Hey! You!

Yeah, you.

It’s a strange word, you, when you think about it for too long.

You.

It’s the only personal pronoun to be both a subject pronoun and an object pronoun. You can say You talked to him and He talked to you, but never Him talked to you and You talked to he.

It’s also used as both a singular and plural pronoun, in standard English at least. Because it’s sometimes confusing when someone says you and we don’t know if they’re talking to us alone or to as part of a group, colloquial plural forms of you do exist around the world.

Here in Ireland there’s the most common form ye, but also youse and yisser in some parts. In many parts of the USA you’ll hear y’all quite often.

This is one of those strange occasional areas where standard English seems lacking compared to other languages. Why not have a plural form of you? It would make things much more straightforward.

Time was though, that you was only used as a plural form, and thou and thee were the respective singular forms. Thou has survived a little bit into the modern day, finding some occasional usage in parts of Northern England and Scotland.

We can also see some vestiges of you‘s purely plural past in the way we conjugate verbs with it. Even when talking to one person, we say you are… and you were… instead of you is/was.

The linguistic oddness of the second person, singular or plural, is representative of the way it always appears to be just a little bit awkward in English. We never seem to quite know what to do with it. A narrative can be told from a first-person perspective (I walked down the road), or a third-person perspective (She walked down the road), but rarely from the second-person (You walked down the road). Though Iain Banks’ Complicity (1993) is a notable exception that’s well worth a read, alternating between first and second-person narratives.

Video games are always presented from a first-person (you see through the character’s eyes) or third-person perspective (you can see the character you control). But could we even imagine what a second-person perspective would look like in a video game?

Perhaps the oddities of you (not you personally, not offence meant) are all down to psychology. We have no problems conceiving of ourselves, or people outside us, so there are no major irregularities in the way we use the first or third person.

But things always get more complicated when we’re dealing directly with others, especially individuals (which is perhaps why we continue to use the old plural verb forms with you: maybe we feel more comfortable imagining we’re talking to more than one person). We can know ourselves, and we can know or at least easily imagine people distanced from us, but it’s always more complicated when we’re face-to-face with someone. Can we really know them? Can we get inside their heads? Are we comfortable being direct, being intimate with them? Maybe that’s why we use you as both subject and object: thinking of the person we’re talking to as the object of our sentences puts some distance between us, makes us feel more comfortable. We also use you to talk about a hypothetical general person (e.g. You can find lots of strange things about English when you think about it), again perhaps another way to strip the word of its intimacy.

Perhaps that’s why you has always been a little bit unusual in English: does its awkwardness reflect our own?

6 thoughts on “Hey! You!

  1. What a wonderous article. Now that you say, it does sound quite a bit awkward. But it exists none the less. This is so funny how ‘you’ is used in many different ways and cultures. I love how some people say, ‘y’all’, I am practicing to say it. hehe

    See you 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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