three (ie and ee got the same pronunciation)
  donder -> thunder
  ding -> ding
  daarvoor -> therefore
  dit -> this
  dat -> that
  donderdag -> thursday
  vader -> father
  moeder -> mother
and a lot more similarities:

  school -> school
  week -> week
  weekend -> weekend
  maand -> month
  vrijdag -> friday
  maandag -> monday
  uit -> out
  goed -> good
  voor -> for
  je -> you
  mij -> my (pronounced the same)
  wij -> we
  auto -> auto
  wagen -> wagen
  kar -> car
And the p to f (I guess also in german)

  slaap -> sleep
  schip -> ship

Your observations of dutch being closer to English in some way than German, is correct. However, saying that Dutch is mix between German, English and French is quite wrong (disclaimer: I am not Dutch).

English, Dutch and German are all classified as western germanic languages, meaning they probably derived from a single ancestor language some time ago. Note that 'germanic' has nothing to do with German or Germany, a common misconception because the two words are similar in English.

Dutch is often more similar to English because German underwent the so called high german consonant shift (essentially changing t -> s or z, p -> pf and some others I think), in which Dutch and English didn't participate. There are some words that highlight this quite nicely:

  english   dutch    german

  appel     appel     apfel
  plough    ploeg     pflug
  better    beter     besser
  toth      tand      zahn

I was with you until appel and toth, which don't seem to be English words at all... *apple and tooth

hmm yeah, was too preoccupied with getting the layout right, so some typos crept in :)

I mentioned the similarly of Dutch in a different reply. You'll actually also find quite a few places where Dutch is more similar to Scandinavian languages than to English as well. Norway has two official languages, for the most part my examples are from Bokmål ("book language") which basically started out as a formalisation of Danish as used in Norway. I've prepended the Norwegian:

  tre -> drie -> three (ie and ee got the same pronunciation)
  torden -> donder -> thunder
  ting -> ding -> ding
  derfor -> daarvoor -> therefore

  dette -> dit -> this
  det -> dat -> that
But, we also have the term "ditt og datt" -> this and that...

  torsdag -> donderdag -> thursday

  far, but also the informal/slang "fatter" and the old-fashioned "fader" ->  vader -> father
  mor, and the older/slang form "moder" (mødre, transliterated "moedre" is the plural form of
  both versions) -> moeder -> mother
and a lot more similarities:

  skole -> school -> school
  uke in bokmål, but "veke" in Nynorsk (based on spoken Norwegian dialects) -> week -> week
  weekend (though that is a modern import from English) -> weekend -> weekend
  måned (maaned) -> maand -> month
  fredag -> vrijdag -> friday
  mandag -> maandag -> monday
  ut -> uit -> out
  god -> goed -> good
  for -> voor -> for
  du -> je -> you
  min -> mij -> my (pronounced the same)
  vi -> wij -> we
  auto -> auto -> auto
  vogn -> wagen -> wagen
  bil (we got our word from the end of automobil; 
  English got its from old French, I assume that's where yours come from too) -> kar -> car
And the p to f (I guess also in german) søvn / sove (but we also have "slappe av" -> relax, rest) -> slaap -> sleep skip -> schip -> ship

Friesan is even more similar: Rye bread, butter and green cheese is good English and good Friese.

The history of formal pronouns (du/sie) is also very interesting in German. As far as I remember, in the middle ages the third person singular ("er/sie", he/she) was used as a formal address for common people. Nobility used the majestic plural ("ihr", you/y'all). Now with the rise of the "Bürgertum"* in the 18th/19th century, people wanted to distinguish themselves from the peasants with their "er", but the distancing tone of the third person fitted well with their spirit. They also wanted to get rid of anything reminding them of nobility with the "ihr" address, but it seems they wanted their own bit of majestic plural and kept the plural form. So they basically invented using the third person plural "sie" (they) as a formal "you". The old forms now sound incredibly archaic, although they are still used in some dialects according to wikipedia. I also have to say that this story is very condensed and was probably more complicated in reality, as I am not a linguist.

               singular plural (majestic)
    2. person  du       ihr
    3. person  er       (sie)   
(*"Bürgertum" means ~middle class, but I find it hard to translate accurately, "Bürger" means citizen or bourgeouis.)

In Spanish and French, hora or heure means hour, but it also means time. If you go north, to Germany, uhr means o'clock, and watch/clock. Further north, in Scandinavia, ur simply means watch/clock, whereas time means hour. It's quite fascinating and gives you a sense how information and knowledge spread in ancient times.

