The plural you
(I have been in California visiting my son and his family, including a three-year-old and a five-year-old — I’m sure that many of you will understand why I haven’t been posting for the past few days. They are a constant delight, and profoundly exhausting.)
There have been several recent discussions about the lack of a plural you and a formal you in English. There used to be (thou, you), but it faded away. Americans use “you” for all people, young and old, friends and complete strangers, people in authority and people who render services to them. They also use “you” in a way that appears to include the reader or interlocutor, but is actually a generalized statement about nobody in particular. The sentence “If you want to learn English, you have to study.” may not be advice aimed at a particular person. British English might use the word “one” instead of “you,” which is the third person singular instead of the second person. French speakers use “on,” and Spanish use the reflexive, “Para comer, se debe abrir la boca.” (In English, “To eat, you have to open your mouth.”)
The egalitarian, American sensibility does not welcome a formal “you” which places one person above another.
Visitors to this blog have come from 88 different countries, where many languages are spoken. An interesting exercise would be to analyze the use of pronouns, especially “you,” in various languages known to your classes. Is there a formal “you” of both singular and plural? Is gender indicated? What number and person is used for generalized statements? Is there ever an inflexion of the first person pronoun, “I?” A quick review of the uses of pronouns would be interesting, but the further point would be even more interesting — that language is arbitrary, and societies make linguistic decisions that conform with their ethics and their governance. What ethics and what forms of governance has each society agreed upon?
A further exercise, at some other time, might be to assign a two-paragraph essay making an assigned point (an example of such a point would be “The modern practice of families no longer eating together is eroding the social fabric.”) to be written in the second person, and then in the third person.