McWhorter on “You.”

John McWhorter has another linguistics-for-the-common-man piece, this time in the NY Times, called What Ever Happened to ‘You’? (archived). As so often with McWhorter, a good basic point (English is odd in having only one second-person pronoun) is vitiated by errors, overstatements, and just plain weirdness. Take this paragraph:

In creoles such as Jamaican patois and Gullah, which stem from a creole English created by slaves from Africa on plantations in the United States, right away a plural “you” pronoun, “unu,” was borrowed from the Nigerian language Igbo. In Gullah this comes out as “hunnuh.” For example, in the 1990s, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt ran an ad in Essence magazine, presumably in response to the film “Daughters of the Dust,” which featured Gullah dialect, with the Gullah translation for “We think great-great-great-grandma would’ve loved Lawry’s” as “Oona gal tink we’s nana beena lub de Lawry’s Seasnin’.” Why Igbo was used for creating a plural “you” is impossible to know. But the mystery itself seems almost to suggest a kind of urgency, as if the creators wanted to fix a problem so eagerly that they went with the first thing someone happened to seize on.

OK, the Igbo borrowing is fascinating (and Daughters of the Dust is a superb movie, see it if you can). But if hunnuh is a plural “you,” what’s it doing in the sentence “We think great-great-great-grandma would’ve loved Lawry’s”? Sounds like it should be first-person (inclusive “we,” maybe?). And what’s going on in the following passage?

Certainly, in the Middle Ages across Europe, a fashion arose in various languages of addressing individuals with the plural pronoun as a mark of respect. The idea was that using a singular form was too direct; the plural form suggested a kind of polite distance, rather like Queen Victoria’s reputed fondness for saying about herself that “we are not amused,” the premise being that to refer to herself in the singular would suggest that she was on the same level as ordinary people.

I don’t understand how the singular is “direct,” or how the plural suggests “a kind of polite distance.” Maybe there’s something to it, but it needs more explanation; he just tosses it off in a magisterial take-it-or-leave-it way. And who ever claimed Queen Victoria had a “fondness” for saying “we are not amused”? If she said it (which she probably didn’t), it was a one-off, allegedly in response to a risqué joke. Then we get this:

At a time when “thou” was still a recent memory, Quakers found the “you” takeover elitist, with its overtone of saluting and bowing creating conflict with their egalitarian ideology. I attended a Quaker school for a while in the late 1970s and at least one teacher was still using “thou” in this way — I will never forget him reminding me before an exam, “Be sure to put thy name on thy paper.” However, in the 17th century, Quakers’ insistence on using “thou” even with people of high status felt to many like an insult, and some were even physically assaulted for their refusal to get on the “you” bandwagon.

But whatever Quakers said in the 17th century, they did not say “thou” in the 1970s in America; as Harold F. Schiffman says in LINGUIST List, “Because of the non-standard non=RP background of most Quakers in the 17th century, the form that survived when brought to America is ‘thee’ and not ‘thou’.” (I quoted that very LINGUIST List post back in 2002.) And check this out:

Old English’s pronoun for “she” was “heo,” which sounded so much like “he” that by the time Middle English was widespread in the 1200s, some dialects were using “he” to address both men and women.

For “address,” read “refer to.” Then he proceeds to modern plural forms like “youse,” “yinz” and “y’all” and claims that “all of these forms are considered a tad, well, vulgar.” Considered by whom? He discusses previously peeved-on forms like the progressive passive (“A house is being built across the street”) and vowelless pronunciations of the “-ed” past suffix, then says:

But eventually all of these new things became normal, whereas this will never happen with “youse,” “yinz” and “y’all.” Their class associations are especially strong, and are felt by pretty much all of the population rather than by just a few pedants.

How can anyone with the slightest awareness of the history of language claim to know what will or won’t happen? Maybe not in the next few years, but never is (as they say) a long time. And I raised my eyebrows at this:

You can likely recall times when you have had to say something amid a group, like “You need to make sure — I mean you all, not just you, Jocelyn — that we make contact with them before Monday.”

I personally would say “I mean all of you,” not “I mean you all,” and I don’t think I’m in a minority, though it’s certainly possible there are those who would use McWhorter’s version. (I also find “that we make contact with them” odd; do people in meetings still talk like that?) He finishes up by talking about “how imperfect all languages are” and saying we should “stop worrying and love our language,” and of course I agree. But why so many missteps along the way? Is it the ghost of genial old Bill Safire haunting the language columns of the Times and making sure everything has a quota of misstatements? Or is it just Public Thinker Syndrome, in which a prolonged period of prominence causes erosion of the self-editing function of the brain? You be the judge.

