Mark, in the comments to an earlier entry, brought up an interesting point: why did the “thou/thee” form disappear from English (except for a few dialects)? There is a fascinating discussion of this on LINGUIST List, from which I quote the following, by Larry Trask:

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

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

Another discussion includes pronoun distinctions in Italy, Belgium, Australia, and Providence (Rhode Island), and an article on the subject by Sara Malton includes a bibliography for those who wish to pursue this intriguing issue further.

Addendum. There is a discussion of this going on at Page of Moss; no Korean yet, but lots of Mongolian and Buryat, as well as a reference to the prerevolutionary honorific use in Russia of the third person plural for a single individual: a housemaid, asked if her master were in, would reply “Yes, sir, they are.” Also, Karin has this to say:

In Norwegian it is du – informal and de – formal. I always found it a pain in the neck. De always felt awkward to me, but as a child I was supposed to use it when talking to grownups: teachers, my sister’s in-laws, the tramcar conductor, neighbors—you name it. It was such a relief coming to the US and just say you. Easy, comfortable, no (class distinction). Thank you English!

I have also found a discussion of the polite-pronoun issue here; Mark J. Reed is investigating the matter and presumably will put a summary of what he learns online when he learns it; the phenomenon of voseo (use of the singular pronoun vos as a neutral form of address, avoiding the choice between and usted, used in Argentina and Uruguay and less widely elsewhere) is described here (some illustrations here); and Mikhail Epstein discusses the ideology of Soviet forms of address, including Vy/ty, here (scroll down to CHAPTER 9. IDEOLOGICAL SYNTAX: FORMS OF ADDRESS). A sample:

Ideological language, however, most often combines the familiar pronoun with the formal name and patronymic: “ty, Aleksei Nikolaevich.” This form of address is the norm between members of the Communist Party, even in the Politburo. Such a combination reflects the two-fold nature of ideological language: in addressing an ideological brother it is impossible to use the vy form, but since this “brother” is not a blood-relation, it is necessary to retain some element of formality when addressing him. The element of formality was strengthened when ideological language became the official language of Soviet society. Ideological language is thus simultaneously brotherly and official, a combination of familiarity and formality.


  1. I’m famous!

    Yes, on reflection, I suppose that haory explanation of Puritans making everyone else fed up with ‘thou’ is a bit Quaker-centric, even if in self-deprecating mode!

    Hungarians claim they had a remarkably [or even chillingly] heirarchically-ordained reduction in sociolinguistic heirarchy. The story is that Count Szechenyi, their impatient and energetic reforming nobleman of the late 18th century, early 19th, was personally responsible for cutting the number of respect-related forms of address down from five to three [as it still is now] in his lifetime.

    Sounds as if Hungarians [like the two Englishmen on the desert island waiting to be introduced to each other] are still today waiting for a second sufficiently prestigious aristocrat to give them permission to reduce further from three to two or even [gulp] one form of address.

    Does Korean have five forms of address still, or am I imagining that?

  2. Well? Somebody out there must know Korean… speak up!

  3. Will Lehman says

    Hello Everyone:
    Just wanted to add a comment about the use of “vos” in Argentina. Vos is not a neutral term used to avoid the choice between formal (Usted) and informal (tú): rather, it is used instead of tú (or in variation with tú) and is considered informal. It would be rude to call an older clerk in a store “vos”.

  4. Hm. That’s not the way I remember usage from when I lived in Buenos Aires in the ’60s; it’s true you wouldn’t use it with a distinguished old gent, but as I recall people in general used it whether they knew each other or not — certainly much more widely than tu is used in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. But perhaps usage has changed, or we moved in different circles.