Be aware that Norwegians pronounce i something like a long 'ee' in English so tiem in Norwegian is pronounced very different from time in English.

Mix in another Germanic language, and it gets even more fun. Take Norwegian:

"the" doesn't have a direct equivalent in modern Norwegian - we add the article as a suffix instead (a car = en bil; the car = bilen), but for the rest:

drei -> three / tre Donner -> thunder / torden Ding -> thing / ting daher -> therefore / derfor

du -> thou / du

Older Danish is even more similar to German, though I don't remember it off hand. At school, when I wanted to get my German grade up, I got a copy of Faust, which was way above my German level, and then I got hold of an old Danish translation (1920's or so). The old Danish translation was much closer to the German, so it was reasonably easy to figure out how they corresponded, yet still close enough to modern Danish (and by extension Norwegian) that I could read it fairly quickly when I couldn't figure out the German.

And if you really want to see close relationship between German and English, read some Dutch. Dutch to me reads like German and English lightly mixed, with some other random letters thrown in.

Frisian is even closer to English than Dutch. I always liked the rhyme : "bread, butter and green cheese is good English and good Fries", which in Frisian is "Brea, bûter en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk". There's a hilarious video on Youtube where the comedian Eddie Izzard attempts to talk to a Frisian Farmer in Old English and gets surprisingly far. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeC1yAaWG34

I'm currently learning Norwegian (for fun!) and I didn't expect to see so many lexical similarities between English and Norwegian. As a French (who is already fluent in English), this helps me a lot to memorize the meaning of words: I just have to squint long enough at it until I can recognize the Germanic root and its English descendant :-)

It was a whatthehell moment for me too. I started learning German a bit later than English (we had to learn 2 foreign languages at school). Pronunciation exercises brought the epiphany here, haha. Was strange at first but then we thought - hell, after all, these languages have much in common going back some centuries.

God but I hated pronouncing the umlauts.

> God but I hated pronouncing the umlauts.

That's interesting, what's your native language? I found that the umlauts map pretty well to how a lot of people from GB pronounce their Us, As, and Os. If I had to transliterate the word "use" for example I'd write that as "jüs" in German.

> God but I hated pronouncing the umlauts.

How comes you hate pronouncing umlauts and don't hate these various sorts of t-th-d sound? As in think-tank-they-did?

The last class I got to help teach in Grad School was The Nature and History of the English language. Leading undergrads to this epiphany is also very gratifying (that and being able to explain the weirdness that is English orthography).

Any Danish speakers here? It should be even closer to English as that's where the Angles and Saxons are from.

The fact that the Angles and Saxons were from an area that is currently Denmark means nothing. Territories, country borders and the languages and cultures occupying them have changed significantly in the north of Europe after the collapse of the roman empire to the present day.

The angles and saxons spoke a western germanic language, whereas modern danish is a northern germanic language.

EDIT: as a side node: Frisian is the language commonly regarded as being closest to English

Yes, right here. And actually English is really a Scandinavian language (Northern Germanic), and not Western Germanic as many believe:


Yes, Danish seems to be in between German and English, except for the first example.

  die/der/das -> [see below] -> the
  drei -> tre -> three
  Donner -> torden -> thunder
  Ding -> ting -> thing
  daher -> derfor -> therefore
  du -> du -> thou
I have no idea what happened to the definite article in Danish though:

  ein Haus -> et hus -> a house
  das Haus -> huset -> the house
Aside: The Danish capitalization rules used to mirror the German rules until after WWII, where we switched to the Swedish rules.

Look at my lists of Norwegian translations. Most either apply directly for Danish too, or with minor changes ("Bokmål", the written language used by a majority of Norwegians, was largely derived from Danish, and hasn't diverged all that much)

I'm pretty sure there are, at least I think I see Norwegians all the time : )

When you know Norwegian or Danish you can see a lot of similarities. The explanation I got was that around year 1000 Norway/Denmark was pretty much a naval superpower.

It's actually more recent. From the mid 1300's the Norwegian and Danish monarchy merged through marriage, and Denmark became by far the dominant party in the union. (Schelswig-Holsten was also for some time part of

The union lasted until 1814, when Denmark (and by extension Norway) had supported Napoleon, and Sweden had joined the other side. Sweden got Norway as a "price". But during that period, a lot of people had started preparing for an attempt at Norwegian independence. And while we entered into a looser union with Sweden, there was a long ongoing debate about creating a new, formalised Norwegian language.