Comments

  1. cuchuflete says

    I have never said y’all, except when discussing the term, and I likely never will. I don’t find it vulgar at all. It’s colloquial, informal, somewhat regional—seemingly less so as time goes by—but not vulgar in any way.

    As to (I also find “that we make contact with them” odd; do people in meetings still talk like that?), I’m some twenty years removed from corporate boardrooms, but such a construction, while not common, would not have been noteworthy, especially when discussing intermediaries or other third parties not known personally to those in the meeting.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Says McW:

    But seemingly everywhere else in Europe today, even in standard language, one toggles between “tu” and “voi”

    “Everywhere else” is just asking for trouble …
    As a matter of fact the Dutch standard language has je for singular/informal (plural jullie), which is presumably from the original plural. It is true that Dutch has a separate “posh” second person pronoun. But Dutch has basically gone farther along the same path as English.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_grammar#Personal_pronouns

    Within Western Oti-Volta, Mooré alone (for some reason) uses the 2nd person plural for a respectful singular (and does the same in the third person too.) Traditional Mossi society is pretty hierarchical, but not, I would have thought, any more so than Mamprussi or Dagomba society, so trying to “explain” this on sociolinguistic grounds is rather begging the question. (The Kusaasi, on the other hand, can’t be doing with all that hierarchy nonsense.)

    Most of the English-lexifier Atlantic creoles actually have una for “you plural”, though I see that Saramaccan, at least, has unu (and I also see that Pichi has unu beside una.)

  3. such a construction, while not common, would not have been noteworthy, especially when discussing intermediaries or other third parties not known personally to those in the meeting.

    When you say “construction,” do you mean the whole statement or the phrase “make contact,” which is what I found odd? I would have thought the people who hold such meetings would say “touch base” or “reach out to” or the like.

  4. cuchuflete says

    When you say “construction,” do you mean the whole statement or the phrase “make contact,” which is what I found odd? I would have thought the people who hold such meetings would say “touch base” or “reach out to” or the like.

    I was referring to the “make contact with” part. Imagine you are working for a management consultancy, and in a client meeting there is some discussion of an investment bank shopping a potential acquisition target. No, it’s not all that common, but in such a scenario your alternatives would have been too informal a few decades back. Today? I don’t know.

  5. If writing the column primed the common-language-peeves centre of McW’s cerebrum, then the obsolete peeve about verbing “contact” might have fed into his constructed example about Jocelyn, via the “man woman person camera tv” effect

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Igbo is indeed an unexpected source, relatively speaking, for the pronoun to be borrowed from, but Fon (which would have been more likely on first principles) actually uses mi for first and second person plural, so it wouldn’t have been a very good choice in this case. Yoruba has unstressed subject /ɛ/, object /jĩ/, stressed /ɛjĩ/, which wouldn’t have been much good for eking out the defective English pronoun system either, I imagine.

  7. “Peevery” vs. “class-association” –

    I think in reality what is meant is “a new form” versus “an old form marked for register/dialect/class”.

    And not “a few pedants”: if “being built” is new, then there was a smooth transition from “most speakers feel it is wrong” to “most speakers feel that the older construction is wrong”.
    In addition there also were peevers, but peevers are not “people who find a construction unnatural”.

  8. I just say “you all” or “all of you”.
    Because of my Twitter experience, I just take an instant dislike to anyone who starts with “y’all” lol.

  9. I would think that “oona gal tink” would be “you women think”.

  10. Trond Engen says

    The self is conceptually weak enough without putting “you” in quotes, thank you.

  11. I would think that “oona gal tink” would be “you women think”.

    Ah, that makes sense. So it’s his English version that’s misleading.

  12. The self is conceptually weak enough without putting “you” in quotes, thank you.

    “You” would “say” that, wouldn’t “you”?

  13. We, on the other hand, are large; we contain multitudes.

  14. Shouldn’t “we’s nana” be translated as “our grandmother”, not as “great-great-great-grandma”?

    (Not that I’m doubting Lawry’s Seasoned Salt as a linguistic authority.)

