Doctor CamNC4Me wrote: ↑
Sun May 24, 2020 12:35 pm
“Pronouns are by their nature political, and history shows how culture and politics sometimes drive language change. Classic examples include the use of thee among Quakers and the history of you following the Norman invasion of England. It isn’t by accident that we no longer use ye and thou.”
For a layperson such as myself, would you mind pointing me to some good sources that might expand upon the quote above, or if you’re inclined would you mind hashing that bit out so I can better understand the politics of pronouns from a historical perspective, specifically ‘thee, you, ye, and thou”?
The ignorance in the quote is as abysmal as its rhetoric is tendentious.
But to the issues raised. The basic fact is that "you" is the objective form of the pronoun "ye," which is the plural form of the singular pronoun "thou" (its objective form is "thee"). What happened in English (and not only English: see Brazilian Portuguese), is that the plural objective form supplanted all of the forms, so that now we use "you" both as singular and plural, in both objective and subjective uses. It is the only pronoun with no grammatical variation (e.g. I > me, he > him, she > her, we > us, but you > you), although English morphology has been so reduced that I'm not sure it is all that meaningful. Why did this happen? A number of reasons, but politics is not one of them, despite the claim in the quote.
The passage you quote is misleading you:
1. There is nothing that makes pronouns "by their nature" political. Anything can be used for political ends—even surgical masks have taken on political significance at the moment—but people have to make them political. Using you vs. thou did not mark your political preferences in the 16th or 17th century, though it was something like class marker. It was a consequence of the social transformation of English society as whole, of which the political was one but by no means the most significant element: the rise of the middle class.
2. The assumption behind this quotation seems to be one that is pervasive in the social sciences and humanities, namely, that anything that has a social motivation is actually political because everything is ultimately reduced (in their minds) to politics and power. Everything is assumed to be a function of power. His pre-existing values are coloring his read of the evidence.
3. This interest in power (faith in power?), though unstated, perhaps explains the reference to the Norman Conquest, a brute exercise of power, to be sure, but one which has nothing to do with this issue and makes me think all of this is only half-remembered from his graduate seminar in the history of English. The pronouns "ye/you" and "thou/thee" are Early Modern English (1500s to 1700s). They are a continuation of parts of the Middle English pronoun system (1100s-1500, with various spellings), and the Old English pronoun system before it (pre-1100s). But the Norman invasion of England was in 1066, so centuries earlier than "ye/you" and "thou/thee" existed as such, and English never adopted any pronouns from Norman French at any stage, so I have no idea why he mentions this. It was during this period that northern varieties of English did borrow some pronouns from Old Norse, and by the 14th century you can find both the "pure" English pronouns "hie/hem/heora" and "they/them/their" in elite literature produced in the court of Riccardian court (e.g. Chaucer uses forms of both). This is because there was no uniform standard of the language, certainly nothing imposed through the politics of the ruling class.
4. He may be referring to the fact that the plural of the Middle English pronoun (which later became our "you") was used to address aristocrats by other aristocrats
, which has parallels with French. This was really quite some time after the Norman conquest, though, and it has nothing to do with politics, because it was a pan-European phenomenon that still exists in the Romance languages, German, Russian, etc. There was no political decree saying "we will now use this pronoun..." It also had a long history behind it through the Latin that all of them considered a prestige language. In Latin, this usage began in the later Roman Empire. A social motivation behind a linguistic phenomenon is not the same as a political one. There are, actually, very few examples of politically-derived linguistic change, at least successful attempts. The ban on the old forms of address in Russian after 1917 is one example: gospodin
, "lord" and "lady," were outlawed in favor of grazhdanin
, "citizen" and "citizeness," though most people ended up using the Communist Party's tovarisch
, "comrade." The former was a political change, but not the latter. It was a social convention.
5. What does he mean "it isn't by accident that we no longer use ye and thou"? It's not entirely clear why the shift happened, but it is clear that nobody imposed this through some linguistic policy. Politics is the negotiated exercise of power through policy, but there was no general language policy and never has been in the Anglosphere (even the USA doesn't have an official language to this day). Almost alone among European countries, England has never had a language academy to impose standards (or invent them). Certain views of certain grammarians prevailed for reasons that had little to do with politics. One argument runs that, over the course of the 16th century, "thou" started to feel less polished than "you" perhaps because the emerging middle classes had social pretensions: by using "you" they aped the linguistic habits of the aristocracy to which many were gaining entrance, although most of the old aristocracy had been decimated by dynastic civil wars of the late 15th century. Thus, for many of the new entrants ennobled by the Tudors and Stuarts—both dynasties were promiscuous in handing out titles—and the new gentry of the 16th century, using "you" became a linguistic symbol of their new status. But not all of these people were politicians, and it is fallacious to see every example of social distinction as political or primarily about power. Later grammarians set this up as standard, but this was after the fact. But using "you" vs. "thou" did not mark your politics. In the literature period, they are used interchangeably, often within a few lines of each in a Shakespeare play. Some people try to read a lot of significance into that, but I think it's a symptom of shifting linguistic landscape. In the south, you will of course here "y'all" for a group of people but you will also hear "you" sometimes in the same conversation to refer to a group of people. This is because the pronoun "you" remains a source of instability (hence the varieties like "y'all" and "you'ns" and so on). The "thou/you" spread was probably similarly unstable. Same thing happened earlier in English (Chaucer, as I mentioned, uses both forms of the "purer" English pronoun like "hem" and the one borrowed from Old Norse, "them," because the linguistic situation in Southern England was quite fluid). Some people want all of this to reflect politics and resistance to power or some other variant of post-colonial theory but there is simply no evidence to support this. One has to read that it into it, which means they discover exactly what they set out to find. I hate this kind of thinking, whether it is in the history of English pronouns or in chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.
6. The example of the Quakers he references is slightly more relevant, though not in the way he wants it to be, and it should be instructive for the tiny fraction of the infinitesimally small slice of the minority of language activists in academia who want the other half billion English speakers to accommodate their desire for linguistic validation of their identities. Insofar as the Church of England was an instrument of the English state in the 17th century, the Quakers were political dissenters, and their emphasis on egalitarianism had a linguistic manifestation in "plain speech." That is to say, they rejected the social distinction still felt as implicit in the usage of "you" rather than "thou." So they tried to enforce the usage of "thou," though without success and often incorrectly, using "thee" for everything rather than distinguishing "thou" as subject and "thee" for everything else (Mormons sometimes also make grammatical mistakes in their usage of "thee" and "thou"). That tells you right away that it wasn't part of the natural speech of most Quakers, and they couldn't keep it going. It is still a stretch to see this as political primarily, rather than reflecting the religious values of the early Quakers (hard to separate those categories during this period, as I say), but certainly it shows that an attempt to control the language within a small community ultimately wasn't very successful because it went against the grain of the natural speech habits of its members. The same will happen with this pronoun business. That is essentially what all of the attempts to inject into the language a new usage of "they" (or any of the other suggestions on offer) that isn't recognized by most speakers. It's hard to enforce an archaism, which is what the Quakers attempted, but imposing an entirely new usage will indeed be political because it will require significant state intervention when it doesn't naturally arise out of the speech community more broadly. Such state intervention has already happened in some places.
The fact that language changes is not an argument against anything in this debate anymore than the fact that grass grows is an argument against mowing it.