  5. I am also under the impression that vos is far from neutral (can you ever achieve that in language that already possesses this T/V distinction? isn’t your refusal not to use the V form already a sign of… something? but anyways…) and decidedly informal, though I wouldn’t know how its formality and usage fare with respect to , especially nowadays. I know that in olden days there was a definite stigma attached to vos, but that may have been the result of a prescriptivist mindset that genuflected in the direction of Castile, and which may no longer be in vogue (or so one hopes).
    I am sad to report, however, that I have never been to Buenos Aires, and that my knowledge of this (if that is what it is) is mostly impressionistic.

  6. Alex Montie says

    Hmm… In reponse to the question about Korean, there are a few that I’m aware of. In reference to those of higher station, you say “Tang-shin” for the singular second person. For those of slightly more equal rank, you say “neo” (pronounced “nuh” for those who aren’t familiar with the “eo” spelling), and in slang terms you can say “ni”. If you’re trying to downright disrespectful, as far as I know you can say “Aesekki”, but I don’t recommend it. I can ask my teacher or my friends, but I think there are only four, with one being colloquial.
    Their equivalent to the Japanese -san is -sshi, but that might not tie into the topic at hand directly…

  7. I thought I’d add something to this interesting discussion. In modern day Italian, the familiar second person singular is “tu” and the formal second person singular is “Lei” which oddly enough is the same as the feminine third person pronoun (she).
    I read in grammar books about using “Loro” which means “they” as a polite form of the second person plural, but it seems to me that this has become defunct and everyone just uses “voi” when addressing a group of people.
    In past decades, Italians used to use tu/voi (like tu and vous in French) but “voi” has been replaced by “Lei.” Oddly enough the Fascists tried to get everyone to use the “voi” form because they thought the using “Lei” was “too Spanish.”

  8. Watching Orfeu Negro a few months ago, I was surprised to hear você all the time; is tu dead in Brazil, or have I misunderstood something?

  9. I do not think that Korean has five forms of address. I think it’s more like three.
    The highest would be “sunsaengnim”. It is used to address a person of substantially higher social rank such as a friend’s grandfather or one’s professor (literally, it means “teacher”).
    The second, “tangshin” is also used to address a superior, such as a boss. It’s not quite clear to me where it fits in relative to “sunsaeng”, though it is definitely superior to the third second person pronoun. I think Kim Jong-il is called “tangshin” by his subjects.
    To address an equal I believe “noh” (sort of rhymes with “aww”) is common. If I remember correctly Pusan dialect uses “ni” in the same way as Seoulites use “noh”.
    However, in Korean, there are many particles that can be attached to any pronoun to make it even more honorific. But I’d say there are three levels. I hear that Japanese has nine forms. Is that right?

  10. The story in Brazil is complex, with three formality levels represented by tu, você and o senhor / a senhora. However, these are used in various roles in different parts of the country: Wikipedia has the hairy details. In particular, the replacement of tu by você affects only the nominative in most areas.

  11. Since we’re responding to ancient comments, to Chris from 2004: the use of the third person feminine singular Lei derives from the use of the second person plural Voi, by way of such forms of address as “la Vostra Dignita'”, “la Vostra Santita'”, etc. (think “Your Majesty” in English). You can see these expressions used in full in various texts from the 1500’s, say; I forget the precise scope of Spanish occupation of Italy in those centuries, but it would appear to be a Spanish usage (consider that Spanish “Usted” is itself a contraction for “Vuestra Merced”).

  12. Hans J. Sosa says

    Usted is commonly mistaken to be a contraction of “Vuestra Merced”, untill one opens ones eyes to the factual history of the iberian peninsula; the +/- 800 year moorish occupation; and the linguistic legacy of the arab language. “Ustaadh” (‘teacher’ arab.) used to be the formal way of addressing one’s superior in the islamic world and was of daily usage in Al Andalus (Spain and Portugal) during the muslim era of the peninsula. It’s seems historians and linguists of a later era (after the reconquista) have tried to contrive a different narrative and thus negate the influence of non-christian, non-european influences on the nation’s language.