  15. >”the form that survived when brought to America is ‘thee’ and not ‘thou’”

    I wasn’t aware of this before, but now I finally understand what is going on in this dialogue from The Philadelphia Story (1940):

    Librarian: What does thee wish?
    Mike: I’m looking for some local books… what’d you say?
    Librarian: What does thee wish?
    Mike: Local biography or history.
    Librarian: If thee will consult with my colleague in there. [points]
    Mike: Dost thou have a washroom? [Librarian points.] Thank thee.

    Mike is here making the same mistake as McWhorter: he assumes that his familiarity with Shakespeare and the Bible makes him fluent in the librarian’s language, so he thinks the Elizabethan “dost thou” is an adequate substitute for the Quaker “does thee.”

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    @Y:

    Yes, you might have thought that McWhorter, what with being a creolist and all, and with a particular interest in those particular creoles, at that, would have essayed his own translation rather than relying on the ad’s incorrect one …

    It’s possible that nana could mean either, I expect, though. Kusaal yaab, for example, is both “grandparent” and “ancestor”, and I think that is pretty typical in West Africa. It would still be a pretty free rendering …

    One suspects that the perpetrators of the advertisement did not appreciate that Gullah is actually a language with its own coherent grammatical system, as to opposed to a vague piece of regional quaintness where you can make it up as you go along.

  17. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    “Everywhere else” is just asking for trouble …
    As a matter of fact the Dutch standard language has je for singular/informal (plural jullie), which is presumably from the original plural. It is true that Dutch has a separate “posh” second person pronoun. But Dutch has basically gone farther along the same path as English.

    As did Spanish and Catalan; but that still leaves them and Dutch with distinct singular and plural forms, in keeping with McWhorter’s general claim. If there’s another European language besides English with a single second-person pronoun, it’s hiding harder!

    On the contrary, most other European languages seem to have more than two second-person pronouns, as McWhorter clumsily acknowledges. I suppose three is the most common number in ordinary usage, though Catalan and (mostly) Spanish get to four.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Surely Spanish and Catalan haven’t abandoned the original 2sg in favour of the original 2pl, like Dutch, though? They’re just innovated new posh forms. (As indeed has modern Standard German, after a stint in mediaeval times conforming to McWorter’s generalisation; his statement about German is characteristically inaccurate. As Hat says, his overall point is OK, but he is astonishingly careless – for a linguist – with the details. He mixes up the question of status with the question of number throughout.)

    And of course, none of this holds a candle to Japanese …

  19. Mongolian (Khalkha) distinguishes between ‘chi’ (familiar form) and ‘ta’ (respectful form). This tends to be age-based, older people addressed as ‘ta’, in particular. A child will always address his/her parents as ‘ta’.

    If you want to pluralise you add ‘nar’ to ‘ta’ — never to ‘chi’ — thus ‘ta nar’, whether the addressee is older or not. Even adolescents would be addressed as ‘ta nar’.

    Historically it appears that ‘chi’ is the singular and ‘ta’ the plural of the same form.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Something similar may have happened historically in Western Oti-Volta: the original 2sg was certainly *fʊ, which is preserved as such in most of the languages, and supported by the forms found elsewhere in Oti-Volta too, and even in other Volta-Congo branches; but the Mampruli-Dagbani subgroup has a form based on *ɳɪ, which seems pretty clearly related to the original second plural pronoun, itself now remodelled by adding a secondary plural suffix *-dɪma.

    The languages in question have all ended up just restoring a second-person sg/pl system insensitive to status, though: basically just like you/y’all, and indeed by almost the same mechanism.

    On reflection, this might actually undermine my point about Mossi society being no more hierarchical than Mamprussi or Dagomba: all three languages, Mooré, Mampruli and Dagbani may have gone through a stage of using 2pl for 2sg honorifically, but only Mampruli and Dagbani and their close relatives took it to the stage of ditching the original 2sg pronoun altogether à l’anglaise.

  21. I just read through the whole article — it looks like it was dashed off very quickly to meet a deadline.

    one toggles between “tu” and “voi” (or “lei”) (Italian) or “ty” and “vy” (Russian) or “du” and “ihr” (or “Sie”) (German).

    I am sure McWhorter knows the difference between the T-V distinction and the singular-plural distinction, but presumably many of his readers don’t. So why not include a paragraph explaining the difference, rather than just throwing in “lei” and “Sie” and giving the impression that they are just different words for “voi” and “ihr”?

