5
$\begingroup$

In English, you is used both in the second-person singular and in the second-person plural (thou is now only used in some old proverbs and old expressions).

At the opposite, French (my native language) has a T-V distinction: tu is always used when addressing to only one person, but vous is often used when addressing to multiple people; however, sometimes, vous is used for only one person despite being always syntactically plural. When addressing to only one person, vous is reserved for strangers, or people older than oneself, or authority figures.

In my world (in the sense of a fictional universe I want to create), in the most spoken language used by therianthropes (their scientific name is Homo pilosus, so they are humans, just not Homo sapiens) (Homo pilosus means "hairy human"), Di is exclusively used in the second-person singular (even when addressing to a monarch, a president, a stranger, a deity, an elder, etc.) and Wos is exclusively used in the second-person plural (in their language, pronouns are always capitalised) (if you ask me, in the most spoken language used by therianthropes, the w is pronounced like the English w as in "world").

So, I wonder why would a language have a second-person pronoun system opposite to English.

$\endgroup$
6
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Could you explain, why exactly is this 'opposite of English'? Wouldn't opposite to English be using Di for all second person addresses, singular, plural and polite? $\endgroup$
    – Cumehtar
    Feb 23 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ What I mean is in modern English, there is only one second-person pronoun. In therianthrope's language, there are two completely distinct second-person pronouns, one for the singular, one for the plural. $\endgroup$ Feb 23 at 19:56
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Italian uses TU for the second singular, VOI for the second plural, LEI for the formal. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Feb 23 at 20:22
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In French, vous is syntactically always 2nd person plural. You cannot say **vous dis or **vous as, only vous dites and vous avez. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 23 at 20:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Could you clarify, precisely, what you mean by a "pronoun system that is the opposite of English"? What exactly are you flipping to make it "opposite" and in which direction? $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Feb 24 at 2:37

5 Answers 5

15
$\begingroup$

This is the normal state of things. There is nothing special about the language of therianthropes.

English is weird, in that it has lost its 2nd person singular pronoun. (Which was possible because in English adjectives are not declinable and it has almost no conjungation.)

For example, both Latin and Greek have normal pronominal systems with a distinction between 2nd person singular and plural (tu / vos, sy / hymeis), and neither of them has a T-V distinction of politeness.

(OK, Medieval Latin and New Latin did acquire a T-V distinction, under the influence of the vernaculars, but we are speaking about Roman Latin here.)

As an aside, my own language, Romanian has an elaborate system of pronouns of politeness, some of which require singular forms of verbs (dumneata dorești = you desire, lightly politely), while others require plural forms (dumneavoastră doriți = you desire, very politely but ambiguous whether singular or plural). But the plain second person plural personal pronoun (voi) cannot be used as a pronoun of politeness; it is strictly a second person plural personal pronoun.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ But Romanian seems to have, from what you write, a T-V distinction. It's just that the polite pronoun is not the same as a second person plural. From what I understand, OP asks to justify a system where there are no polite pronouns at all... $\endgroup$
    – Cumehtar
    Feb 23 at 20:27
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Cumehtar: The question does not say that the language does not have any linguistic means of expressing politeness, only that it doesn't use the 2nd person plural personal pronoun for this purpose. It may use other forms. For example, nowadays Italian uses a 3rd person singular pronoun for this purpose. Or, like Romanian, one or more entirely different sets of pronouns. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 23 at 20:35
7
$\begingroup$

From what I understand, T-V distinction doesn't seem to be a universal Proto-Indo-European thing, but rather a result of Medieval Latin and it's influence on other languages. Ancient Greek, Old Norse and Old Danish didn't have it. From the modern languages, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic mostly dropped it. Polish has a weird V-form, actually just using 'pan' (mister) to address a person - so that a polite address sounds like 'how does mister feel today?'

Slightly simplifying matters, I would say that a history of comparatively egalitarian societies (or, conversely, a recent revolution and conscious language practices to avoid 'too elevated forms') could naturally result in having no need for a el specific polite pronoun.

$\endgroup$
4
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It is most definitely not a PIE thing. Neither (Roman) Latin nor Greek has anything resembling it, and they both have distinct singular and plural forms for 2nd person personal pronouns. (New Latin acquired a T-V distinction under the influence of modern languages. But Caesar would have been startled if somebody addressed him in the plural, and would have thought the man was drunk and seeing double.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 23 at 20:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I would need to brush up my Latin, but it seems to be at least medieval Latin thing, as an address to Emperors and Popes. Classical Latin, indeed, didn't have it. $\endgroup$
    – Cumehtar
    Feb 23 at 20:21
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Yes, Medieval Latin and New Latin have a plural of politeness. Roman Latin doesn't. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 23 at 20:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "We are not amused." Even if the T-V distinction has been lost to English, the use of plural for certain persons of high social rank remains. $\endgroup$
    – papidave
    Feb 24 at 23:03
6
$\begingroup$

The simplest answer is, their language didn't evolve from English.

As you've noted, other human languages have different pronouns for the second-person singular and second-person plural. French has tu and vous, Spanish has tu and usted, German has du and Sie, and so on. Di and Wos are perfectly reasonable.

As for why the second-person plural isn't used to show respect to authority figures, that answer would lie in your society and its history somewhere. It's not a hard and fast rule that the plural must be used for higher-ups, by the way; in older translations of the Christian Bible, God is called thou to indicate intimacy. Perhaps your society, a long time ago, started addressing monarchs as Di to show that they're down-to-earth and in-tune with their subjects' needs (that doesn't necessarily have to be true, it can just be the image they wanted to project) and from there Di just came to be used all the time in the singular.