  13. Scott Los Angeles says

    Hans is the man! Haha. I’ve always been skeptical of the “vuestra merced” explanation for “usted”. I know almost no Arabic, so I would never have been able to offer an alternate explanation. Thanks Hans.
    Someone needs to change the Wikipedia page for “Spanish personal pronouns”, although there is an argument on that page against your statement.
    Who knows though, that page also says that vosotros is completely absent from Latin-American Spanish (aside from legal usage), and I live in Los Angeles, CA, where EVERYONE is from Latin America, and I hear vosotros almost everyday in spoken usage as well as television from L.A. stations and some Mexican stations. At the very least I would say it is extremely common where I live.

  14. As Wikipedia says:

    It is unlikely that similar-sounding Arabic ustādh (‘professor’) was involved in the formation of Spanish usted, given the weakness of the semantic link and the fact that usted is not documented before 1598 (see the online Corpus del Español) — over a century after the fall of Moorish Granada.

    That’s pretty convincing to me. And a desire to promote “the influence of non-christian, non-european influences” does not provide any added weight on one’s side when one is trying to argue with professional etymologists. Obviously, professional etymologists are not always right and sometimes change their minds, but they are far more likely to be right than random amateurs with axes to grind.

  15. The Wikipedia explanation is only half-convincing to me. The lateness of the attestation is fairly convincing (although it doesn’t completely rule out the possibility, it certainly makes it look more remote), but the ‘weakness of the semantic link’ is less so.
    For example, there is a somewhat similar phenomenon in 先生, meaning ‘Mr’ in Chinese and ‘teacher’ in Japanese. Leaving aside the history of how the two languages got to their respective meanings (the actual meaning of the characters is ‘born first’) — and the devil is always in the historical detail — a similar semantic link is there. You could argue that the Arabic word ‘professor’ as a formal way of addressing a professor in the Arabic world makes the semantic case quite plausible. What kills it is the lateness of the attestation.

  16. I agree on both counts.

  17. marie-lucie says

    Usted and Vuestra Merced
    In Don Quijote, which depicts a still feudal society, Sancho consistently addresses Don Quijote with vuesa merced ‘your grace’ and never abbreviates the phrase, while the Don addresses Sancho by name, using tu. It is a while since I last read the book, but I don’t think that anyone uses Usted to anyone else.
    I remember reading somewhere an article (perhaps the same one alluded to by Hans) mentioning Arabic ustaadh as the probable source for Usted. This might be plausible if the word had been restricted to addressing only men in a position to command respect, but Usted has never been restricted as to the sex of the addressee, any more than the phrase vues(tr)a merced and similar honorifics common at the time. If it had been associated with the masculine only, a feminine form would have had to be created from it, and nothing of the kind is attested.
    Also, very importantly, there is no way that the stressed long aa in the Arabic word would have evolved into a stressed short e in Spanish. I don’t think that any other word of Arabic origin has undergone such a vowel change, for which there is no plausible conditioning factor in Spanish.

  18. Hans, Marie-Lucie–
    In the (very lively!) comments thread of the January 23, 2010 entry, “McWhorter on Proto-World”, I gave a reference to an article by Krotkoff arguing for USTED as a loan from Arabic USTAAD: as I recall he argued that the shift from long /a:/ to /e/ was an Arabic-internal phenomenon.

  19. Hans J. Sosa says

    Arguing, not as a prof. etymologist, but from the stance of ‘thought/ argument that the simplest answer is usually the correct one’ I would dare to say that the explanation that “a contraction of vuestra merced” gave castilian ‘usted’ would be a more complex language phenomenon than to assume there was an arabic loan word that was used as a form of formality in mozarab and eventually castilian. Can anyone give me a thorough (and thus convincing) explanation on how contraction has occured with other spanish words? How did this proces took place on a morfo/phonological level?

