In most languages, it is easy to know if someone is talking to one or more people. Even in English, we say ‘I’ and ‘we’, ‘it’ and ‘they’. So why is the plural form of ‘you’, ‘you’? Read on to find out!
In grammar and speech, the plural is very important. It gives us information about the subjects and objects in any sentence. For example, if three of us are meeting at the local pizza place and I say to my friend that ‘I am at the restaurant’, she knows I’m alone. If I say ‘We are at the restaurant’, then she can be pretty sure that she is the last one to arrive. But what about the second person? if I say ‘Are you at the restaurant?’, how can she know if I am talking about one person or more?
Once upon a time, in the age of noble English knights and fair maidens, English did have a singular and plural form when speaking in the second person. ‘You’ singular was ‘thou’, ‘you’ plural was ‘ye’. So what happened to these words?
Like many other European languages, English had a T-V distinction: the plural form was used as a more polite form of address (like vous in French). However, over time people used the polite form so often that ‘thou’ became very uncommon. Eventually, most people stopped using it altogether, though it still survives in some local dialects.* Later, ‘ye’ morphed into ‘you’, and this is how we ended up with our present day form.
Interestingly, while ‘you’ is the commonly accepted plural form of ‘you’ singular across the world, there are also plenty of popular regional variations that people like to use in spoken English. In the southern United States, for example, people often say ‘y’all’, while in other parts of the US ‘you guys’ is popular. In Scotland, Ireland, Australia and some parts of England you might hear ‘youse‘, or ‘yous’:
“Where are y’all going for lunch?”
“I think youse are all crazy!”
If you listen closely, you might hear other forms used by English native speakers to express the second person plural, from ‘wunna’, in Barbados to ‘yin’ in Western Pennsylvania and ‘you lot’ in the UK.
LANGUAGE IS ALIVE
This just goes to show that all languages are living, English especially. Sometimes we think of grammar rules as ‘laid down by God’, something that cannot be changed. But actually it makes more sense to think of grammar rules as a description of the most commonly accepted way of using a particular language. English is spoken by so many people in so many different countries that the varieties of the language are almost endless. Grammar is important, of course, but if you make a mistake or say something strange, know that millions of people have done the same in the past. That this is what makes English such a varied and interesting language!
*Because we now tend to see ‘thou’ in specific contexts such as in the Bible and Shakespeare plays, many people think that it is actually a formal form.