Social Deixis: The development of second person pronouns from Old English to the present

Term Paper, 2006

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1 Introduction

2 The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity in earlier stages of English
2.1. The dimensions of power and solidarity
2.2. 2nd person pronouns in Old English
2.2 Forms of address in Middle English

3 Forms of address in Modern English
3.1. Non – Verbal communication and cultural differences

4 Discussion

5 Summary

6 References:

1 Introduction

The word “deixis“ is of Greek origin and means “pointing“ or “indicating“. Sifianou (1992: 56) points out that ´in linguistics this term denotes a word or phrase that directly and categorically refers to temporal, locational, or personal characteristics of a communicative event and its participants.´ “According to Levinson (1983), deixis concerns the ways in which languages encode or grammaticalize features of the context of utterance or speech event and therefore involves context knowledge.”

Deixis is a linguistic matter that lies in between the fields of semantics and pragmatics. Linguists differentiate 5 categories of deixis: person, place, time, discourse and social deixis.

This paper will be concerned with the category of social deixis. Social deixis encodes - as Sifianou (1992: 56) says - “features of the communicative event which mark the social identity of the speaker or addressee, and the social relationship which holds between them.” The study of social deixis is primarily concerned with the grammaticalization of social information and the analysis of pronouns, but also includes aspects of language usage.[1]

The topic is of special interest, as it has a high degree of relevance in our every – day lives. This is especially obvious in the study of pronouns. Their appropriate use has ever been the concern of (socio-) linguists and average users alike. The use of pronouns is closely linked to the principles of power and solidarity. In other words: Pronouns (especially 2nd person pronouns) indicate the degree of formality within the communicative event. Inappropriate use consequently can lead to misunderstandings and serious tensions between speaker and addressee, as the wrong form of address may contradict the actual position of speaker and addressee in the social hierarchy.

Both Old and Middle English had different forms for the 2nd person singular and plural, but only Middle English made use of polite forms of address. In Modern English there is only one pronoun to indicate 2nd person. But many other Indo – European languages (e.g. French, Spanish and German) preserved the so – called T / V distinction. The origin of this distinction can be found in Latin. `According to Mühlhäusler (1990: 135) the letters T and V are taken from the Latin Imperial convention of addressing the Emperor as Vos and everyone else as tu.[2] Thus, T indicates any pronoun of condescension or intimacy, while V represents any pronoun of respect or formality.` My paper follows the T / V distinction.[3]

First of all, this work will concentrate on the 2nd person pronouns that were employed in earlier stages of the English language. I will furthermore analyse the development that these pronouns have undergone until today. The paper is primarily concerned with semantic[4] rather than phonetic changes.

I will also take a closer look at the various possibilities to address a person in Modern English and reveal some cultural differences. Furthermore, my work includes a discussion on the following questions: When is it likely that there is a change in the form of address and who has the right to propose a change? These questions will be discussed later in the paper. Finally, I will sum up the most important aspects of my paper.

The emphasis of this paper will be on English, but I will also take examples from other languages into consideration whenever they seem to be more suitable to illustrate the problem.

The main source of information for my paper is the study “The pronouns of Power and Solidarity” by Brown and Gilman, which was published in 1960.

2 The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity in earlier stages of English

2.1. The dimensions of power and solidarity

The choice of either the T or V pronoun is closely linked to the dimensions of power and solidarity.

Brown and Gilman (1960: 255) define power as “a relationship between at least two persons, and it is nonreciprocal in the sense that both cannot have power in the same area of behaviour. The power semantic is similarly nonreciprocal; the superior says T and receives V.” It is often said that language reveals, creates and reflects power. But where does power come from? There are many aspects that can make someone powerful. First of all, there are physical features, e.g. strength or height. There are also aspects that strengthen someone´s position within society such as wealth or a high position in the church, state or the army. A high social rank or status was (and still is) almost the guarantee for being respected by other people. A high level of respect made it likely that this person was addressed by the polite V pronoun, whereas these authorities often addressed inferiors by the T pronoun in the past.[5]

The use of the V form to address another person emphasizes the differences that exist between people, as this form of address reveals that one person is superior and the other has to subordinate. Therefore the nonreciprocal power semantic requires a society that is clearly structured and everyone must have a unique position in the hierarchy.

But as Gilman and Brown (1960: 256) point out “Medieval European societies were not so finely structured, and so the power semantic was never the only rule for the use of T and V.” There were also people that belonged to the same class and were equally powerful. Therefore the pronominal address was not always nonreciprocal but reciprocal in equal relationships. Reciprocal power semantic implies that both the speaker and the addressee gave and received the same form of address. It was a common phenomenon that people of the upper class exchanged a mutual V whereas equals of the lower class addressed each other by a T pronoun.

