LINGUIST List 11.2115

Mon Oct 2 2000

Qs: Evolution of Pronouns, Linguasphere

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  1. Mark J. Reed, Evolution of pronouns
  2. Dr. John E. McLaughlin, Linguasphere

Message 1: Evolution of pronouns

Date: Mon, 2 Oct 2000 00:17:07 -0400
From: Mark J. Reed <>
Subject: Evolution of pronouns

I'm exploring the history of pronouns in Western European
languages, especially the development in the second person
of the singular/plural distinction to familiar/polite and the
resulting related changes. Any pointers to good references on
the subject would be appreciated, so I can replace rampant speculation
(which forms the remainder of this message) with something 
grounded in actual research.

All of the languages I'm looking at originally had a simple
singular/plural distinction in the second-person pronouns. I guess
P-I-E had that same distinction; certainly Classical Latin did, and
apparently that was still the case by the Romance split. But at
some point several by-then distinct languages all began to use the
plural form also as a polite singular. This happened in, e.g.
Spanish (vos), French (vous), Italian (voi), English (you), and
Russian (vy). I'm not sure why; perhaps it is related to the use of a
plural first-person pronoun by persons of power (the "royal we")?
While French and Russian seem to have stopped there, this change
begat more in the other languages above.

Spanish seems to have followed a particularly interesting path. The
modern Castillian second person familiar plural is "vosotros" (from
"vos otros", literally, "you others"); I assume this
phrase was introduced to clarify that the speaker meant the real plural
rather than the polite singular. An analogous change happened in
the first person (whose modern plural form is likewise "nosotros"),
but whether that was simply by analogy or to disambiguate with the
aforementioned "royal we", I don't know. Perhaps the "nos" change
happened first and the "vos" was the one made by analogy.

I'm guessing that singular "vos" began as an extremely polite form,
to show great deference or respect, but over time became used more
widely. (This trend continued much farther in English, until "you"
lost all connotations of politeness and completely replaced "thou" as
a universal second-person pronoun). The expanded usage of "vos"
diluted its respectfulness, requiring the introduction of a new way
of showing that extreme deference. For this, the same path was taken
in Spanish as in English: a circumlocution referring in the third
person to a supposed quality of the addressed, e.g. "your majesty",
"your grace", "your highness", etc. The form of choice in Spanish
was "vuestra merced" ("your grace"), which was eventually contracted
to the modern form "usted". In modern usage, "usted" has once again
been thoroughly diluted into a general polite form - and its plural
"ustedes" has been diluted even further outside of Castillian usage,
having replaced "vosotros" as the familiar form.

Italian seems to have followed a very similar path, with three
main differences: the familiar plural is still everywhere intact,
there were no "-otri" suffixes added or other analogous change
made to the plural pronouns, and the modern remnant of the
"your grace" form is not a contraction but an overloaded pronoun.
Specifically, it is the feminine singular third-person pronoun,
standing in for the singular feminine noun that took the place
of "grace" in that phrase.

The German polite pronoun is also identical to the third person
feminine singular, so I originally thought that it must have
developed along the same lines as Italian. However, I have since
read that the polite form of "Sie" coms not from the female singular
but from the plural third-person pronoun. I'm interested in learning
how "they" came to be used for "you" . . .

Anyway, as I said, any help would be appreciated. Thank you for
your time.

Mark J. REED	<>
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Message 2: Linguasphere

Date: Mon, 2 Oct 2000 08:39:05 -0600
From: Dr. John E. McLaughlin <>
Subject: Linguasphere

I would like to know what people think of David Dalby's
recently-published Linguasphere Register in terms of his decisions
concerning "outer languages" versus "inner languages" versus
"dialects" vis a vis mutual intelligibility issues. I have some
corrections to send to him about the group of languages I work on
(Numic of Uto-Aztecan) and I would like to compare his decisions on
"outer" versus "inner" versus "dialect" in other language families
with a greater degree of confidence. Thank you. Please send your
comments directly to me ( and I will post a

John E. McLaughlin, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Linguistics

Program Director
USU On-Line Linguistics

English Department
3200 Old Main Hill
Utah State University
Logan, UT 84322-3200

(435) 797-2738 (voice)
(435) 797-3797 (FAX)
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