  20. marie-lucie says

    Etienne, that must be the article I read, and thank you for giving the reference at that time. I don’t remember all the details, but it seems to me that the author’s interpretation was original, while the vuestra merced one has been around for ages. Have other people adopted Krotkoff’s theory? Are there credible attestations that the Arabic word was used in this way in Spanish (eg in older literary texts)? and if the alleged shift from aa to e (probably ee) was internal to Arabic, are there other instances where an Arabic word with aa was borrowed into Spanish with e?
    Hans, unusual contractions are likely to occur with common words or phrases which are socially conventional rather than lexically meaningful, such as terms of address, greetings like “good morning”, swear words, etc. These terms are not normally used as part of sentences like ordinary words, and they are also often spoken very rapidly, so that the sounds are slurred and some of them omitted. I can’t think of an example offhand but there are attestations of this phenomenon in many languages.
    The phenomenon may be obscured in written texts because texts tend to represent a slow and deliberate pronunciation. For instance, not everyone speaks very clearly while saying “Good morning”: sometimes it comes out simply as “morng”, but it is interpreted correctly by the listener as representing the greeting “Good morning”. If the conversation was transcribed, the transcribed would very likely write at least “Morning” if not the whole phrase.
    I cited Sancho’s use of vuesa merced, always written this way by Cervantes, indicating a popular, perhaps regional reduction of the cluster [str] to plain [s]. But if Sancho was speaking fast on occasion, perhaps he said something like “vuesamced” or even “vuesced”. The author would not bother to reproduce such contractions, but write the words consistendly as if spoken at normal speed. Surely the scholars who first related Usted to vuestra merced must have heard popular contractions of the phrase, intermediate between the two, since the link from the phrase to the new pronoun is not phonologically obvious.

  21. I can’t think of an example offhand
    “Goodbye” from “God be with you” is a good one.

  22. Lameen just posted about early Arabic-internal changes of /aa/ > /ee/ at Jabal al-Lughat. I’ve asked him to come here and comment, if he will.

  23. Marie-Lucie: In answer to your question, Krotkoff’s article seems to have been utterly (and unjustifiably) ignored by hispanists. So, no, I know of nobody who has accepted his theory…but I know of nobody who gave sound reasons for rejecting it either.

  24. Since you ask: the phenomenon I talk about in that post is unrelated (it’s arguably ē > ā, in fact); but the change aa > ee and even aa > ee > ii is very common in Andalusi Arabic, so as far as that goes it seems plausible.

  25. Gómez da Silva’s etymological dictionary mentions various contracted forms of vuestra merced, e.g. vosasted, vuesanced and vosancé. Elsewhere there’s the early form vusted. He believes that usted is ultimately from the Arabic, but says that vuestra merced started replacing vos as the honorific in the 15th and 16th centuries, and that usted first appears in 1620. That seems to me to work against the Arabic etymology.

  26. There are three points that could make the Ustaadh/Usted hypothesis plausible.
    1- It is true that Granada fell in 1492, but large-scale expulsion of the Moriscos took place in the early 17th century. During the 16th century Arabic continued to be spoken, and when King Philip II banned its use in 1567, the Morisco Revolt broke out in Alpujarras, and when the rebels were defeated, some 80000 Andalusian Arabic-speaking Moriscos were dispersed to Spanish regions outside Granada to facilitate their assimilation. Eventually, some 300000 Moriscos were deported to mainly North Africa.
    It is true that Arabic proficiency among the Arabic-speaking Moriscos might have been falling during the period between the fall of Granada and the expulsion, but the retention of a word like ‘Ustaadh/Usted’ is not implausible.
    2- ‘Usted’ is more likely to have been borrowed from Andalusian Arabic than from Classical Arabic. The former is known for its imāla, which means that the pronunciation of ‘Ustaadh’ is likely to have been close to ‘Usted’. A similar pronunciation can be observed in some of today’s Maghrebi Arabic varieties.
    3. In some Arabic-speaking countries like Egypt and Sudan (and maybe others) people do use ‘Ustaadh’, though not exclusively and not as a pronoun, to address others formally. An ‘Ustaadh’ is not only a school teacher, but can also be any educated person.

