Pronouns for Yous

Last night I was watching a very interesting television programme on the Irish language channel TG4. It was about the origins and history of ice hockey, which began as ice hurling as a sport played by Irish immigrants in Canada. The word “puck” comes from the Irish word poc which means to stroke or hit; in hurling the “puck out” is a free hit from the goal area by the goalkeeper much like a goal kick in soccer. The programme was called Poc na nGael, which roughly translates as “The Puck of the Irish”. I think it was repeated last night because this Sunday sees the biggest event of the year in the hurling calendar: the Final of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship at Croke Park, which this year is between Limerick and Cork.

While watching that programme I got thinking about Irish language lessons and whether I will have time to continue them next academic year and then onto wider issues about differences between Irish and English. One thing that struck me was the second person pronoun, so I thought I’d do the following rambling post about it.

In English the personal pronouns I (first person) and he/she (third person) are unusual in that they change depending on their grammatical role. This isn’t unusual in other languages especially Latin where it is the rule rather than the exception. In English we use “I” in the nominative case (“I hit the dog”) but “me” in the accusative case (“the dog bit me”) or when following a preposition (“the dog gave the stick to me”). The same goes with he/him and she/her.

In the example “the dog gave the stick to me”, “me” is really in the dative case but there is no distinct word for that in English; we can only really distinguish between the nominative (subject) and “other” (non-subject) cases. The words “my”, “our”, etc are often called pronouns but they are really of adjectival form, e.g. “this is my cat” and are more correctly called determiners. There are possessive pronouns (“mine”, “ours”, etc) which are in some sense genitive cases of the personal pronouns (meaning “of me”, “of us”, etc) but I digress.

Notice also that the first person and third person plural also have distinct plural forms (we/us and they/them).

The funny one is the second person “you”, which has neither an accusative nor prepositional form nor a distinct plural: “You hit the dog”, “the dog bit you” and “the dog gave the stick to you” all employ the same word although each is in a different grammatical case.

This is by no means the only oddity in modern English, and I have no idea why it developed. In older forms of English there were distinct forms: “thou/thee” in the singular and “ye/you” in the plural. These forms persist in dialects such as Yorkshire.

For some reason, though, as English evolved these four distinct forms merged into one, i.e. “you”. One can usually tell from the context whether “you” is singular or plural or can emphasize it by adding extra words (e.g. in the American “y’all” which is a contraction of “you all”) but there is no single word in standard English that expresses the difference between singular and plural or between subject and non-subject.

Incidentally, in Irish the second person singular is in the nominative case and thú in the non-nominative cases; the second person plural is sibh which is like “ye” in that it has no distinct non-nominative form.

I was brought up on Tyneside and it is a feature of the Geordie dialect that people use the word “yous” to denote the second person plural. It’s definitely a working-class slang, and was very much frowned upon at school, but it was very commonplace when and where I was grew up. I thought it was only in Newcastle that people used this form but when I worked at Sussex a while ago my boss, originally from Glasgow, also on occasion used “yous”. When I asked here about it she explained that it was common usage in Glasgow but didn’t think it was widespread in other parts of Scotland. Geordie and Glaswegian are thus two regional dialects I know that use this form but there may be others. I’d be interested to know so please feel free to comment via the box below!

Anyway the reason for going off on this tangent was that I’d already noticed that a few Irish people use “ye” in Hiberno-English for the second person plural, it was only yesterday that I noticed some using “yous”. I wonder how widespread that is in Ireland and is it regional or more of a class divide?

Would any of yous like to comment?


23 Responses to “Pronouns for Yous”

  1. Minor correction: in early modern English ‘ye’ was the nominative form and ‘you’ the objective, which is the term generally used in English grammar for the case that replaced Old English’s accusative and dative. (‘je’ and ‘jou’, pronounced as they would have been before the English vowel shift, still have that role in Dutch, the closest commonly spoken relation to English, though they have shifted to the singular and been replaced by ‘jullie’, i.e. more or less ‘you guys’, in the plural.)

  2. To add to the confusion, my observation is that y’all can be singular as well as plural…

  3. Jonivar Skullerud Says:

    I have always thought that the reason that thou/thee/thy disappeared from the english language was politeness: that you was the polite form (like vous in french, De/Dykk in nynorsk, Ni/Er in swedish and I/eder in older danish) and that eventually polite speech took over to such an extent that the familiar form was only used to communicate with God. I believe the french tu was in danger of disappearing in favour of vous at the middle of last century but was revived in the latter part of the century. Undoubtedly someone can correct me on that.

