'I’ll tell thee thou dost evil'

The importance of "You" and "Thou" in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 22 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction
1.1. Shakespearean drama as a source for linguistic studies

2. You and Thou in context
2.1. The pronoun system in Early Modern English
2.2. The T/V distinction
2.3. Brown and Gilman’s model: power and solidarity make the T/V choice
2.4. Thou and You in Shakespeare’s English
2.5. The disappearance of Thou

3. The importance of You and Thou in Shakespeare’s King Lear

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography
Primary literature:
Secondary literature:

1. Introduction

What is a correct choice of a second person singular pronoun? In German, this can prove a difficult matter at times. Addressing a bank clerk, it is safe to use the polite Sie, but what about a personal trainer at a gym? Here, the more informal, familiar Du usually is the preferred choice.

In present day English, one has an easy way out – You. This was not always the case. In Middle English and Early Modern English one could choose either You or Thou (and their respective variants see Simpson et al. 2005: entry Thou, pers., pron., 2nd sing.). Either choice carried a number of implications, depending on the period of time in the language (Barber 1976:204-210). This system, which exists in many (but predominately European) countries is generally referred to as the T/V distinction.

Although similar to the German T/V distinction (Blake 1983:6), there is a phenomenon in Early Modern English, particularly in Shakespeare’s plays, which sets the You/Thou distinction apart. Whereas in German, French or Italian, it would be very rare and even rude to switch back and forth from T to V or the other way around, this must have happened quite frequently in Early Modern English dialogues (Brown and Gilman 1960:274-275). Eventually, of course, the use of Thou declined leaving the English language with only one second person pronoun, serving all cases without alteration (except possessive Yours and determiner Your) and both singular and plural (Görlach 1991:85).

A speaker of Early Modern English consequently had not only the option of choosing T or V once, he or she could also switch within a conversation, sometimes within a single utterance. The choice then would carry certain implications, about the emotions of the speaker, about his fondness or dislike of the addressee, or about the social ranks of both addresser and addressee. As a result, choosing the pronoun became a tool in dialogues that could be used to acknowledge or insult.

The T/V distinction will be discussed, its appearance in Early Modern English and particularly Shakespeare’s language. Then, in order to attain an achievable amount of research for a paper of this size, one of Shakespeare’s plays will be regarded with some detail. The choice fell on King Lear. This tragedy offers a wide range of characters from all parts of society, an almost constant shift of power and a continuous need or desire of the characters to be polite, insult, order etc.

The approach of this paper will not be so much to study the usage of the second person pronoun in Early Modern English in general (see Hope 1994), using Shakespeare as a source for language. Instead, one of Shakespeare’s most important tragedies, King Lear, will be studied to perceive the importance of the second person pronoun choice with regard to its implications for character and emotion.

1.1. Shakespearean drama as a source for linguistic studies

There are a number of reasons that qualify Shakespeare’s dramas as the subject of studies concerning politeness and the second person pronouns, two of which are, amongst others, mentioned by Brown and Gilman: “dramatic texts provide the best information on colloquial speech of the period” (1989:159). Brown and Gilman add that “there is nothing else” (1989:170) and that Shakespeare’s language probably “mirrored general usage” (1989:179). Jonathan Hope argues against this in his article (focusing on the usage of Thou and You), stating that court records (which he uses as material for his study) are closer to spoken language than drama (1994:141-142).

Thus, one does have to take into account the fact that there are other sources of Early Modern English that might come closer to actual spoken English, but one can still see that the information to be gathered from court records is restrained by other factors: the language of the clerk who writes down what is said, the conventions of the legal system (Hope 1994:143), furthermore the constant situation of the court – formal language, usually addressed to the judge.

Therefore, even though Brown and Gilman’s claims concerning the representative nature of their study should be adjusted, Shakespeare’s dramas are incredibly valuable for linguistic analysis, offering much variety in register, situation and social rank, giving us access to a character’s (probable) thoughts vs. his speech. In addition, it is a “mixture of traditional and innovative language patterns” (Mazzon 1991:123), interesting to investigate.

2.You and Thou in context

2.1. The pronoun system in Early Modern English

Looking at the Early Modern English pronoun system, the Middle English pronoun system, its immediate predecessor, has to be taken into account:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 1 Middle English personal and possessive pronouns (Simpson et al. 2005: entry thou, pers., pron., 2nd sing.)

It is important to note that in the Middle English period, the second person plural pronoun was by 1300 beginning to be used for the second person singular to show respect when addressing a powerful person such as, for example, a king or bishop (Wales 1983:108). This use became more popular during the Early Modern English period (Hope 2003:73). There is a pronoun to address two persons (as opposed to more than two for which the ‘real’ plural was used), Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthaltenit (yit – “ye two”), which existed in Old and Middle English but became obsolete in Early Modern English. Major changes to the pronoun system occurred within the Early Modern English period. By 1500, the pronoun system was as follows:

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Fig. 2 Early Modern English pronouns by 1500 (Barber 1976:204)

There are a number of different spellings for several pronouns which have been left out by Barber for the sake of simplicity and are not important for this paper’s purpose either. The case distinction between ye and you was still consistent by 1500, but this changed quickly. According to Görlach (1991:85), this change came about because “ye and you had the weakly stressed form [jә] in common, which combined with redundant case marking to produce incorrect generalizations”. He adds that the reversed vowel pattern for the case marking, Th ou /Th ee vs. Y e /Y ou could possibly have influenced this change or overlap. Thus, “by Shakespeare’s time, you had become the normal form, and ye was merely a less common variant” (Barber 1976:205). There were other changes regarding hit vs. it; h e and its unstressed form ‘a or a that occurred, and consequently, the pronoun system by 1600 looked thus:

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Fig. 3 Early Modern English pronouns by 1600 (Barber 1976:208)

This is the pronoun system that is most important for the present paper as it describes Shakespeare’s use of pronouns. The singular/plural distinction does not play an important part in the choice of the second person pronoun, Thou definitely meant singular, but You could mean both. Therefore, the polite use gained importance. Before consonants, My and Thy were the common forms, whereas before vowels, by that time My/Mine and Thy/Thine, were in free variation as they are in Shakespeare’s plays (Barber 1976:208). During this period, there was a trend for You to become more and more popular and Thou gradually more obsolete, being increasingly restricted to specialized contexts such as addressing God (Hope 2003:78); a more detailed description of this development can be found in section 2.4 of this paper. As a result, the pronoun system by 1700 was in effect the same as it is today:

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Fig. 4 Early Modern English pronouns by 1700 (Barber 1976:212)



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University of Cologne – Englisches Seminar
I’ll English Grammar



Title: 'I’ll tell thee thou dost evil'