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

If you are interested in conveying formality, T-V distinction is just one of the ways to do it. Formality/familiarity can be also expressed via morphological features (e.g. conjugation) or discourse (choice of words).

Japanese is an example of a language that relies on morphology to convey formality: Keigo (敬語), a respectful language widely used even in everyday speech (in the shops, companies, etc.). To be a bit more precise, keigo is a mix of morphology (special conjugation, words beautification via prefixes) and discourse (highly indirect speech, use of special 'polite' or 'humble' words). Japanese also does not lack 2nd person pronouns, but their patterns of usage are different from European languages.

English is an example of a language that conveys formality mostly via word choice and style. See this page for some examples of differences between formal and informal English.

Russian in addition to T-V distinction, morphology, and discourse uses names to convey formality. Almost every Russian name has several forms: formal, or official, and short (short forms are virtually unlimited in number as they can be created using some common rules). It is very important to use the correct form of a name because different forms are associated with different types of relationships between people and may convey specific emotions. Incorrect use of a short form can be seen as an insult. This concept can be a bit difficult to understand, so let me bring some examples:

  • Ivan1 Petrovich Sidorov [Given name + Patronymic + Surname] is a full legal name that is used in official correspondence as a signature or reference to someone; cannot be used as a direct address;
  • Sidorov Ivan Petrovich [Surname + Given name + Patronymic] is a form used in most legal documents; can also be used when scolding someone using sarcasm or by parents when seriously reprimanding a child; outside of legal context this form sounds very unnatural and impolite;
  • Ivan Petrovich [Given name + Patronymic] is a formal address (can be used in conversations with this man or about this man);
  • Ivan is a full form of a given name; traditionally could be used only in formal situations when addressing people of much lower status (children or servants) with whom the speaker is only slightly familiar, modern usage mimics usage of given names in English-speaking countries; implies distance, formality, and emotional indifference;
  • Vanya is a common short form of Ivan, it is rather neutral and can be used when talking to friends or children;
  • Vanyusha is a short form that conveys warmth, usually used when talking to children; it would be very inappropriate for a man/male teenager to use this form to talk about or to address another man/teenager;
  • Van'ka is a common short form that has slightly negative connotations and may express some degree of annoyance and/or dissatisfaction;
  • Vanyok is a short form that male teenagers or young adults may use when talking among themselves; sounds a bit rude and normally is not used in conversations that include women and/or people of higher social status;
  • Vanechka is a short form that is used for children by older generation family members or sometimes by younger women when talking about their boyfriends; this form implies a close and loving relationship.

Going back to your question, T-V distinction is not strictly necessary for conveying formality. Your language can have separate singular and plural pronouns but not rely on them to express politeness. For example, your language may opt for using those pronouns only in situations where the recipients of the message are unknown (as in Japanese). Or use inflexions to convey formality (Russian, Japanese, French, etc.). Style (as in English and Japanese), names (as in Russian), or honorifics (as in many Asian languages) can also serve this purpose.


1 'I' is pronounced as 'i' in is [do not not confuse with 'i' in idle]

$\endgroup$
4
  • $\begingroup$ I find these examples hard to understand when the three name parts are all based on the same root name (not unique to just this post). It's not obvious whether the three agree because they have to, or because this person's family is unimaginative. It'd be like if I explained English name rules by use of fictional "Robert Robertson": yes, is a valid name, but clouds the issue of how the atoms relate -- i.e. Bob's family name does not require his given name to be "Robert." Does Ivan Ivanovich's given name have to be "Ivan" b/c his patronymic is "Ivanovich?" $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Feb 25 at 1:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Tom Patronymics are based on fathers' given names. Father's name must be Ivan for his son's patronymic to be Ivanovich. The exact names in this and similar examples are unimportant, only patterns of their usage. In other words, if we replace Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov with Ivan Petrovich Sidorov nothing will change. Please note that this post does not attempt to include or discuss the name-forming rules. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Feb 25 at 3:37
  • $\begingroup$ I was just noting that it's hard to tell which elements are part of the described pattern when all the elements in the example have more commonality than is explained by that pattern. And I only point it out because these Russian naming rules were a big barrier for me when I tried to read Dostoevsky, so I read your answer with special interest when I stumbled across it. Thanks for the explanation. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Feb 25 at 3:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Tom I agree, Russian names and their proper usage are very hard to understand (I also get confused sometimes). TVTropes has a surprisingly good article about Russian naming conventions (somewhat better than Wikipedia which has some spelling mistakes and strange references). It is a long read but if you attempt Dostoevsky again it will definitely help. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Feb 25 at 4:25
2
$\begingroup$

Different languages handle this differently.

In Mandarin, pronouns are pluralized by adding 们 (men). For second person, the most common pronoun is 你 (Nǐ), so 你们 would be the plural form.

The most common "more polite" alternative to 你 is 您 (Nín).

In some parts of the US, "y'all” is the colloquial second person pronoun. It can be both singular and plural, or the plural form might instead be "all y'all" (depending on locality).

So there's really not a right or wrong way to handle pronouns in a language. Just like which side of the road to drive on, following local customs is generally the best choice.

All y'all nǐmen got that? 😄

$\endgroup$

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .