kaelzeth (nectimide) wrote in linguaphiles,

Formal pronouns in English

This is a question I've been pondering for a while. I've read a few books where they explain how in Middle English the common way to address friends, family, and any close acquaintances, was with 'thee/thou', and they used 'you' for elders, strangers, and people with a higher social status. That custom died out by the Early Modern English period where 'you' came to be used for just about everyone. The problem is, England always had a very socially stratified society with a clear demarcation between the average people and the aristocracy, each having their own courtesies and rituals. Why would such a society get rid of the formal pronouns when just about all other European languages retained theirs, even such egalitarian ones like France's?

Whenever I'm in Poland and speak to an elderly person or a stranger, I'm used to using 'pan/pani' and it feels right. Then when I speak English to a similar person, it always feels strange to address them with the same pronoun I use when speaking to the most intimate of friends. I usually call them 'sir/ma'am', but that doesn't cut it for me. Does anyone else feel the same way?

By the way, does anyone know if France tried to get rid of their formal pronoun after the Revolution and replace it with whatever the normal one is (tu?)? Also, I can't think of any other Indo-European language that got rid of the formal pronoun like English, are there others? If I'm wrong with the history of the whole 'you/thee/thou' thing, please correct me.

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