The Era of the Informal

English is the language of the modern world for historical rather than linguistic reasons: it’s widely spoken less because it’s easy to learn than because of the political and economic importance of English-speaking countries over the past century or two. Nevertheless, there is a certain affinity between our language and our era. In this post I will explore one characteristic of English that matches up well with modern ideology: the lack of a formal/informal pronoun distinction.

The T-V distinction

Many languages have two (or more) grades of formality encoded in their pronouns. Some languages have dozens of finely differentiated pronouns that together handle the semantic load English assigns to “I,” “me,” and “you.”  Others, including many Indo-European languages, only distinguish the formal and informal pronouns in the second person singular and sometimes plural. In French, for example, tu is informal singular, while vous is both the formal singular and the (not-marked-for-formality) plural. This common kind of division between informal and formal second-person pronouns is called the T-V distinction, since in Indo-European languages the pronouns sometimes (but not always) begin with those letters.

In French, Old Spanish, Greek, Albanian, the Slavic languages, and many others the T-V distinction evolved when speakers began to use the second-person plural to address individuals of higher status; this is known, somewhat charmingly, as a “reverential singular.” It is not the only way for a T-V distinction to come about, however. In modern Peninsular Spanish, tu and vosotros are the informal singular and plural and usted and ustedes are the formal singular and plural. Usted actually arose as a shortening of vuestra merced, “your mercy,” so it takes third-person verb endings, much like Your Majesty in English, which in some settings functions as a formal second-person pronoun. (We say Your Majesty looks well today, not Your Majesty look well today, even though the normal second person in English, you, would take the verb look.) We could imagine an alternate history of English where Your Majesty, like vuestra merced in Spanish, had spread from a deferential form of address to a monarch to a respectful way of speaking to anyone of higher status, perhaps becoming abbreviated to “yerjesty” or something along the way.

English used to have a T/V distinction with a reverential singular, much like French currently does. In fact, this isn’t a coincidence; at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, the English second-person singular pronoun was thou and the second-person plural was ye (nominative) or you (accusative). It wasn’t until the thirteenth century, under the influence of Norman French-speaking nobles, that English speakers began to use you when addressing social superiors or other aristocrats. The use of thou as an informal singular and you for everything else continued for a few centuries, but by Shakespeare’s time it was already beginning to break down. By the 1700s thou had passed out of usage in most dialects and you had come to serve all the functions it serves today: formal and informal, singular and plural.

Why did this happen? I don’t know. It certainly had nothing to do with English’s future status as a world language. And, as I wrote above, its status as a world language cannot possibly be due to its lack of a T-V distinction. Affinity is the only connection I am drawing between the egalitarianism of our language and that of the modern world’s ideology.

Pronouns and politics

For centuries idealists have taken aim at the T-V distinction, in various languages, as a means of attacking inequality among human beings. In the seventeenth century, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, wrote, “Moreover, when the Lord sent me forth into the world, He forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low; and I was required to Thee and Thou all men and women, without any respect to rich or poor, great or small.” The practice of addressing everyone by informal pronouns brought a lot of anger down on the heads of Fox and his followers, as is attested by Thomas Ellwood, a convert to Quakerism, who wrote, “But whenever I had occasion to speak to my Father, though I had no Hat now to offend him; yet my language did as much: for I durst not say YOU to him, but THOU or THEE, as the Occasion required, and then he would be sure to fall on me with his Fists.” Quakers continued to use universal thee (although not thou) among each other well into the twentieth century, long after the rest of the speaker community had settled on universal you(1).

In France the T-V distinction came under fire during the French Revolution, not surprisingly. In 1793, a member of the French parliament gave a speech in which he called the use of vous as a singular formal a habit resulting from “the spirit of fanaticism, pride, and feudalism.” For a few years attempts were made to eliminate vous, and Robespierre was even known to address the president of the Assembly with tu (imagine a U.S. Representative addressing the Speaker of the House as Nancy), but by the end of the First Republic vous had reestablished itself in its old role. Similarly, in postwar Communist Yugoslavia, the T form (ti) was briefly universalized, but the T-V distinction returned by the end of the 1950s.

In a well-known and widely anthologized 1960 paper, “The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity,” linguists Roger Brown and Albert Gilman interviewed 50 French students about their politics and their use of tu and vous to see if there was any correlation. (Many of the examples in the preceding two paragraphs are also drawn from this paper.) Brown and Gilman found that “a Frenchman could, with some confidence, infer that a male university student who regularly said T to female fellow students would favor the nationalization of industry, free love, trial marriage, the abolition of capital punishment, and the weakening of nationalistic and religious loyalties.” As in previous centuries, progressive political beliefs are linked to a rejection of V.

