The English taught in the classroom is often very different from the English that native speakers actually use. This is especially true for one little pronoun.
Stephen is an Irish/German journalist and translator based in Ottawa, Canada. He likes running, language barriers, grammar and flags.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Except…wait a minute. Am I speaking to you, dear individual reader, or am I speaking to all of the readers collectively? English is a language of many frustrations, and while the inability to distinguish between second-person singular and second-person plural isn’t the most glaring or problematic issue, it’s one that native speakers have been unconsciously fiddling with and tweaking for generations.
English used to have different pronouns for the singular and plural forms of ‘you’. Most native speakers are at least vaguely familiar with the old-timey pronouns ‘thou’, ‘thee’ and perhaps even ‘ye’. Back in the Middle Ages, these pronouns functioned similarly to how pronouns work in modern German. ‘Thou’ was the informal singular (much like German ‘du’); ‘thee’ was the object pronoun (roughly similar to German’s ‘dich’ or ‘dir’); ‘ye’ was the second person plural or a more formal version of ‘thou’ (like ‘sie’ or ‘Sie’).
Language and social classes
But then something started happening, something that strikes fear into the heart of any native English speaker: people started getting offended. Social mobility was increasing and with it came more movement between social classes, making it less and less clear who should get the formal ‘ye’ and who should get a lowly ‘thou’. “Thou called me thou instead of the more respectful ye, thou nincompoop, thou milksop, I shall smite thee!” is something an enraged duke almost certainly shouted to some perceived inferior at some point, moments before smiting him.
To avoid such misunderstandings, ‘ye’ slowly but surely became more prevalent, changing from use for someone of higher class, to a social equal, to being used by everyone. The pronunciation also changed from ‘ye’ to ‘you’ during this shift in usage. As the distinction between formal and informal disappeared, the distinction between singular and plural was dragged into obscurity with it. ‘Thou’ and ‘thee’ slipped out of use and ‘you’ was suddenly everywhere, solving one issue that made us uncomfortable while giving us a brand new one to struggle with, i.e. the uncertainty of audience. Today, in ESL classes around the world, ‘you’ is taught as both the second person singular and second person plural with little guidance on discerning between the two simply because you often just can’t tell which is intended without a lot of context. But, in reality, spoken English around the world has been busy devising solutions to this little nugget of ambiguity ever since.
Solving the problem with You
In Ireland, for example, we don’t struggle with this issue like our frenemies over in Britain do, because we still use ‘ye’ as the second person plural. Why? It’s not clear. Perhaps because the Irish were all lower-class to the British colonists, leaving us out of the linguistic shift altogether. For such a small country, Ireland has a tremendous number of regional variations – both in our native Irish and in English. We have several variations on ‘ye’, such as ‘yiz’, ‘youse’ or ‘yizzer’ – a strange contraction of ‘youse are’ used in areas of Dublin.
Our Celtic brothers in Scotland also use many of these forms, and they can also be found in regions around the world that had a lot of immigration from Ireland or Scotland, such as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and parts of the eastern United States. Other parts of Britain have also clung on to old versions of English that were edited out in Received Pronunciation: in Yorkshire and other parts of northern England, you’ll still hear ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ and many other delightful old anachronisms in the various dialects that still exist in rural areas.
Just like in Ireland, British colonialism led to interesting regional variations in the second person plural, most notably in the areas of the Caribbean affected by the slave trade. In the western Caribbean, particularly in Jamaica, you’ll hear the word ‘unu’ used, which is borrowed directly from the West African language Igbo. ‘Wunna’, used in Barbados, is thought to be a variation of ‘unu’, as is the ‘yinna’ that you might hear in the Bahamas.
Modern day workarounds
So far we have only looked at older regional variations that are actually quite elegant solutions to this irritating anomaly. But there have been some modern developments too, primarily in American English – and, well, they’re divisive. ‘You guys’ is probably one that you’ve heard a lot, but it’s imperfect in many ways. Consider this example: ‘Have you guys made up you guys’s minds yet?’ ‘You guys’ simply isn’t a pronoun, so it’s hard to get it to behave like one when you need it to indicate possession, for example. Add to that the fact that it’s a specifically gendered term, it’s sometimes hard to grasp why it’s become so prevalent. In the UK, the use of ‘you lot’ at least solves the gender issue, if not the problem with possessives.
It was social classes that created this whole problem, and it’s the social classes that might be responsible for (until fairly recently) repressing one potential solution to the issue, in the US at least: y’all. This phrase is thought to have developed in the meeting of Irish and Scottish immigrants with African slaves and is strongly associated with the southern US states and African American Vernacular English. One linguist suggests that it’s not actually a contraction of ‘you all’, but instead an Americanisation of the Scots-Irish phrase ‘ye aw’. Combine African-Americans with Scottish and Irish immigrants and you have three groups that have historically been looked down upon in the US – but the simple elegance of the phrase has seen its usage rise dramatically in recent years.
New options for you
So what does all this mean for the long-suffering learner of English? Unfortunately, the most correct solution is the frustratingly ambiguous one you’ve been learning: you as both singular and plural, especially if you’re writing a formal or academic text. But when you’re speaking to friends, you now have many more options to express yourself all the more clearly. All of these differences, with their myriad associated regional and class subtleties, highlight just how valuable it can be to have a language expert at your disposal to tailor a text for a specific audience – you don’t want to say ‘ye’ to a Texan any more than you want to say ‘y’all’ to a crowd of London socialites.
Or maybe ye do. Youse are all free to use whatever form of English ye like best. Just like I do.