We ended up with two, but one of them - bokmål - was basically Danish + Norwegian pronunciation + various spelling reforms, as this was effectively what was spoken amongst the upper classes in the cities, and this (with further spelling reforms) is the dominant written language today (the other was based on spoken dialects, and is further from Danish but not that much) .

So we've "only" had about 200 years for the languages to diverge again.

true - many people assume small, common words come from German, until they see how much closer the (especially spoken) Danish words are.

Place with the google translate pronunciation button for some simple sentences for a while - you'll be surprised how much you understand

Du isn't formal though?

Right, and neither is thou.

Swedish has du (singular) and ni (plural). Prior to the "du-reform" in the late 1960's however, ni was also used as a formal singular form, but for the last 40 or so years the formal form has been dropped, leaving ni for plural only. In fact many older people would find it mildly insulting to be addressed singular ni today.

Of course there are a few exceptions, most notably when addressing members of the royal family. If you ever get to speak with one of them, the correct way is to address them by title, in third person ("would her majesty like fries with that?").

Around 8 or 10 years ago I started to notice a trend, particularly among younger people (in their late teens maybe), typically working in shops and cafes, who started once again to use singular ni with customers, but I haven't lived in Sweden for several years now and don't know if that's continued. I hope not!

I read in an old grammar book that ni was actually a fairly late construct and that in Swedish history, there was another extremely archaic word ('I'?) which is directly related to U in Dutch and You in English. In fact, Wikipedia supports this "ni is derived from an older pronoun I, 'ye', for which verbs were always conjugated with the ending -en. I became ni when this conjugation was dropped; thus the n was moved from the end of the verb to the beginning of the pronoun."

I think this a modern misconception of the word ni. Prior to the "du-reform" it was used when talking to subordinates. The polite formal way was to use titles and last names. The new use of ni as a polite pronoun is probably inspired by the rest of europe, as we're trying to be fashionably international.

Could this be dialectal? Because I hear "ni" now and then, and I've also found myself using it a couple of times -- not through intent, but rather automatically. Maybe it's the "new trend" you're talking about.

Maybe it's a central Stockholm thing, I don't really know. And I certainly didn't mean to imply that it was common, I only noticed it now and then and vaguely recall some mention of it on P1 Språket or in the newspaper, that it seemed to be making a return.

I've only ever known du, would never use ni except for a group, and feel odd being called ni myself. Not insulted mind you, closest I can describe it is like when a small child refers to you as "that man" but you're only 16 or 17. :)

Ok, did some googling...

This from P1 Språket says that it wasn't a trend in 2004 (but then why were they asking?): http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=411&arti...

And this blog from 2008, in response to a column in DN that I can't find in their archive: http://lingvistbloggen.ling.su.se/?p=352

And finally this in DN from 2013: http://www.dn.se/insidan/fjask-eller-respekt-ar-du-pa-vag-at...

So trend or not, it certainly seems to be a recurring topic of discussion in Sweden!

In Polish, you don't use the plural vy as a formal singular. In Russian you do. I took Polish lessons at one point and my teacher would wince every time I accidentally called him vy. He told me the Russians used to force Poles to address each other that way in their own parliament. So sensitive was he to this long-past linguistic oppression that he couldn't help but be offended when an English speaker who happened to have studied Russian did it by mistake.

I don't understand - why would it be offensive to have to use the formal case with each other in a parliament? Is the idea that вы ('vih'/'vy') implies formality/lack of familiarity and the Polish wanted a more conversational tone in their governance?

I think the point was that it was Russian, not Polish.

....ohhhh (I feel dumb now). Thanks!

We're very happy with y'all here in Texas.

Fellow Texan here. "Y'all" is plural, but certainly not formal.

I hasten to add that "y'all" is clearly not used exclusively by Texans.

Y'all is singular. "All y'all" is plural.

If the group being spoken to is exceptionally large, or it's clearly a group made of smaller groups (a group of groups), in some places "Alls y'all" is used. It's fascinating to note it when you hear it.

edit also, if there's a possessive it gets pretty crazy, for example a tour guide, assembling several groups for a tour might say "Let's get together for alls y'all's tour".

Native of Georgia (US) here. We use "all y'all" as a possessive. I've never heard "alls y'all's" here, but have in the Southwest and thought it was linguistically slightly excessive. :-)

Oklahoman here. We say "y'all" as plural. We also say "you all."

