Teachers' blog


【Wherefore art thou, Romeo】

Theme:Mike, 英文法


Mike Morikawa
In my last post, I talked about how different varieties of English get around the problem of 2nd person singular (you) looking and sounding the same as 2nd person plural (you). Youse (pronounced youz), y’all, yinz; these are just some of the more interesting phrases we use when we talk to a group of people.


These are example of how people adapt a language to suit their needs. In many cases, words change or adapt to fit the reality of the world around us now. We all know what a computer is, but do we ever think of a computer as a person who computes? This is the original meaning, but of course it doesn’t have the same meaning today.


Originally, there was a difference between 2nd person singular and plural. From the 1400s to the 1700s, when talking you to one person, you would say thou. When talking to a group of people, you would say you. In the quote above from Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks an imaginary Romeo “Why are you a Montague (family member?), Romeo?”, a fact which is unfair because his family is at war with hers.


Of course, language changes, and the change from thou to you is a good example. Even in the time period I’ve described above, “you” was starting to be used as a polite form of the singular. English speakers were likely copying French (which has two singular forms tu and vous) because it was seen as stylish and cosmopolitan. When talking to someone in a higher social position than you, you would use “you”. When talking to someone in a lower social position than you, or to someone who was very close to you, you would use “thou”.


“Thou” isn’t used often anymore in modern English. It sounds very old-fashioned, an example of how people spoke hundreds of years ago. But we do hear it from time to time, in the same way that in Japanese we might add -dono to a person’s name.

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