    (Also, his inclusion of Russian “ty”/“vy” here sort of implies that it arose as part of the same medieval “fashion” that gave sing./pl.=T-V in other European languages, but that can’t be right, can it? Did medieval Slavic languages really imitate western linguistic fashions to that extent?)

    In Mandarin, “you” in the singular is “ni” and “you” for more than one person is “ni men.” The “men” is a marker of the plural, such that “ni men” literally means “you-s.”

    Well, sort of yes — but to be more precise, no. As McWhorter surely knows (?), noun plurals are normally unmarked in Mandarin; the plural marker “-men” is used only with pronouns and in a few other restricted contexts. It is not a generic noun plural marker like English “-s”. So the analogy doesn’t work at all, except to point out the simple fact that Mandarin has distinct singular and plural second person pronouns (which he could have stated without making misleading claims about the language).

  22. Yes, it is a late Western borrowing.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    There does seem to be a Sprachbund thing going on with the European honorific use of 2pl pronouns for 2sg. As Bathrobe’s and my own examples illustrate, the phenomenon is not confined to Europe, but it does seem relatively uncommon cross-linguistically.

    Honorific use of plural forms of nouns seems fairly widespread, though. Western Oti-Volta has that, too: the word yaab “grandparent/ancestor” that I just cited is actually a case in point, with the normally plural human-class sufffx -ba used as singular; Kusaal has seven nouns like that, six referring to older relations, along with na’ab “chief.”

    This might even be a Volta-Congo thing, in fact: the Namibian Bantu language Fwe, for example, can add the cognate human-plural prefix ba- in front of another class prefix with honorific effect: muruti “teacher”, bamuruti bongana “a smart teacher.” Gunnink’s grammar says that this is actually required when referring to anyone older than yourself, or to “anyone who generally commands respect, such as teachers, policemen, chiefs and other figures of authority.” Personal names, too: BaKlawudia “Mrs Claudia.” She says this works for second person pronouns too, but the reference seems to lead to a dead end. (Bad subediting!)

    Lingala can stack ba- in front of other noun class prefixes too, but the meaning seems to be “specific” rather than “honorific.”

  24. “There does seem to be a Sprachbund thing going on with the European honorific use of 2pl pronouns for 2sg.”

    Euphemism treadmill:)

  25. Speaking of thee and thou, I’m belatedly reminded that Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective has flashbacks set in the Forest of Dean, where Potter was from. In those sections, characters say tha bist or perhaps tha be-est for second person singular you are. I don’t know whether that usage still survives. The Forest of Dean is a murky place….

  26. In contemporary Spanish, ‘you’ has a total of ten equivalents (su mercé, sus mercedes, tú, usted, ustedes, vos, vosotras, vosotros, vuestra merced, and vuestras mercedes), but no single topolect has all ten.

    For example, (singular) su mercé, (plural) sus mercedes are used in certain parts of Colombia (such as Boyacá) and Ecuador whereas vosotras and vosotros are not.

    See, for example, Miguel Calderón Campos and María Teresa García Godoy’s article in Forms of address in Portuguese and Spanish: Studies in diachrony and diachronic reconstruction (De Gruyter, 2022).

    (By the way, I am not talking here about second-persons forms used only when addressing members of the clergy.)

  27. Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective

    Even better than Daughters of the Dust! It’s high time I watched it again.

  28. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Surely Spanish and Catalan haven’t abandoned the original 2sg in favour of the original 2pl, like Dutch, though? They’re just innovated new posh forms.

    What I meant is that the original 2pl forms (Sp. vos, Cat. vós) no longer function as such (replaced by vosotr@s and vosaltres), but only as 2sg. In Spain, their use is altogether vanishingly rare. However, Argentine Spanish seems to have had the same evolution as Dutch: vos is now the standard informal 2sg pronoun in Argentina, and if there is a residual role for there, I don’t know what it is exactly.

  29. PlasticPaddy says

    vos seems to have a reflexive and accusative te, “?como te llamas vos?”, “!como te odio a vos!”

  30. CuConnacht says

    Another quibble with McWhorter:

    ‘English itself had “thou” for the singular and “you” for the plural — or actually “ye,” as in “Hear ye”’

    Actually ye nominative, you accusative.

    The mistranslation of “Oona gal think” may have been Lowry’s, or rather their ad agency’s, quoted accurately by McWhorter. I imagine the Gullah was translated in the original ad.

