Archive for Pronouns

Pronouns for Yous

Posted in Biographical, GAA, Television with tags , , , , , on August 21, 2021 by telescoper

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?