There are certain features that describe differences between people but don´t necessarily lead to differences in a person´s status or his / her position in the social hierarchy, e.g. when two persons are born in different cities. In these cases the power semantic can´t be the decisive criterion whether to use T or V. Therefore it is necessary to introduce a second dimension among power equals – the solidarity semantic. The exchange of a mutual T of solidarity is more likely when persons are like – minded and have frequent contact. The exchange of a mutual V is more probable when solidarity declines. As Gilman and Brown (1960: 258) point out “the dimension of solidarity is potentially applicable to all persons addressed. Power superiors may be solidary (parents, elder siblings) or not solidary (officials whom one seldom sees).” The same applies to power inferiors.

All in all, one can say that the solidarity semantic has gained supremacy in the past centuries, as titles and classes lost some of the importance they once had.

2.2. 2nd person pronouns in Old English

Old English made use of a predominantly synthetic marking. Nouns, adjectives and pronouns were inflected to express case, number and gender. Consequently, there were different forms for the 2nd person. Þu, þin and þe represented the 2nd person pronouns singular in the four[6] different cases. Ge, eower and eow were the 2nd person pronouns in the plural. These forms were only used to address more than one person.

Consequently, it is important to notice that there was no polite form to address one person in Old English.

Therefore the paper is concerned with the development from Middle English until today.

2.2 Forms of address in Middle English

Middle English describes the period between 1150 and 1500. It is the period in the English language when the most drastic changes in the language system occurred. In Middle English a change from a predominantly synthetic to a predominantly analytic structure took place and there was a general tendency towards regularity. This led to a reduction and analogical levelling of endings and pronouns. The process of change, which already started in Old English, was accelerated in Middle English and determined by a number of internal[7] and external[8] factors.

Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, “ye” was the 2nd person plural and “thou” was used to address one person. The pronoun “you”, which is the 2nd person pronoun singular and plural in Modern English, was originally the accusative of “ye”, but in time it also became the nominative plural.

“According to Howe (1996: 170) the first definite examples of a V form of address in English date from the second half of the thirteenth century.” But since a lot of variation was characteristic for the period of Middle English, the V form was not a standard form of formal address yet. Many linguists (e.g. Kennedy) are convinced that the polite form of address was only used by the upper class, who wanted to imitate the behavioural patterns of the French nobility and intended to please people of a higher rank by addressing them by the pronoun “ye”. `According to Howe (1996:170) the common people did not show a very strong tendency to use “ye” as a formal address.`

However, in the fifteenth century the use of “ye” spread among the middle class. The singular pronoun “thou” was used by a superior to a person of lower rank. “Ye and you” were used by an inferior to address a person of higher rank.

In the seventeenth century the use of “thou” in colloquial language decreased. This had several reasons. First of all, a standard, which limited the use of “thou” significantly, developed in and around London. “Thou” and “Thee” forms address were only preserved in some dialects in (predominantly rural) areas far away from London.[9] The consequence was a dramatic marginalization of “Thou” in Standard English in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, as “thou” was judged substandard and impolite.


[1] There is much dispute on the question whether to include usage in the study of social deixis or not. Linguists, such as Fillmore, think that sociolinguistics is concerned primarily with the issues of language usage, while social deixis should be restricted to the structural study of linguistic systems.

[2] There are various theories about the general semantic evolution of T and V pronouns. Brown and Gilman (1960: 254) suggest that “the use of the plural to the emperor began in the fourth century. By that time there were actually two emperors (…) Words addressed to one man were, by implication, addressed to both (…) Eventually the Latin plural was extended from the emperor to other power figures.”

[3] There are also linguists, who suggest alternative distinctions. Agnieszka Kielkiewicz - Janowiak (1992: 77) suggests to employ the symbols T (for the pronouns in earlier stages of English, e.g. thou, thee, thy, thine) and Y (representing ye, you, your, yours).

[4] According to Brown and Gilman (1960: 252) semantics is “the covariation between the pronoun used and the objective relationship existing between speaker and addressee.”

[5] One example to illustrate the fact that power semantic is nonreciprocal are letters from church authorities (e.g. Pope Gregory), who addressed their subordinates by T, but received V from them. Even parents were addressed by V, but gave T to their children.

[6] There are only three different forms, as the dative and accusative forms had already fallen together.

[7] Internal Factors were for example the redundancy in syntagmatic marking and in the grammatical system.

[8] The most important external factors were probably the contact situation with Old Norse and the fact that there were no standard forms, which allowed the people to speak as they liked.

[9] In Northamptonshire, for example, “thou“ was used by old people until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Social Deixis: The development of second person pronouns from Old English to the present
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Anglistik / Amerikanistik)
Proseminar Deixis
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ISBN (Book)
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Social, Deixis, English, Proseminar, Deixis
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Maxi Hinze (Author), 2006, Social Deixis: The development of second person pronouns from Old English to the present, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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