Y'all is most certainly plural where I'm from (Southeast US).

It confused me when I asked a native Texan something about what I should do next and she responded with "y'all could [foo]". But there's only one of me? I suppose that technically I am the 'all' of the 'you' that is being addressed?

In some regional vernaculars, "y'all" is singular and "all y'all" is plural.

Interesting. Here in North Carolina, "y'all" is generally plural, whereas "all y'all" is also plural but more emphatic, as in "I really do mean every last one of you", or sometimes simply to indicate a stronger emotional content, especially when angry.

South Carolinian here that spent a lot of time in Raleigh & Charlotte and is now living in Austin. "y'all" can be both singular and plural, depending on the context. "All y'all" applies to larger groups (sometimes including people that aren't present), as well as with additional emphasis.

"All y'all come by for supper" meaning you and your close family. And maybe even some other people as well, if there's room at the table for them.

Sounds like a slippery slope.

And now we're back in the "use the plural when talking to a single person to be formal" that started this whole thing.

Native Texan here. I've never really heard it being used as a form of "you" and that just seems silly to me. "Y'all" is definitely plural.

I'm gonna upvote that just for you being a Texan and all.

Though, to be honest, I think that the point of the op is formal, and not plural, 2-nd person address.

Unfortunately, y'all gets used as a singular pronoun as well.

Similarly in Australia we're happy with 'youse'.

I wonder if a high percentage of illiteracy in each place coincides with a high amount of alternative language forms being used?

47% of Australians are functionally illiterate - http://www.abc.net.au/local/videos/2012/09/07/3585457.htm

Illiteracy in Texas (still ranked #1 in US?) - http://www.literacytexas.org/literacy_in_texas/facts_statist...

I thought in Texas it was all y'all.

Not so much. That's farther east, generally speaking.

It seems that where all y'all is used, you have the re-emergence of the distinction between the formal (y'all) and plural (all y'all). Which is pretty fascinating.

Regarding the comment on the Chinese character 您 at the bottom of that page: it's still very much in use (formal letters, ceremony speeches, etc).

I can't add a reply though, because apparently I need 50 reputation. I can't upvote, because I need 10 reputation. You know what, StackExchange? I'll just stay away from your site with all the barriers to participation that you throw up.

You say barriers to participation, I say anti-spam measures.

Have you really never used any StackExchange site, though? Once you've used one, you get 100 free rep when signing up on any other StackExchange site, which is enough to perform all the basic actions (posting, commenting, voting, etc).

I have an account on StackOverflow and I linked it to my new english.stackexchange.com account, but I didn't get any free rep.

Do you have any StackOverflow rep? I would assume it only gives you MIN(100, otherAccountRep), so if your SO rep is 0 I'm guessing your new account also gets 0.

I do, 131 rep on my SO account.

I'm in the same situation as you, except I got my 100 points. Perhaps you should report this on one of the meta sites.

As an aside note, italian has "two" formal versions of "you".

The informal one, "tu", is common on all the peninsula.

The formal version "voi" (2nd person plural) is more common in the south of the Italy (it's a reminiscent of the spanish invasions).

The formal version "lei" (3rd person singular) is more common in the north of the Italy.

I live in the north, but when learning Italian, we were taught that 'lei' is the correct one, while 'voi' is sort of archaic. You see/hear it in, say, comic books like this one, set in the 1800's:


I remember Massimo d'Alema (a former prime minister and minister) using "ella" which is some kind of regional/archaic form of "lei".

I'm having trouble finding a reference, but it's my understanding that the Dissenter (later Quaker) habit of referring to everyone as 'thou' regardless of rank is precisely what lead to 'you' becoming universal. If one wasn't a Dissenter, one surely didn't want to be mistaken for such.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T–V_distinction has some extensive discussion.

The version I heard is roughly that, though I recall a professor blaming it on Cromwell's commonwealth rather than the Quakers (after the commonwealth fell thee/thou went completely out of favor.)

There's a certain point in historical linguistics where plausibility becomes the main explanation. Usually when asking, "Why did everyone adopt this particular pattern?" Narrowing down a Patient Zero for the "and that's how my mom said it" effect is basically impossible even today, nevermind via combing through records.

I know a guy who got to meet Queen Elizabeth. He was required to go through a royal customs seminar before meeting her. Apparently, you NEVER use "you" when talking to the queen. You can't say "Would you like some tea?". You must say "Would Your Majesty like some tea?". Hows that for formal.