I don’t know of any society that hasn’t communicated social status via language, and I doubt one will ever exist. But of all the ways of acknowledging superiority and inferiority in language, T-V distinctions are certainly among the most visible. George Fox didn’t have to be a linguist to see that the difference between thou and you was a sign of inequality between people. Today we may find ourselves sympathetic to his egalitarian mission of eliminating the reverential you. But at the time, and for centuries afterward, the majority of people in his and other societies were perfectly comfortable with the visible evidence of inequality that Fox and the French revolutionaries detested. How can this be? What brought us from there to here?

Agrarian and industrial ideology

Ernest Gellner, a Czech-British philosopher and anthropologist, wrote in Nations and Nationalism (1983) about the transition from agrarian to industrial society and the attendant social changes. According to Gellner, in the agrarian stage of civilization there is a huge level of inequality between the peasant class and the elite, and there are further gradations within these and other categories. This should come as no surprise to anyone with even a vague idea of what the Middle Ages were like; the images that come to mind are of serfs toiling in the fields while aristocrats who’ve never worked a day in their lives wander idly through their opulent palaces. Gellner’s insight is that inequality wasn’t just a feature of life in the agrarian age. It was also institutionalized and looked upon as necessary and even good. Depending on your place in society—and mostly regardless of your wealth and connections—you were legally barred from living in certain places, serving in certain offices, and even wearing certain clothing, as architect Witold Rybczynski explains in his book Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986):

“The prime function of medieval dress was to communicate status, and formal regulations described exactly how the different social classes should dress. An important baron was permitted to buy more new sets of clothes per year than a simple knight; a wealthy merchant was grudgingly allowed the same vanities as a nobleman of the lowest rank, although ermine was always reserved for the aristocracy. Some could wear brocade, others colored silk and embroidered fabrics. Even certain colors were privileged.”

It is difficult to imagine today any industrialized country reserving certain colors of clothing for the use of the elite. It is perhaps thinkable in the United Kingdom, with their leftover monarchy, that some shade of purple could be reserved for the royal family’s use, but America could not tolerate that kind of honor being accorded to the President. Not only has the modern age brought increased equality to industrialized countries; it has also taught us to prize equality, and beginning in revolutionary France and America all citizens have been equal before the law, at least in theory. Purple couldn’t be reserved for the President, and it certainly couldn’t be reserved for anyone else, because the aspiration and legal fiction in America is that we all have the same rights—a concept no medieval baron could even have understood without a great deal of explanation.

Likewise, marking pronouns for formality and informality can become uncomfortable for the modern egalitarian. Traditionally speakers of languages that have the T-V distinction would employ it in interactions between a waiter and a customer at a restaurant, a boss and an employee in a workplace, or a teacher and a student in a classroom, for example. All these situations involve a clear power asymmetry, which may or may not overlap with the more general social standing of the participants. This power asymmetry, which nobles of the ancien regime couldn’t have been more comfortable with, can seem unsettling today. The very fact that we can say V to waiters makes us unwilling to. A boss who wants friendly relations with his employees may encourage them to address him with T. And French students on strike in May 1968 symbolically addressed their professors with T.

It is possible, of course, for modern egalitarians to speak a T-V language, but the inequality made visible often proves to be an ideological thorn in the speaker’s side. It is telling that Esperanto, which was created in the late 1800s, only has one second-person pronoun with no distinction for formal/informal or singular/plural—exactly like English you, even though Esperanto is based mostly on Romance, German, and Slavic, all of which have a T-V distinction(2). And in languages like French that do have a T-V distinction, the V form is steadily losing ground as the friendly, egalitarian T spreads into formerly formal contexts. Even President Sarkozy, certainly no radical leftist, has drawn attention for his use of tu, which is interpreted (correctly) not as a monarch’s condescending tu but as a lower-class comradely tu. What the Quakers, the French revolutionaries, and the Yugoslav Communists tried to do away with by fiat is falling victim to a more organic process of decay.

To some extent the erosion of the T-V distinction is due to the influence of English, but it also harmonizes with the modern ideology of equality. It remains to be seen whether French and other T-V languages will generalize T and lose V, and if so how many generations it will take. For now, both English and the industrialized ideology of egalitarianism continue to gain ground, each complementing the other thanks to a historical accident.

(1) Some people think the generalization of you in English was in part a reaction against the Quakers, the Levellers, and other radicals who tried to universalize thou.

(2) The second-person pronoun in Esperanto is vi. There does also exist an informal singular second-person pronoun, ci, but it was introduced only later and is almost never used except when translating from a language that does have a T-V distinction, much like how Hemingway used thou in For Whom the Bell Tolls to render Spanish tu.

Cross-posted at Empire Avenue.


One Response to “The Era of the Informal”

  1. I heard somewhere that, rather than navigating the complexity of honorifics and pronouns in that language, some younger Thai speakers had instead begun employing the Anglicisms yu and mi among one another.

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