Etymology Grammar Linguistics

The one and only you

Q: This one’s been bugging me FOREVER! Why do we have subject and object versions of “he” and “she,” but not of lonely “you”?

A: English did in fact once have subject and object versions of the second-person pronoun that we now know as “you.”

In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the subject pronouns were “thou” and “ye,” and the objects were “thee” and “you.” The singulars were “thou” and “thee,” and the plurals “ye” and “you.”

Over the centuries, these four pronouns were squished together into the all-purpose “you.”

By the end of the 16th century the all-purpose “you” was firmly established as standard English, though some “thee”-ing and “thou”-ing survived, notably among the Quakers and in rural dialects.

We’ve discussed the history of all this in Origins of the Specious, our book about English language myths. We also touched on it in a blog entry about “y’all.”

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