Older English man still use indirect speech when referring to themselves and the person they're talking to if there's a significant class difference or even gender. Sometimes they'll even avoid posing questions altogether: "One would like to request your company for tea if it not too inconvenient...".

Makes everyone sound like a wedding invitation. :)

I still use "One" quite a lot in writing (especially forums) when I need to discuss your personal opinion without implying that I'm speaking for the other parties in the conversation. i.e.

"You often see cars speeding along this road" <- perfectly valid and the context can be taken from the way it is delivered in speach, but could be misread to imply that the writer thinks the person they are addressing sees the cars.

"One often sees cars speeding along this road" <- unambiguous.

Isn't that what you do with most royalties and other archaic classes? Your Holy Grace for bishops, etc.?

In case you're wondering, the "PIE" referred to in some of the answers is "proto-Indo-European" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Indo-European_language).

Hemingway's abuse of language in For Whom the Bell Tolls always drove me. He uses you in place of tu and thou as usted.

That's how the words are typically understood among modern English speakers...

Do you have an example? That seems like a howler that surely his editor would have caught if he didn't.

We Vietnamese don't even have anything equivalent to "you".

We use "friend/friends" (we don't distinguish between plural and singular) for a generic "you". Otherwise, in social situation, we have to figure out the relative social order to address the other person, i.e. calling them by titles/roles such as aunt/uncle/mom/dad etc.

It's a big headache cause it can be very awkward to use one pronoun (for example, calling a woman was "younger sis") and she turns out to be older - it can be impolite, but then some women will be offended if you call them as "older sister" right away, because, ugh, you consider them older. God, it's a convoluted mess of pronouns :(

I keep being surprised this isn't common knowledge, but then I remember I married a Quaker

I thought it was common knowledge. I mean, if it comes up at school at age 8, it's not exactly high learning.

The original asker made a minor error. Chinese isn't in the Proto-Indo-European language family. It is in the Sino-Tibetan family.

As a former Southerner, who grew up with "y'all", and a fan of Shakespearean English, I have to say that I've always been sorry that English lost its distinct second person singular pronouns. We've had to come up with all sorts of work-arounds as a result.

I always thought it odd that Esperanto adopted this "feature", presumably from English:

                Singular        Plural
 first person    mi (I)          ni (we)
 second person	        vi (you)
 third person
    masculine   li (he)         ili (they)
    feminine    ŝi (she)
    epicene     ĝi (it, s/he)
Not one of Zamenhof's better choices, in my opinion. There is an informal second person singular pronoun, ci (thou), but as I recall it was only used in certain circumstances. If any Esperantists reading this know why Zamenhof used vi for both singular and plural, I'd love to know.

In languages I know formal version of "you" (local version of singular second person) is plural form of the same word. Historical explanation is rather simple. Remember history lessons: kings used to say "we, the king, think..." meaning that the king is a representative of some group. Due to this language quirk when addressing such a person formally you actually address whole group the person represents, hence the plural form of "you". In informal environment one usually addresses the same person directly, hence the singular form being not so much formal. Simple as that :)

This isn't universal. German is a counter example -- the formal Sie derives from the third person plural, while it still preserves Du and Ihr for informal second person with singular and plural.

I don't know Spanish well, but it probably contradicts this as well. Usted and Ustedes are not related to vosotros (informal second person informal, not used in the Americas) and take the verbs for third person like German.

It's not anything so specific as a group. It's about distancing or impersonalizing the speech. It's too direct to say "Do you want something to drink?" and instead the phrasing could be "Does the gentleman want something to drink?"

We do something similar with phrasing like "if you would like" or in German using subjunctive forms of many verbs like "I would like" / "Ich möchte" / "quisiera" instead of "I want" / "Ich mag" / "quiero".

In Italian, the third person feminine is formal. The first person plural is also formal, but (I believe) it's archaic. So, when speaking formally, one would say "can she help me?" to mean "can you help me?"

I especially didn't mention if it is second or third form because this varies: some languages might have plural form of second ant third person to be the same word. I agree with your point of distancing and today that is usually the case, because direct confrontation is left for friends. Phrases like "do the gentlemen want ..." or "could she help me ..." are not counter examples: basically by addressing someone indirectly like this one allows ANYONE to respond. Like husband, or one of the gentlemen to collect everyone's orders.

I read long ago in a book by Mario Pei that "usted" was originally "vuestra merced" (your grace).