    Incidentally, while second person plural is/was used as the polite form in french and some scandinavian sub-languages, third person plural is used in german (Sie/Ihr) and danish (De/Dem). Bokmål has inherited the danish form. I am not sure where the dutch U comes from.

    • telescoper Says:

      The polite or formal form in Italian is the third person feminine “lei”. That confused me a lot the first time I encountered it – an admin person handed me a document saying what I thought was “this is for her”…

    • telescoper Says:

      There is a lot about the decline of “thou” here:

    • Dutch u apparently comes from ‘uwe edelheid’, i.e. ‘your nobility’, where ‘uwe’ was the possessive of the undifferentiated second person at the time (now ‘jouw’). (Consistent with this it takes third person singular verb forms.) So it’s the same kind of extra-formal distancing that leads to the situation in German.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’ll see if the all-Ireland hurling final is on in the TV sports pub in Shrewsbury, or whether they can and would dedicate one screen to it. Brilliant sport. What time does it start?

  5. Jerry Greenblatt Says:

    My dad is from the Bronx, New York and sometimes says “yous”. I think here in NY this is also often looked down at as working class and unsophisticated.

  6. As Jerry Greenblatt says, “yous” (often spelled “youse” for some reason) is, or at least was, widely used for the plural “you” in parts of New York. My impression is that it’s less common nowadays, but I could be wrong. He’s definitely right that it has a lower-class connotation. (Archie Bunker in the 1970s sitcom “All in the Family” would have said “youse”, but his educated son-in-law would not.)

    “Y’all” is historically southern (which of course, in the context of regions of the US, really means “southeastern” — nobody refers to Arizona or Hawai’i as “southern states”), although one hears it elsewhere. I’d speculate that it spread more widely in the US during the “great migration” of African-Americans from the South to the rest of the country, although I don’t know that for sure. Chris C is correct that it’s sometimes used in the singular. My impression is that that’s a more recent development, but again I’m not sure.

    Where I grew up, in Massachusetts, “you guys” was the usual plural form. I’ve been told that in parts of Pennsylvania the second person plural is something like “yins” (possibly derived from “you ones”), but I can’t say I’ve heard that one in the wild.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think “yins” or “yinz” exists in the Scots-Irish dialect of Ulster. It is a contraction of “you ones”.

      • Fascinating! Most of my experience of Ulster speech comes from the television comedy “Derry Girls” (recommended, by the way). I don’t remember hearing that there, but there were lots of unfamiliar words, and I could easily have missed it.

    • As an immigrant to the south (Florida) later in life, coming originally from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, it was explained to me that “y’all” is the singular, and the plural is “all y’all”. I do not know how definitive this is. Wiktionary says, “All y’all is used in the Southern United States when a speaker wishes to include everyone being addressed. Y’all may refer to an indefinite set of members of a group, but all y’all definitively includes everyone in the group.”

  7. Alex Best Says:

    If you haven’t already seen it I recommend you take a look at the YouTube channel of Simon Roper, it’s full of interesting analysis of old and middle English and the effects on regional dialects we have today.

    • … and isn’t “ye” really pronounced “thee” because the “y” is not a “y” but a “thorn”? – so “ye old cake shoppe” is pronounced “the old cake shop”?

      • telescoper Says:

        I don’t think so. The “y” in the pronoun “ye” is actually a “y” whereas the “y” in the definite article is an erroneous substitution for “thorn”.

  8. Having checked with impeccable sources (i.e Wkipedia) I agree. “Thee” persists for singular and plural in Bristolian, along with lots of other old forms – e.g. “Thee bist” for “You are”. I assume that’s from an old German influence. Does the North East have the same?

  9. Simon Kemp Says:

    When I lived in Belfast three decades ago, it seemed ‘yous’ was in quite common usage.

  10. Belfast has always used a variety of yous, yiz, ye, yous’ns, them’ns. Definitely frowned on at school, and predominately working class but in wide use throughout the whole of the north.

    Inhabitants of Derry are of course always referred to as “the Derry Wans”…

  11. I was brought up in Bradford, West Yorkshire in the North of England and in certain parts of the city (not all strangely, “yous” is used! to describe a two or more persons. For example in the Buttershaw/Woodside area (think Andrea Dunbar / ‘Rita Sue, and Bob Too’) it’s a very common phrase used in everyday speech.

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