  27. Very interesting! This is a complicated subject indeed.
    the Morisco Revolt broke out in Alpujarras
    “Alpujarras” always brings to my mind Don Juan’s Serenade (“Гаснут дальней Альпухары/ Золотистые края”: ‘The golden lands of distant Alpujarra are growing dim’), which I discovered in Ilf and Petrov’s Twelve Chairs (Глава XX. От Севильи до Гренады) and just found quoted in Aksyonov’s Затоваренная бочкотара (“Гаснут дальней Альпухары золотистые края, а я ползу по черепичным крышам Халигалии.”).

  28. Re ustāḏ / usted: what Idris said, especially the bit about imāla, i.e. the breaking of ā into ē and even all the way to ī in some contexts. Corriente’s dictionary of Andalusi Arabic does indeed cite a source (Alcala’s 1505 Arte para ligera mente saber la lengua arauiga y Vocabulista arauigo en letra castellana) where this word crops up with a heavy imala: “uztíd (pl. acítid)”. In fact, the imala may be too heavy and the meaning it gives is quite different: “scholar, minstrel”. A far cry from “Lord, master” etc., especially considering the many synonyms for that concept (sīd, rabb, mawl and even ḍayf).

  29. Korean does have roughly three levels, but it also has a wide variety of other options that afford flexibility and subtlety. 선생님 (seonsaengnim), which includes the honorific suffix 님 (nim), would be the most polite/formal, then the less-common 당신 (dangshin), then 너 (neo).
    Where it gets interesting is that Koreans will often use job titles or kinship terms, with or without the suffixes 님 (-nim, honorific) and 씨 (-sshi, polite), instead of personal pronouns:
    유감독님 (yugamdongnim) “Yu-Director-hon.” = “Mr. Director Yu” where 감독 gamdok “director” is a job title; a step down would be 유감독 (yugamdok) “Yu-Director” = “Director Yu,” an option used among friends; similarly 김변호사님 (kimbyeonhosanim) “Mr. Attorney Kim.” In both cases, the family name can be omitted with a slight decrease in formality;
    오빠 (oppa) “older brother (of a female speaker),” used to older males of the same generation even if there is no family relationship;
    아가씨 (agasshi) “miss” as a general form of address to young women, esp. unmarried ones or those under 40 whose status is unknown, yields to 아줌마/아주머니 ajumma/ajumoni “ma’am” (literally “aunt,” the latter form being honorific) for older women.
    Then there are various lexical choices such as 사람/분 (saram/bun), where the former is neutral and the latter is polite (그사람 keusaram “that person = he/she” vs. 그분 “that esteemed person = he/she”). This is not a situation like English singular/plural with no gray area between.

  30. The main characters of Avram Davidson’s story “The Man Who Saw the Elephant” (in The Other Nineteenth Century, link to Google Books) are “the people called Quakers”:

    “Thee feels moved by the Spirit to see this elephant?”

    “They say it is the great beast Behemoth of the Scriptures.”

    “Thee feels moved by the Spirit to see this elephant?”

    “I do.”

    “Thee has a concern to see this elephant?”

    “I have.”

    “Then thee must see him,” she said.

  31. God, I love Avram Davidson.

  32. Adam Figueira says

    What an interesting discussion. I’m no linguist, but as a Mormon I was taught “thee” and “thou” since childhood as reverential words to be used in prayer, as are most English speaking members of my faith. This is reinforced by our use of the King James Bible, but its significance is addressed directly by one of our global leaders in this talk:


    He acknowledges that the words we use to show respect were in some ways the opposite, but argues their association with scripture and absence from modern language make them suitable for adoption as honorifics. He also touches on the translation of this principle into other languages.

    My point is that the Latter-day Saint community keeps these words alive and well all over the world, if not exactly in their historical context.

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