I remember learning that in high school, and things made so much more sense; it explains why usted takes third-person verbs and possessive pronouns.

Wasn't vosotros used as a formal tu at one time, especially with regard to royalty? I seem to recall reading that, but I can't say it with any degree of confidence.

In Portuguese and German there are still the formal and informal cases: Formal : Você, Informal: Tu

The same thing in German: Formal : Sie, Informal: Du

I am not a linguistics guy but I think that Thou, Du, Tu have all the same origin as they sound so similar.

But in the south of Brazil (RS) we just address everyone as "tu" :) Some Brazilians from other states seem to find that rude sometimes.

The "cariocas" I think, also use "tu" but they won't conjugate the verbs correctly. They say things like "Tu vai ao..." instead of "Tu vais ao..." or simply "Vais ao...". For me, hearing something like "Tu vai" is like being slapped in the ear ;)

The Roman empire spread latin far and wide.

> I think that Thou, Du, Tu have all the same origin as they sound so similar.

I think they're all Indo-European in origin, not a result of the Roman empire:


yes, that completely explains a phenomenon that arose in the early middle ages.

More helpful, less of an ass, please.

Actually there is another form of formal addressing that is more like the spanish and german: "her majesty", "his holiness" (with the equivalents in French, "son altesse", "sa sainteté"). This closes some gap between those languages, and show that there is also a remaining formal address in modern English and there are 2 in modern french.

(next time, examples of present continuous in modern french)

I learned this while playing Ultima 7, serpent isle. I literally learned english as a teenager while playing that game. Thanks Origin for that.

Nice to see English on here. I’m one of the more active users there (Jon Purdy) and it’s a great resource. :)

It's also the first time all the work that went into my doctoral exam in Proto-Indo-European Verbal Morphology has been relevant to, well, anything on HN. O.K., it's pronouns, but I had to study those too.

ha yea I was on english[dot]stackexchange this morning reading through that thread, and I come home and it's at the top of HN

I thought 'ye' was a corruption, a misinterpretation of the rune for 'th' combined with 'e'; on a sign 'Ye olde boars head' was really 'The old boars head'.

So there was really a 'ye'? Explains the confusion I guess.

I'm not even a native English speaker and I knew that. Is this really news to people here?

Take a random word. The proportion of people who know its etymology will be low. Is that really news to you? This is Hacker News, not Linguist News.

I don't really understand this attitude. I once made a joke about the Swedish word for sandwich - which is literally "butter goose" - and a humorless immigrant got all pissy about how Swedes are so ignorant, they don't even know that "butter goose" doesn't refer to actual geese etc etc. (Coincidentally, I did know the etymology but knowing it would not detract from the joke.)

About the top answer: Latin as no pronouns, but it has 2 distinct forms for singular and plural second person in conjugation. I don't remember, though, if the plural form was used as a polite form at least in the texts we have.

Latin certainly has pronouns, e.g. `ego` for 'I'. They are not strictly required as a subject nominative, but they come up in a variety of circumstances (mihi nomen est...)

See declensions in Wiktionary: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ego#Latin

What I think you meant to say is that Latin does not use pronouns in its verbal conjugations. That's a feature of most ancient Indo-European languages. It did, of course, have a full suite of pronouns used in other contexts.

Oh, and no, the plural wasn't used as a formal singular. It was idiomatic to occasionally use the first person plural to refer to oneself (you can see this in Cicero's letters), but it had nothing to do with formality or some sort of "royal we."

Wait, I definitely learned of the royal "we" in Latin. Specifically, this came up in Apollo and Daphne[1], with much of Apollo's first speech in the first-person plural referring exclusively to himself. We were taught in class that it was related to his arrogance to use a royal "we", which is a large theme of the story.

[1] http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Daphne_and_Apollo

You, sir, are expecting too much from your audience.

It's interesting in that the assumption of formality in 'you, sir,' suggests the speaker is about to be rather discourteous in the following clause.

Trust the British to settle on the formal version.

This makes me want to see a poll HN to see how many have read any amount of The KJV, and how much they've read.

Doesn't the KJV avoid the formal-plural convention entirely? Most of my reading has been in newer versions, but I seem to recall that it used thou for singular and ye for plural very consistently; I sometimes wish for that distinction in modern Bible translations.

I was happy to be surprised by the answer!

I think that by now, you is pretty commonly accepted as both formal and informal.

In the West Midlands we have 'ya'.

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