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    @Giacomo Ponzetto

    Thanks! (My knowledge of Spanish – as I have just demonstrated – is not far from zero.)

  32. I’m guessing by “vulgar” he meant informal and non-standard. In which case it’s the wrong word choice, I think.

  33. Yes, the translation is from the Lawry’s ad. Type “We think great-great-great-grandma would’ve loved Lawry’s” into Google and you’ll find copies of the ad from 1995.

  34. In Argentina singular vos takes a verb form that seems to merge singular and plural: vos llamás.

  35. llamás is the vosotros form llamáis without the i. Other vos dialects take out the a, others take out the s.

  36. vos llamás

    Surprising. Talking to llamas is something one would naturally expect to happen in Bolivia or Peru, rather than Argentina.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    The construction is evidently a close syntactic parallel to the Gullah oona gal. Presumably the Gullah would be oona lama.

  38. And this is old Welsh Patagonia,
    The home of the eisteddfod,
    Where the llamas speak only to gauchos,
    And the gauchos speak only to God.

  39. David Eddyshaw says
  40. Maen nhw i gyd wrth eu bodd yn siarad am farddoniaeth ym Mhatagonia.

  41. (Nasal mutation is best mutation!)

  42. David Eddyshaw says

    (Nasal mutation is best mutation!)

    Damn right! (Somewhat endangered, alas, in these degenerate times.)

    With regard to your previous claim, I hope so (never been there, despite my Patagonian descent.)

  43. So the Welsh don’t distinguish the one-l lama from the two-l llama? Could get tricky for Patagonian Buddhists. (The Wikipedia article talks about plural ‘lamas’ rather than the typical animal-plural ‘lamaod’ which GPC informs me is also correct; however it also claims you can use ‘lamaod’ (alongside ‘lamas’ and the bizarre ‘lamaseiad’) for the spiritual leaders, which feels wrong somehow…
    Now I want to know how to implement voseo in Patagonian Welsh, which as far as I know is pretty conventional with its pronouns….

  44. Trond Engen says

    We Norwegians don’t distinguish either. Neither do the wolves.

    (Actually, llamas have been tested as guardians of sheep, with some success. I’m not aware of similar experiments with lamas.)

  45. David Eddyshaw says

    GPC suggests that the odd plural lamaseaid “lamas” is modelled on Phariseaid “Pharisees.” Which seems like a bit of a calumny on somebody. Can’t see either group being altogether happy with the analogy.

    I’m now imagining St Paul claiming to have been a Lama of the Lamas.

    Hilaire Belloc has a poem about llamas and lamas which is sadly too politically incorrect to be reproduced in these impeccably woke halls (and, it must be said, contains some factual inaccuracies.)

    The Moral of one of Thurber’s Fables is “Even the llama should stick to mama.”

  46. David Eddyshaw says
  47. We Norwegians don’t distinguish either.
    Same in German, except that for the gender – it’s der Lama for the Buddhist and das Lama for the animal.

  48. Usually outside of context we say “Buddhist lamas” (буддийские ламы). Yes, the gender is different if the lama (Buddhist) is male, but in plural there is no difference and when you mention a lama the listener usually can understand what lama it is from the context (and in present only adjectives are marked for gender. Both words are -a declension).

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    The solution is obviously to pronounce the b in lama.

  50. David Marjanović says

    I don’t understand how the singular is “direct,” or how the plural suggests “a kind of polite distance.”

    The plural spreads the blame.

  51. J.W. Brewer says

    @David E.: I had not thought that Belloc’s occasionally anti-Buddhistic tendencies were what rendered him controversial-to-fraught in these impeccably woke End Times.

  52. St Paul claiming to have been a Lama of the Lamas.

    i thought it was during his time in Agartha that he learned his welsh, though perhaps i have been misinformed.

  53. David Eddyshaw says

    Could be … I’ve often wondered about that.

  54. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Danish is approaching the pristine state of one singular and one plural 2sg pronoun, since the polite De/Dem/Deres is moribund. As in, I am surprised if a shop assistant uses it and nobody else ever does.

  55. Geordies (North East England, often unintelligible to strangers) sometimes say “ye” or “yee” for “you”.

  56. David Eddyshaw says

    The survival of the original 2sg pronoun in English is amply exemplified in the national anthem of Yorkshire:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Ilkla_Moor_Baht_'at

    I should point out that, unlike most such anthems, it contains sound health advice and positive messages about recycling and sustainability.

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